Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Controversial Mr. Cavett

The brilliant Dick Cavett is back, and he has a blog in The New York Times! He recently posted an extremely controversial piece. I cannot simply link it because you have to be a "Times Select" subscriber to get to it that way. Instead, I will reprint the whole of it below. He has received a mountain of replies, many of them from long-time fans of his who were nevertheless outraged by his position. Here it is in its entirety. What do you think?

July 25, 2007, 9:30 pm
Is Bigger Really Better?
It was only a few years ago that I first noticed an obese person in a
commercial. Then there were more. Now, like obesity itself, it has gotten
out of hand.

This disturbs me in ways I haven’t fully figured out, and in a few that I
have. The obese man on the orange bench, the fat pharmacist in the drug
store commercial and all of the other heavily larded folks being used to
sell products distresses me. Mostly because the message in all this is
that its O.K. to be fat.

As we know, it isn’t.

It isn’t, mainly, because of the attendant health issues. The risk of several cancers, crippling damage to joints, heart attack, stroke, diabetes and sleep apnea — a much under-publicized life-threatener — defies sense.

So why is it so prevalent in our culture and in the media? Could it be that the ad agencies — always with our best interests at heart, of course — are making use of the appalling fact that obesity in the United States has doubled and rapidly redoubled to the point where one-third of the population is imperiled by gross poundage? Fat people, the commercial-makers may feel, are entitled to representation. What’s wrong with that?


Anything seen on TV is, in a subtle and sinister sense, thereby endorsed. I’ve done shows with Ku Klux Klansmen, Mafiosi and Nazis (both domestic and Third Reich). Despite my being not overly cordial to them, always a nagging little voice in me wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with having them on at all. Was it somehow a tacit endorsement, just putting them on television? After all, there’s that sign in the variety store that sits atop the pyramid of schlocky plastic vegetable slicers: AS SEEN ON TV! Just being seen on the tube . . . it’s gotta be good.

Commercials are not the only exposure that obesity gets on TV. It is by no means a rarity on the wonderful Judge Judy’s show when both plaintiff and accused all but literally fill the screen. I guess a nice person would not point out that Jerry Springer’s guests and audience frequently bring to mind (particularly for those of us from western states) a herd of heifers. But there it is. I’ll try to be nicer.

Television comedy, in particular, has become an equal opportunity employer of the gigantic. It seems as if nearly every sitcom has a requisite fat, sassy black lady (or man) or a fat, avuncular white Uncle Jim large enough to absorb the scripted fat jokes. I have yet to see one of those Comedy Central shows with multiple standup comics that doesn’t include someone the size of the Hindenburg. Frequently the comic is black or Hispanic — the two groups, according to many studies, currently bearing the brunt of the obesity plague.

These comics’ routines invariably center on their weight vs. their erotic life — the abundance of former and lack of the latter. When being huge is a jokester’s bread and butter, remaining so becomes a professional necessity as well as an encouragement to over-inflated young would-be performers eager to emulate them. They see that fat is funny. And funny is money.

(Fat jokes, of course, have long been standard in comedy: When you get on a scale, does a card come out saying, ‘Please, one at a time?’” Long ago, that sort of thing risked offending only a few.)

When I was a kid in Nebraska and the eagerly anticipated (and wildly politically incorrect) freak show came to town, it starred such favorites as The Cone-Headed Savages; He Has Two Noses; Alzora, The Turtle Girl (if you’re still out there, Alzora, please write to me!); The Pig Man; and, for an extra quarter and behind curtains, something called Is It A Man Or A Woman?

And, of course, the ever-popular Fat Lady. Dora, in this case. The idea that Dora’s rotundity would be a novelty rare enough that one paid to look at it is sad. (Today, in a two-block walk, I can safely predict seeing at least one woman who could put Dora out of business.)

In the playground, did you too have the nasty little ditty beginning, “Fatty, Fatty, Two by Four”? In Nebraska, we had the song – but no one to torment with it. No one was fat. Sounds incredible now, doesn’t it, in the midst of our current tragedy.

More recently I found myself in Tiananmen Square, and a Chinese guide pointed to a bus unloading what seemed to be half a mile away.

Americans, he said.

How can you tell from here? I naively asked.

Fannies, he said, making the wide gesture with both hands.

Every summer Irish girls come to Montauk, L. I., to work. Some years ago, when obesity was getting into surge mode, I asked two of them if they noticed any difference in America from year to year. They sort of giggled and conferred, not sure if they should say it, but then they did: “You are so huge!”

But it’s no longer true that Europe and Asia can point to America and smugly sing, “Fatty, Fatty.” We’ve exported our revolution with our fast-food chains. Japan now has obese children for the first time in its thousand-year history. Mad for anything American, young Japanese have made McDonald’s (charmingly: “ma-ca-do-naru-doz”) their second – if not first – home, partaking there more than once a day.

But fear not: we still have the lead. And in a future column, perhaps, we can explore just why an ever-growing portion of America’s population treats the body as if it were a Strasbourg goose.


Anonymous said...

Wow. He really went there. I suppose it's a bit shocking to see in print opinions so similar to my own.

As a foreign-born, but long ago naturalized American, I have often wondered what could compel a sizable (pun fully intended) population to continue to gorge themselves even after having attained blatant obesity. The reasons may be as varied as the star in the heavens, but surely it some strong juju.

Anonymous said...

Cavett's spot on, but Amed is right in that it's unusual to see an article treating the issue this directly. I would have liked a little more discussion about why obesity is detrimental to us as a society and what we can do to eradicate it. And I'm not talking about what my friend in LA means when he says he's "West Hollywood fat" (meaning moving from a 28" waist to a 30" waist)... I'm talking Wisconsin fat. America's dairyland fat. Buying clothes at Farm & Fleet fat.

Is it just that Americans don't exercise and eat too much? Can it be that simple? On a recent visit to Montreal (If there's ever a job opening there in my field, there'll be a big sucking sound in Madison and I'll be gone), I was shocked to stop into a McDonald's and see that every single person there was fit and thin... thin to the point of being immediately notable from an American perspective. If they're eating the burgers too (and they are, I saw them), why aren't these folks getting fat like Americans are?

Madison, WI

Anonymous said...

Wow. What's his next illuminating topic, Children and video gaming? Eating disorders and teen girls? Violence in the movies, and the movie rating system?

The in depth analysis on a topic that has been in the dark for so long was sorely needed. Wow. Who knew Americans were getting so large! Wow. No offense Tony, but this article is far from brilliant. Mr Cavett just regurgitated a story that has been editorialized to death, with nothing resembling a fresh angle in sight. I hope he chooses to invest his intellect in other matters of import than these fluff pieces

BigAssBelle said...

The last acceptable hatreds in America are queers, smokers and fatties. Queers are getting their due but fatties and smokers will always be around and thank goodness, because don't we need to have someone available to be the target of the everpresent need of humans to feel superior to and better than another, to condemn for their failings which we can smugly recognize we do not share?

So Cavett thinks fat folks should just go back in the closet? Fuck him. But the bigger issue is why there is this explosion of obesity across the land. I, too, remember that fat folks were few and far between in my growing up years, even in Oklahoma, currently one of the fattest states in the nation. Folks who would barely merit a second glance these days were considered circus freak fat back then. Fat was simply not a common thing.

So what has happened to us? Have we collectively lost our will? Leaving aside people with addictions and eating disorders such as myself, whose debilitating and lifelong struggles with bingeing and purging and restricting and hell for leather eating, why are so many people ballooning?

I am convinced it is an incredibly complex issue and one which requires serious analysis of a variety of influences from the obsession with media, advertising, increasingly sedentary jobs, the vast movement of women into the workforce, the enormous number of meals now purchased out or frozen or prepared, the loss of community, in part due to the advent of television and "home entertainment centers" which keep us numbed out, side by side, lonely as hell and isolated even from those with whom we live.

But I am even more convinced that this insane world we live in ~ with the constant barrage of noise and media and phones and computers and 24-7 unrelenting superficial connectedness, with so little opportunity for quiet, for contemplation, for spiritual renewal, for close connections with other people ~ it is this world that contributes to a stress level which scientists are finding has a stunning impact on the tendency to obesity.

Recent studies have shown that the same diet fed to stressed mice and unstressed mice will result in weight gain for the stressed mice. Impossible? My own history certainly bears out the relationship between stress and weight gain. When my husband became desperately ill and I was caring for him, running a business to pay for his medical bills, working full time for my regular employer and having not a single moment of quiet, of peace, or any time free from agonizing worry and grief over his illness, I gained 100 pounds. It was stunning and it was almost automatic and as a lifelong calorie counter with a hyper-awareness of what goes into my mouth, I know absolutely that I did not eat more during that time than I had at other times in my life when my weight stayed the same. It was insane. I simply could not stop the weight from coming on.

Am I weak willed? Not fit to be seen in public? Of lesser value than my thinner sisters and brothers? I've since lost the 100 pounds, but I am still in possession of a body that Dick Cavett might not meet the standards of the very stringy Dick Cavett. Fuck him. This is the strong, healthy, fit body I have, it's the life I have, and I try to carve out something real and sane and spiritual in this mad world and it is only then ~ in the quiet, in the peace, when I am feeling connected to those I love, that I am not plagued by the vague need for . . . for something, a craving, an urge, something that will fill up what is missing when I am too busy, doing too much, being everything to everybody, responding to demands and needs of others to the extent that I lose myself. I have given up alcohol. I have given up drugs. I have given up men with the exception of one. I am no stranger to giving up and I am far from weak willed and yet this food thing plagues me into this now advanced age of fif . . . fif . . . this fucking age.

So yes, it's a problem. But it's not a problem that's going to fixed by the punitive stance of agreeing that obesity is unacceptable and should not, therefore, be seen. The better solution would be to turn off the television ~ throw the fucking thing in the trash ~ and venture out into the streets to meet one's neighbors, to spend that former TV-watching time in the kitchen creating healthful, nourishing meals that don't come prepackaged or frozen or purchased from some restaurant, to fill up and nourish our souls and hearts by finding community with one another again.

When my parents were growing up, they occasionally gathered around the radio for an entertaining program and it was an event shared with others. Their other entertainment consisted of going out with friends, of meeting the neighbors for a card game and a communal supper. They went out dancing, to nightclubs, they went to the opera, to the symphony. They were out and about and active. They were not glued to the television in a perpetually exhausted, stressed state of being, finding respite from a crazy society in watching others play out their fake lives behind a little glass screen. Our world is fucked up. Fat is a symptom of it.

Tony Adams said...

Dear Amed, Brian, Tater and Lynette,

I think he's brilliant because he provoked your comments which are astute and incisive and push the discussion about fat to where it needs to go: the snow-balling complexity of the issue. The "how did we get ourselves into this situation" place.
(Lynette, my comment on his blog talked about my similar life-long struggle with food. I don't get much sympathy on this subject because I have managed to stay thin for decades, but almost no one knows how difficult that has been and how much food I have shunned and how much exercise I force myself to do. You and I have seen it from both sides. Cavett has his demons but food is not one of them. Still, I admire him as a writer and interviewer because he instinctively gathers a crowd about him.)

Laura Garcia said...

I read this when it came out in the Times and had a lot of reactions to it and to the responses afterwards but never commented at the time. I find this issue a difficult one, primarily because I myself am overweight - more so now than at any point in my life. Though I am not in the "morbidly obese" category, in the last few years I have definitely crossed the line between a bit chubby and downright fat.

However, I am not someone who gorges on food and never exercises. My weight gain has been more of a slow and steady process that began in my late twenties and has consisted of adding a few pounds each year until now in my early 40's I can no longer pretend I just have minor love handles. Because I generally eat healthy and walk quite a bit for exercise, I've been able to tell myself that I am not in the same category as "those" people who are big as houses and chow down on McD's food regularly to keep themselves that way. And if one goes simply by living habits, there is no doubt that I cannot be lumped in with the disgustingly gluttonous and lazy crowd.

This was driven home to me a couple weeks ago when we were visited by relatives who are somewhat more overweight than myself, but who regularly eat cupcakes and Cokes for breakfast and cannot easily walk up small hills. I felt reassured that I can easily walk 3 - 5 miles at a good clip and watch what I eat in terms of type and quality of food pretty religiously.

However, what I've come to realize is that all those good habits are easily outweighed by even mild long term bad habits. I do have a slow metabolism and seem to be able to gain weight simply by looking at food, causing me to despise several friends of mine who never exercise and eat crap all the time and are thin as rails. I especially hate when those same friends readily attribute their thinness to some kind of inherent virtousness on their own part, and view anyone overweight as being unequivocably slothful or gluttonous. It just ain't that simple in some cases, though of course, sometimes it is.

The bottom line is that I cannot blame my slow metabolism for my weight problem, or anything else out of my control. All it takes is that one (or two) too many drinks at the bar a couple times a week, that one extra helping of meat at dinner, or that second half of a too-large sandwich at lunch, times the majority of 365 days a year, minus the walks I should have taken to maintain my goal of 30 or so miles a week to add up over time to a big blob of fatness.

So, I hate it and feel disgusted at myself. Which is good because I'm determined to take it off, or most of it off at least, within the next year. I feel confident I can do so. However, I do really go into somewhat of a slow burn when thin people get sanctimonious about being thin. I do think there is a big grey area between people who are thin because of good eating habits and exercise, people who are thin simply by virtue of good genes, people who are fat because they really are slothful and gluttonous and people who are fat because they have let themselves go a bit at a time for a bit too long.

While I firmly believe that obesity is a real health issue for this country and that it stems largely from our sedentary lifestyles and access to poor quality fast food and sugary substances, I don't think it is helpful or useful for thin people to behave as if fat people are evil and disgusting. Or for that matter, as if thin people are inherently more virtuous. The truth is more complicated and the solution more multi-pronged than fat people being told to stop being such disgustingly bad people and be more like all those virtous thin folks. That is frankly, a stupidly simplistic idea that solves nothing.

Do fat people need to take responsibility for their own health? Absolutely. I believe education and showing people alternative ways of living and eating is a good first step, not disparaging them as disgusting and greedy.

Weight Watchers is a great example of a program that works because it teaches people to eat real, healthy food in appropriate portions and exercise as a long term solution for their whole life - not a quick fix with a pill or purchased processed food. I lost 12 pounds doing it last year and hope to lose three times that amount this year the same way.

So to wrap up this book, yes, obesity is a problem. But Cavett offers no solution to the problem in his column, just a lot of sanctimonious finger pointing. I usually love his commentary but I don't agree with him on this one. Maybe if I were thin, I would, but I'm not.

Population One said...

Still want that Copaya?

Tony Adams said...

Very funny, B., and yes, I do. If I'm going to eat chocolate, which I love but rarely touch, I'm gonna eat the very best.

Anonymous said...

I remain unconvinced of Mr Cavett's brilliance, but will give him the benefit of the doubt due to your high regard for him. I have trouble believing that his intent was to spark a serious conversation regarding this issue, since he didn't seem to raise many salient points from which to launch a serious discourse. I remain thoroughly convinced of your brilliance, however, for making the insightful leap to which you assign him credit. I haven't availed myself to much of his writing or body of work, so I am willing to give him credit on your say so.

dpaste said...

This is a thorny question for me mainly because, barring a major life catastrophe, obesity is something I will never deal with in my lifetime. I work hard to maintain the body I have, but if I ate a regular "American" diet and didn't exercise much, I'd probably have a bit of a pear shape to me and a vestigial budha belly, but not much else. If anything, my arms and legs would look even skinnier.

And yet. It is easy for me to dismiss people who are significantly overweight. I watch them eat their diet coke with their cheeseburger, have that third drink at the bar, and then declare that they gain weight merely by looking at food.

They are at the gym walking casually on the treadmill, chatting and chatting and chatting in front of an inactive weight machine.

They are standing in front of the elevator in my three-story office building, waiting to go down one floor, just steps away from the staircase.

They are on the checkout line piling lowfat yogurt and bagged salads onto the counter along with their pints of Ben & Jerry's and packs of Armour bacon.

I used to piss and moan about how impossible it was to gain muscle and get bigger. That no matter what I did I stayed a skinny scarecrow. And I'd be eating a total of three skimpy meals over the course of an entire weekend. I had to completely overhaul how I ate, what I ate, and when I ate it, but I did and - as arrogant as it sounds - the results speak for themselves.

Americans are lazy eaters. If people cooked for themselves, instead of getting takeout or nuking a package, they would probably drop a significant amount of weight without even entering a gym. And our love affair with cheap and fast food is killing the environment more effectively than any suburban fleet of SUV's. How do we think all those Swanson Dinners and Pizza Bites got to the Safeway? Elves?

Dick Cavett has pushed some buttons that sorely needed pushing. There will always be overweight people. That is part of human diversity. But, Lynette, I have a hard time believeing that the armadas of porcine adolescents and young adults are all victims of stress.

There comes a point where we have to take individual responsibility for our own predicaments. If I dare push yet another button, we will never make any headway with the continuing problem of new AIDS cases unless the gay community owns up to its own culpability in the crisis. Same with obesity. It is not just genetics. It is not just stress. It is systemic lack of control in our society. We have to have that iPhone and we have to supersize that Coke. And they will take us and our planet to our graves sooner than we care to think.

Mike said...

There are many, many reasons why more people are fat today than several decades ago. One, when I was growing up, we had meals with milk as the beverage (whole milk, by the way.) Around the mid-Seventies, that seemed to be replaced by soft drinks. The soft drinks started being sweetened by high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar. Soft drinks, fatty foods and ready-to-eat foods because readily available in machines almost everywhere.

Food itself has become something easily available at home, at work, at school, on the streets...this wasn't always the case.

We're now rich enough to buy food without concern about costs, and when we are concerned about costs, the fatty stuff is cheapest.

Our neighborhoods and streets discourage walking. Many neighborhoods are built without sidewalks...and suburban dwellings are built on islands of lawn that make driving a must to go anywhere.

The jobs people do now mostly involve just sitting on your ass in front of a computer or at a desk. Gone are the manufacturing days where people worked for a living actually moved around.

Lynette also got it right about the stress levels affecting how people live.

One thing you notice about very fat people is that they carrying food with them. I had a coworker who had a bookshelf by her desk stocked like a pantry. I worked in a call center (fat people abounded there) where people would bring their drinks to their desk the size of coolers...almost always sweet drinks that poured on the calories.

So maybe we're suffering the effects of an affluent, food-drenched society addicted to the automobile and television.

Religion used to have strict dietary rules and fasting was part of that. The whole process of eating was formalized into meal settings. We don't have that anymore. Also, churches that readily deny communion to gay men who fuck don't deny communion to 400-pounders. The stigma of fat is gone. It doesn't help that most preachers and bishops look like they get their fair share.

We've got to restructure our society and the way we live so life becomes more than feeding at the trough and a constant need to acquire new things for no good reason.

evilganome said...

I have had to wait a few days to put in my 2 cents. This is a somewhat sensitive topic to me as well. I would put myself in the same boat as you, Tony. Everyone in my family is prone to weight problems. After a period of middle aged depression, I went on a diet, dramatically altered the amount of exercise I was getting, and not just the gym, but walking instead of using transit. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and making sure I got at least an hour of walking in every day. As a result I took 3 inches off my waist and consequently began to not only feel better about myself but to feel better physically.

Since then I have been much more religious about reading labels on food and I am appalled at what we can unknowingly eat. I think in order to have a serious discussion about the obesity problem in this country we also have to look at what the food industry and agribusiness are doing to the food supply and what their culpability is.

Yes we have allowed ourselves to become a sedentary society, but we have also become less vigilant and the majority of people seem to be indifferent to or unaware of what they are stuffing into their faces.

Gavin said...

Hey T--

This message isn't necessarily for posting...I don't have your email.

I have posted a couple of comments, one to this and one on your Provincetown painting. Neither showed up. I was wondering if you ever got these?

At first I figured you didn't post due to what I said. Now I'm not so sure. If you never saw them maybe there's a problem on my end or maybe you have other readers posting that you aren't seeing on your end. It doesn't happen all the time since some of my comments appear. Might be worth asking if any of your other readers have had this problem.

-- Gavin -- if you want to respond via email instead of in comments.

BTW, I may be coming down to NYC between now and the end of the month. A friend of mine is moving to St. Petersburg FL and we've talked about a theatre trip for a while now. Would be good to see you guys again for a cup of coffee or something...with skim milk and Splenda, of course!

Tony Adams said...

Gavin, I can't imagine not ushering any comment you would make into print. And yes, we'd love to get together with you in NYC. The one weekend in August when we will not be in the city is Aug 24-26.

BigAssBelle said...

Here's something else to think about, perhaps without as much disgust and judgment as a discussion of weight inevitably brings to the fore.

Rates of diagnosis for depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, ADD in children (and in adults), sleep disturbances, etc. have increased dramatically in the last 20-25 years.

Is it not possible that whatever it is in our environment as whole that has changed is also factoring into these diagnoses?

Fat is an external symptom of the same societal / social / familial / psychic discord that creates depression and anxiety and panic and all of the rest.

I believe it's all essentially the same thing. It manifests differently in some people. But as I said, it's an incredibly complex issue and it's hardly possible to boil down anything in society to a single factor.

I am all for personal responsibility. Good grief, I've taken personal responsibility for myself and, along with a drastically reduced stress level in my life, gotten rid of 100 pounds.

I just can't believe that suddenly 50% of the American people have become weak willed, irresponsible, all of that.

For every fatty gorging on french fries and big macs, I'll bet you can find one who makes healthy choices and still can't keep the weight off.

I am now wearing my flame-retardant vest. Flame on :-)

BigAssBelle said...

here's one guy's take on what's fueling the rise in rates of mental illness . . .

oh! oh my! isn't this funny?? sounds a (whole lot) like what i was talking about above. hmmmm . . .

oh, and he concludes:

If we take the research and common sense seriously, we will likely conclude that the cause of increasing rates of depression, psychoses, greed, and other self-destructive behaviors is an ill society that is increasingly difficult to transcend.

still got my flame-proof vest on.