Nanny State

Larger Than Life


The last roll of fat had barely

stopped jiggling on the corpse

of ursine funnyman Chris Farley

– widely described, in a rare

burst of journalistic

objectivity and accuracy, as

"blubbery" and "sweaty"—when

the media pounced on the death

as a cautionary sequel: Wired 2

– Tommy Boy Clogs an Artery.

For the press, the two

"tragedies" had more ominous

parallels than any pair of

deaths since the Lincoln and

Kennedy assassinations: "Farley

died young, like his comic idol,

John Belushi," ran the typical

lead. Both were 33. Both died

from speedball-slamming or

close approximations thereof.

Both came out of

the "famed Second City

comedy troupe" (a group whose

reputation seems remarkably

unconnected to the actual

performances of its alumni) and

Saturday Night Live (a show

whose reputation seems

remarkably unconnected to the

box-office performances of its

alumni). Both were

crying-on-the-inside kind of

clowns. Both had film careers

that, despite some success, were

best described as degrading to

actor and audience alike. The

main point of comparison, of

course, was that both were

Weight Watchers washouts (as one

paper euphemized, "both had a

hearty appetite for food, drink

and drugs….").

But such facile comparisons

obscured a 42-ounce-sized steak

difference between Belushi and

Farley. A difference that forces

us to face a disturbing, barely

palatable truth about

pre-apocalyptic American

society. A truth as dark, rich,

and artery-clogging as a Godiva

soccer ball. The simple fact is

that compared to Farley (who

shuffled off his chafing,

cellulite-ridden mortal coil at

over 300 pounds), Belushi (the

undisputed fat-slob comic of his

day) practically looked like a

supermodel. Sure, Belushi lacked

washboard abs, but Farley needed

his own ZIP code.

This is all about rising

standards of corpulence, of

defining fatness upwards. While

our society seems content to

lower expectations with regard

to general civility, the SAT,

and the behavior of the Kennedy

clan, it has continued to raise

the bar, to push the envelope,

to bust the britches of what we

consider fat. Indeed, the

Metropolitan Life Insurance

Company, which publishes

standard weight-and-height

charts, has over the years

simply upped the allowable

poundage to accommodate a fatter


As Farley's


example suggests, this trend is

particularly apparent in the

entertainment world: Who would

you bet on in a game of Red

Rover between celebrated suets

of the past and their

contemporary counterparts? Team

up any three indisputably

fat-in-their-day characters –

say, the beloved, barrel-shaped

skipper of the S. S. Minnow;

gruff, husky newsman Lou Grant;

and beer-bellied gumshoe Frank

Cannon. Could all three combined

withstand an attack from any one

of a latter-day trilogy of

tallow consisting of, say,

Roseanne, John Candy, or John

Goodman (who, in playing Babe

Ruth a few years back, bore an

obovoid resemblance to

McDonaldland's Grimace whenever

he ran the bases)? And chew on

this: Only 20 years ago, the

Mary Tyler Moore Show could

believably pass off Mary's

anorexic attic pal Rhoda

Morgenstern as the fat one.

Of course, none of this is to

deny that there were true,

elephantine lard-asses in the

past: Who could forget

gargantuan songstress Mama Cass

Elliott, whose plurality of

chins belied a tragically petite

throat—one simply unable to

accommodate the architecture of

an unchewed ham sandwich? Or the

underwater shot of Shelley

Winters in The Poseidon

Adventure, where she thrashes in

the water like a rare West

Indian manatee? It's a fair bet

that Canned Heat's Al Wilson

could have held down his end on

a see-saw with Blues Traveler's

John Popper. But the trend is

indisputably onwards and

upwards: Whatever you could say

about, for example, Orson Welles

or Marlon Brando at any given

moment, this much is true: They

were even fatter the next year.

The mainstreaming of fatness

according to 1996 data, about 75

percent of Americans exceed

their maximum recommended weight

– is due to an increase in

eating. As journalist Michael

Fumento, a self-admitted former

tub of goo, points out in Fat of

the Land: The Obesity Epidemic

and How Overweight Americans Can

Help Themselves, we are besieged

by an "attack of the giant

killer food." Portion sizes have

vastly increased over the past

decades. An original McDonald's

hamburger, writes Fumento,

weighed in at 3.7 ounces (bun

included); the Arch Deluxe tips

the scales at 9 ounces. Fumento,

like other scolds, is quick to

shift the debate to moral

grounds: "Gluttony and sloth

need to be demonized to the

extent that cigarettes have


Such critiques—and such

solutions as "sin taxes" on

Twinkies, pork rinds, and other

fatty foods (proposed by Kelly

Brownell, director of Yale

University's Center for Eating

and Weight Disorders) –

exemplify what (admittedly

chubby) Cornell University

professor Richard Klein calls

the "shrill voice of skinny."

Indeed, despite Fumento's

suggestion that fat is where

it's at these days—that we've

accepted plumpness as an ideal

as easily as we slip on

relaxed-fit jeans, our ideals of

beauty still revolve around

virtually impossible thinness

achieved only by bulimic

supermodels and junkie rock


Hence, "thin dream" flicks like

The Nutty Professor and Thinner.

Or the fact that the video for

Sir Mix-A-Lot's paean to

ample-assed sweethearts was

populated exclusively by models

with buns of steel shaking their

shapely booties for the camera.

When a Latin-American drug

kingpin died last year after

attempting to change his

appearance via massive plastic

surgery and liposuction, it was

hard to shake the feeling that

the fat reduction measures were

done less out of necessity and

more out of vanity (even

all-powerful coke lords want to

look good in a tight pair of

pants). After 50 years, it's

still preferable to be the

98-pound weakling in Charles

Atlas's gamble-a-stamp comic

book ad than to be a

flop-breasted man on the beach

desperately hoping for

old-fashioned, full-body

swimsuits to make a comeback.

But critiques like Fumento's

also miss another, more crucial

point: Overconsumption doesn't

happen by accident; obesity is

not foisted on starving people.

As Klein writes in Eat Fat, "We

ought to consider that what is

actually happening might just

have some good reason to

happen." Indeed, quite possibly,

overconsumption is the American

dream—quite possibly, we have

always been a nation of fat

slobs trapped in skinny bodies.

The difference is that, now, we

can afford to pig out like

there's no tomorrow; the whole

world is an all-you-can-eat

buffet. The line between

Manifest Destiny and Wendy's

"Biggie" menu (cheerily pitched

by multiple-heart-attack

survivor Dave Thomas) is perhaps

shorter than we think. Like the

dog that licks its own balls, we

now chow down to excess not

necessarily for the flavor, but

simply because we can.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.