March 7, 2014 12:01 pm

Douglas Coupland: living big

‘The ultimate truth about weight gain in western culture is it’s great for the economy’

I was in a hotel bar in Toronto once and suddenly a tiny little woman walked in surrounded by a scrum of cameras and microphones. I asked who this woman was and was told, “She’s Mireille Guiliano. She wrote that book French Women Don’t Get Fat.”

“Is that true?”

“Look at her. I guess it must be.”

You could have put the woman atop a Carr’s water biscuit. I asked, “Does she say why they don’t get fat?”

“I read on the internet that digesting 10g of goose liver burns more calories than 60 minutes of snorkelling. Digesting pâté is actually a rigorous form of exercise.”

“You read it on the internet? Then it must be true.”

. . .

In high school there was always the vegetarian girl who held everyone else hostage when trying to decide where to go to eat. Whatever suggestion arose would instantly be shot down by, “But they don’t have anything for Rebecca … ” These days vegetarian food is everywhere and I wonder how the Rebeccas of today are holding their friends hostage.

. . .

An illustration of a French woman atop a Carr’s water biscuit©Jason Ford

My niece and her friends had a high school project to find the one item in a local supermarket with the most ingredients. The winner? Chocolate layer cake.

. . .

There’s a supermarket near where I live. It has a really odd smell to it that they try to smooth over with the odour of baking bread. It’s not a hardware store kind of smell … more of a laboratorial self-consciously sterilised smell. I mentioned this to my 14-year-old niece, who told me, “Oh, that’s the smell of GMO.”

“Seriously? Really?”

“Yes. Watch this homework project I did on GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and it’ll tell you more.” I went on YouTube, where I saw her 10-minute documentary on the topic.

“It’s not just corn, everything gets GM’ed these days – soy, wheat, rice, canola – and this modified stuff goes into everything sold in the supermarket. Hence the weird, slightly sci-fi odour.”

My attention was partly frozen by the fact that 14-year-olds now produce documentaries for homework as a matter of course. The rest of my brain was amazed at how deftly and effortlessly modern 14-year-olds discuss terms such as “Yellow 6”. Beyond that, what amazes me is how these young people listen to themselves and what they’ve learnt, and then modify their lives accordingly. Rather than becoming vegetarians or vegans or Rebeccas, they simply leave out the iffy stuff. My niece and nephew have no trouble with octopus or snails but a bucket of KFC I brought over two summers ago silenced the conversation and caused many furtive glances. “OK, don’t tell me you’ve stopped eating chicken.”

“Oh we still eat chicken – but we saw how that chicken is raised and … we just can’t do it. Sorry. YouTube.”

. . .

There’s a show in the US called The Biggest Loser. Sixteen deeply overweight and underexercised people live on a fat farm and week by week, players are eliminated until there’s a final “Biggest Loser” who tends to be someone who loses about half of their body weight over a span of about 10 months. Like anyone, I enjoy a good before and after photo so, if nothing else, the show works on that level. Also interesting on the show are the personal epiphanies contestants are encouraged to experience – about the trauma that made them fat, father issues, mother issues, abuse issues … the usual suspects.

But what is ultimately most bizarre about The Biggest Loser is the absence of any dialogue on the politics of obesity. There’s no dialogue on government-mandated corn growing. There’s no dialogue on GMO corn or lysine molecules. There’s no dialogue on food stamps, no dialogue on advertising and no dialogue on sugar, pesticides, colony collapse disorder, agricultural labour policy or pretty much anything else except childhood trauma. Basically, if you’re fat, it’s all in your head and solely up to you to fix it.

. . .

Perhaps the ultimate truth about weight gain in western cultures – certainly in the US – is that obese people are simply much, much better for the economy than thin people. They eat more food and, in so doing, drive up the need for agriculture, food processing, packaging and advertising. They get sicker more often and keep the medical system busier. They rely more on their vehicles, which is great for big oil. In fact, there is not one single aspect of capitalism that is not enhanced, on the dollar level, by obesity. Obesity becomes, in its own way, a social sculpture of money in full operation and represents the end state of a certain way of viewing and experiencing the world. The problem is, as The Biggest Loser tells us, that fixing it politically wouldn’t be a very sexy story angle. If right now is the time for a before photo, then nobody knows when the time would come to take the after picture, and where is the fun in that?

Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel is ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’ (William Heinemann).

Twitter: @dougcoupland

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