Tuesday, June 26, 2007


We find Quinn and Consort walking through the mall on a sock-and-underwear run. Suddenly, veering sharply in from the food court is a pack of teenage girls, each holding a drink and a snack. They cross in front of Consort and Quinn who pokes Consort in the ribs.

QUINN: Do you see those girls?


QUINN: Do me a favor: look at their butts.


QUINN: Look at their butts.


QUINN: I have a theory. Look at their butts.


QUINN: I’m not asking you to grab them. I’m asking you to look at their butts in the name of science, and then talk about them with me.

CONSORT: I’m in no position to discuss the butts of adolescent girls, and certainly not with you. Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier but I thought it was, y'know, understood.

I was not angling to get Consort popped on a morals charge. I needed corroboration of what I was seeing. There were six girls, all about fifteen. They were Latina, Anglo, Asian and mixtures of all three. None appeared biologically related. The difference in height between the shortest and the tallest was six inches, easily. And yet they all had exactly the same build. From chin to the mid-section, they were fat. I would have said “from chin to waist” but none of them had a waist.

Beefy arms led to pudgy shoulders which drifted down into flesh poking over bra straps.

Plump, absent-minded fingers tugged snug shirts down over bellies which might allude to a worrisome trend -- teenage mothers traveling in packs -- if it weren’t for how each belly was protruding not just in front but on the sides and a bit in the back as well.

The top half of each of these mall aficionadas resembled nothing so much as a...Cinnabon.

And yet their butts were completely flat. I’m not talking enviably small and firm, as would befit girls at their physical and metabolic peak; I’m talking super-size pancake. You’d expect to see these backsides in Boca Raton being worn by women who reacll the Korean War, not girls who weren’t born at the time of Desert Storm. They tossed their Iced Blended cups into the nearest trashcan and raced into Forever 21. Consort, relieved at having been spared what would have been an exquisitely painful conversation possibly ending in Quinn asking icily So you think my upper arms look like theirs…? bolted for Nordstrom’s loving embrace. I trailed behind, gazing closely at the people who passed.

It takes nothing more than binocular vision to see that Americans are growing fatter by the year. However, on a slightly related topic, our clothes sizes are growing smaller. Clothing companies sensing, correctly, that requiring a larger size makes some women cranky and less inclined to buy a seventh blue shirt, humor us by cutting sizes more generously. This marketing ploy even has a term: Vanity Sizing. I can tell you in the last ten years, I have gone down three sizes without losing a pound. In certain stores, I now find my size in the children's department but in vintage wear, I’m a size eight.

I work out pretty regularly, so I need plenty of workout clothing. Because I am cheap, I will not pay sixty dollars for workout pants. Sure, they might be cut better than the twenty-dollar pants I get in the kid’s section at Mervyn’s, but they aren’t cut three times better nor do they render the Cross-Trainer three times more interesting. I buy my cheap pants and, until lately, I’ve been puzzled. I’d get the children's size 18-20 only to find I had about eight extra inches of fabric around my waist, so I’d move down to the 14-16. Still loose around the waist, I’d try on the 10-12, where they would fit around the waist, but the pants would end mid-calf, which offended even my vestigal sense of vanity. So I’d go back to the 14-16s and wash them in hot water until I could cross-train without holding my pants up with shipping tape. But, I would wonder as I sweated and tugged, who were these people for whom these pants were cut?

Now I knew.

They were cut for Cinnabon-bodies. They were cut for these children I was seeing at the mall, and continued to see everywhere I looked for days afterwards. Children as young as five with overhanging bellies and flat butts. Children usually holding some kind of processed food. Let the record show, I’m not moaning about how our kids shouldn’t be eating fast food; every parent needs to make that decision for their own family. And many of the children I saw were with parents who, I’m guessing, were living the complicated life of the working poor where children have to be fed cheaply. But I have lived in Los Angeles my entire life, and have certainly seen a few working-poor families in my day, and I couldn’t recall this particular shape in human beings until a few years ago. On a hunch, I Googled “Abdominal fat” and “Trans-fats” and came up with this:

She (The scientist) fed one group of monkeys a diet where 8% of their daily calories came from trans-fats and another 27% came from other fats. This is comparable to people who eat a lot of fried food, says Kavanagh. A different group of monkeys was fed the same diet, but the trans-fats were substituted for mono-unsaturated fats, found in olive oil, for example.
Both groups ate the same total calories, which were carefully metered to be just enough for subsistence...

...After six years on the diet, the trans-fat-fed monkeys had gained 7.2% of their body weight, compared to just 1.8% in the unsaturated group. CT scans also revealed that the trans-fat monkeys carried 30% more abdominal fat, which is risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.

I’d feel smug about noticing this correlation if the article weren’t a year old, which means everyone else knew about this fat belly/trans fat thing but me. Well, I was busy last year. I was probably eating something. Or driving. Or driving while eating something.

But what's with the flat butt? Nothing came of Googling “Trans fat” and “Flat butt”. [Actually, several links did come up, but they were clearly geared towards a unique, discrete and particularly unsettling clientele.] So I’m going to take my limited knowledge of science and physiology and leap into the deep end of the “Uninformed Speculation” pool. The butt is comprised of three major muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. If you don’t work muscles, they become flaccid. If you are carrying about 30% more abdominal weight, you’re going to be less inclined to exercise unless forced to, because it will be uncomfortable. Our kids are already running around less at school and at home than ever before in American history and when you add in the disincentive of discomfort, those are three muscles which aren’t likely to be used.

Also, look again at the article I quoted. Note the phrase “Both groups ate the same total calories, which were carefully metered to be just enough for subsistence”. It’s possible some of these kids, overweight though they may be, are malnourished. Caloric intake isn’t the same thing as nutritional intake. If their diet is fat-rich but nutrition-poor, -- a reasonable description of most fast food -- their bodies assign the precious and limited nutrients to the most critical systems, such as the brain and vital organs, and let the less-important systems lag. Muscle tone in the butt isn’t essential, it’s just kind of nice.

By the way, don’t think buying foods with the “Zero grams of trans-fat!” sticker blazing at you will keep you in the clear. Our government has created a loophole wherein anything under a gram of trans-fat per portion doesn’t count; portion size being the big hole in the loop. If you eat enough processed food with “Zero grams of trans-fat!” you can unknowingly eat many grams of trans-fats every day.

Keep those drawstring pants handy.


Blogger Valerie said...

drawstrings, stretchy pants, sweats...we need 'em all.

and just keep in mind my mantra: spandex is a privilege, not a right.

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still wear the same size I wore ten years ago, which ought to be great. Except that vanity sizing means that I'm really a 10 to 12, not a 4 or 6.

The huge numbers of obese kids make me so sad. Fast food was just as bad when I was a kid, but far fewer kids were fat. Was it because we had gym classes? Because we didn't have nearly as much electronic entertainment? Or because most of us walked to school, often a half mile or mile each way?

Wish there was something I could do about this, but I have no idea what that something could be.

5:25 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

In my childhood, the only time spent inside in the summer was to eat and sleep.

I walked to school, walked home for lunch, walked back to school, walked home again no matter what the weather.

No weight problems in my childhood.

Those came later. When the walking stopped.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

"Fast food was just as bad when I was a kid, but far fewer kids were fat. Was it because we had gym classes? Because we didn't have nearly as much electronic entertainment? Or because most of us walked to school, often a half mile or mile each way?"

That, and we weren't told to not run around playing tag or climb on monkey bars because we MIGHT fall, and force mom & dad to bring a lawsuit against the school...

5:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I thought I was the only one that had noticed this body type trend! Also, I am glad to see I'm not alone in being a woman scoping out teenage girls' butts in the name of scientific-fascination-with-this-trend. Cough.

I've just discovered your blog through a friend. You are an excellent writer and are inspiring me to get off of my not-so-flat ass and start writing more, dammit. Thanks!

10:44 AM  
Blogger Moby Dick said...

It took a whole bunch of monkeys to prove what everyone knew already.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Detail Muse said...

As an aside, have to say that I love New Scientist Magazine (which you linked to). It's pure science candy -- witty and curious -- deeee-li-cious.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

"Fast food was just as bad when I was a kid, but far fewer kids were fat. Was it because we had gym classes? Because we didn't have nearly as much electronic entertainment? Or because most of us walked to school, often a half mile or mile each way?"

Yes, yes, and not me, and probably also because when we were kids, we (or at least I and everyone I knew) ate fast food maybe once a month if we were lucky. Seems like these days it's more like several times a week.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Pearl said...

I'm British and have just spent six months living in the States, during which time my breasts increased by two cup sizes. Praise be! Back in England, I'm trying to keep the boobs while ridding myself of the belly, which is happening remarkably easily now that I'm back to cycling/walking everywhere and am not looked like at like a freak for doing so. My flatmate in America thought I was insane for walking 15 minutes to the laundromat.

My theory about American obesity, however is slightly different. Why in God's name is there high fructose corn syrup in everything? I'm sure that's the problem. Now I just need to figure out what makes British people fat, and I'll be able to save the world...

5:19 AM  
Blogger JJ Tierney said...

Having just lost 20 pounds, (and gained 5 back..Im working on it...) , I am convinced America is one big eating disorder. The one piece of advice that sticks with me above all others: "Just because you are an American, doesn't mean you have to eat like one"

2:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other thing to remember about 'the obesity epidemic' is that it didn't show up until the govt stats bureau redefined 'obese' as anyone over a BMI of 145.

I've got a BMI of 151, and I have a 31-inch waist, and very little body fat. I just have extremely wide hips (meat and bone, alas; liposuction wouldn't help, though my grandmother suggested it) and a fairly solid build, what my mom always called 'Irish Farmgirl'.

However, according to the govt. stats bureau, not only am I obese, over 60% of the country is at least as obese as I am.

I believe that 60% of the country is at least as heavily-built as I am. What I don't believe is that anywhere near that number of them have any health problems, or in fact, need to lose ANY weight ...

(Almeda @ Livejournal.com, posting this way because Blogger doesn't like my non-broadband self, and won't load up the 'other' options for identifying myself!)

4:16 PM  

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