Wal-Mart & Me
Two key events preceded my brain’s light bulb going off to reveal my accreted gross tonnage.
The first happened during a trip to Eastern Europe to watch my son play French horn in a youth orchestra. In Budapest it was disconcerting to see that the vast majority of human bodies walking around were at the correct BMI. Granted, some of them might have been the correct body weight because of the nascent cancers propagating throughout their bodies due to everyone smoking three packs of cigarettes a day since they were eight, but they were not blobby like me.
In contrast to some absurdly enigmatic hair care preferences, the vast majority of Eastern European bodies are at least mass-appropriate. It was revelatory not only to see my own reflection in the department store plate glass windows, but also to pick out my fellow Americans in the crowds. We fulfilled the stereotypes of the poorly dressed, schlumping, sweating, pointing, cackling boors. Even more consistently, we Yankees abroad are, almost to a man, the elephants in the room. Spot a fatty and hear an American voice.
The second epiphany came once I returned to our normal time zone that summer. I realized that all the pairs of shorts I’d been wearing for the last decade were more or less shot. Waistbands irreparably spent, crotches virtually voided and any number of permanent mystery blotches frozen in what was left of the fabric. Since shorts are my sartorial “default setting”, I had to buy some new ones. In the attempt to locate a pair, I soon realized I had reached a nadir in my own self-respect. I was panicked that a visit to the Nike factory outlet store revealed that somehow the XL size shorts had become “smaller” and that there were no XXL shorts to be had. I could not admit that I belonged in a “Big and Tall” store – I am barely 5’-10” for heaven’s sake. So in desperation I ventured to the only normal retailer I intuitively knew would have plenty of clothing for obese Americans – Wal-Mart.
If you’re fat, entering Wal-Mart is very much like entering the welcoming corner bar if you’re an alcoholic. Walking in, you see the inversion of what I saw in Budapest. The vast majority of your fellow shoppers are perhaps 30% over their correct body mass — and apparently oblivious to it. (There’s a striking European aspect to the Wal-Mart realm as well: more than anywhere else I’ve been in the last two decades, most people there still seem to smoke, albeit outside the building.)
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of clothing available in Wal-Mart is sized to fit its shoppers. Given these sizing criteria I managed to buy three pair of shorts that fit my distended loins and walked out feeling extremely dirty and hopeless. Buying clothing at Wal-Mart is a statement of personal defeat. Not only are you wrestling with a monstrous subdermal lard pet every waking hour, you buy your XXL clothing at Wal-Mart. Could it get any worse?
Wal-Mart has become the Americn store because it’s as cheap as can be. But that cheapness doesn’t simply allow people to acquire the things they need at prices they can afford. It enables and encourages endless, maximized gobbling of goods – essential, frivolous, whatever. Binge eating is simply the most common and intimate form of binge buying.
In today’s culture, consumerism is fed by marketing. Anyone’s “what the hell” attitude towards consumption is easier if the thing being consumed is inexpensive and easily gotten. If the “what the hell” attitude is toward food served up at two or three times the volume necessary for anyone who is not engaging in an Iron Man competition that day, it’s pretty easy to get pretty fat. Humans being what they are, affinity groups self-select themselves and cluster. Drunks gravitate towards bars, athletes to gyms, yuppies to Starbucks, and fat people to Wal-Mart.
Although I had a sinking feeling of personal failure at the need to resort to Wal-Mart’s embrace of my obesity, I somehow sensed this was but a precursor to the truly horrific potential for complete surrender to bodily denial. Somehow I managed to channel Susan Powter and “Stopped the Madness” before I purchased a Hawaiian shirt.
Whether I was walking the streets of Budapest and feeling uncomfortably like a freak, or walking the aisles of Wal-Mart and feeling uncomfortably like I was at home, the herding instinct of seeking comfort easily becomes a highway to denial. As the pounds rolled off, it became even more amazing to me that they had actually rolled on over so many years – largely unnoticed by me.
Undergirding this 50-year-old’s reality head butt was my life before Wal-Mart. I was literally born with “junk in my trunk.” At my least massive, I still needed to buy pants an inch or two big in the waist to fit my butt and thighs. You can’t coach speed or the ability to throw a base runner out at the plate from left field, and you can’t reinvent your body type. I was born an endomorph and an endomorph I’ll be till I morph into compost.
Even with that reality, my Wal-Mart revelation set me up for a mid-life course correction. Supertankers need a long lead-time and incremental nudging to make a change in direction. This overlarge vessel was no different. Wal-Mart was the tug that pushed me to a new course, but it took an undeniable outside influence, a perfect storm, to transform my Wal-Mart insights into a new passage.
If you think I exaggerate or am an elitist, take a peek at: http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/