Intensity

Faith believed that the diet ratchet was the CAUSE of obesity. If that was true, then giving up dieting made sense. I did believe in the diet ratchet, but I couldn’t believe that it was the CAUSE of obesity.

Most of the women I knew were serial dieters, but this was not always the case with men. I knew blokes around the agency who would stroke their bellies ruefully and observe, with the self-assurance middle-aged feminists would kill for, that there was ever more of them to love. Why did they put on weight? They were not secretly brutalising their bodies with dieting—they ate more or less what they wanted, as Faith was advocating. I felt that something outside ourselves was making us all fat. It seemed that individuals who followed their genuine hunger discovered that their natural form was now lamentably portly. I did not believe that we were all dieting more—in the 1960s there was already pressure to be thin (think of Twiggy, or Wallis ‘a woman can’t be too thin’ Simpson). And yet, as time went by, more and more people seemed to suffer from a propensity to put on weight.  

Faith was fired with the ecstasy and confidence of a new convert, and she wanted me to share her sense of liberation. When she found evidence of my agnosticism (such as the calorie-reduced cheese in the fridge) she was genuinely disappointed. She even wrote a little poem about it, entitled ‘Homeostasis,’ and left it for me by the phone in the kitchen, where we put messages. It went like this:


A girl caused her best friend disquiet

By showing t’was folly to diet,

‘Please drop your fixation and stop the starvation.’

Said the friend: ‘I’m frightened to try it.’


‘In my youth, my weight was quite static,

‘By fasting, I’ve made it erratic,

‘But freed from my diet my greed would run riot,

‘I’ll never be hom-e-o-static.’


This made me smile. Firstly, the coy way Faith had called me her best friend (she herself had said that every word in a poem must work to convey some meaning). Secondly, it felt so good to be understood. That is what we all want: someone who bothers to listen. It didn’t matter so much that we disagreed if I knew she understood why.

A couple of months after Faith moved in with me, I went to the US for the first time—to New York. As many British people say, visiting New York felt like walking into a movie. I took a taxi from the JFK airport over the Brooklyn Bridge to my hotel in Manhattan. It was a huge yellow taxi with black and white checkerboard stripes, just like in the movies. The elegant stone pillars and suspended metal of the bridge were straight out of the movies, and the eerily familiar Manhattan skyline…this was where Batman lived, and Top Cat and Annie Hall! I expected to see credits rolling up into the blue autumn sky.

As I walked around taking in the fire escapes, the steam coming out of man-holes covers in the road, and all the other special effects in New York, I couldn’t help but be struck by something much more personal. I do tend to stare at peoples’ bums, as I mentioned before, and here my eyes were popping out of my head. We had overweight people in the UK—we had taxis and bridges and skylines too—but not like this. I was fighting a weight problem, but I didn’t imagine it as the start of a process that could change my whole shape, indeed, whole life. In 1984, over half of Americans were already overweight and just under 20 percent were obese1. The UK would take twenty years to arrive at the same stage in the obesity epidemic as the US was then2.  

The next cultural phenomenon to attract my attention was, in the jargon of my profession, the food outlets. My favourite was the place I ate breakfast, on the corner of the street where I had my hotel and Madison Avenue—a classic American diner with steamy windows and New York voices straight from a movie. They served you coffee as soon as you sat down and they kept refilling your cup for free, as if to a guest in a private house. Clearly it would be rude to explain that I often only drank coffee for breakfast and then leave without buying any food.

I hardly needed this excuse to order food, as I was thrilled by the breakfast menu. What thrilled me was that in America breakfast was a savoury-sweet mix. A traditional English breakfast—bacon, eggs, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms—is not light, by any standard, but it is not sweet. These crazy Americans had mixed up dessert and breakfast and teatime to invent a new, sense-blasting eating occasion. They served muffins (made of chocolate cake) and doughnuts and pancakes for breakfast. A jar of maple syrup stood on the stainless steel table, next to the tomato ketchup, looking confusingly like vinegar to an English visitor. Keen to experience every nuance of this alien culture, I poured the syrup on my sausages and French toast. Wow.

So it went on through the day. The train stations were like funfairs: candyfloss, toffee apples, and ice cream. On my walks (walk—don’t walk—walk, said the chatty traffic lights) I discovered Tex-Mex, high-rise sandwiches, bagels, pretzels, frozen yogurt, corn chips, and salsa. Sadly, in five days, I could barely scratch the surface.

Some colleagues took me to Madison Square Gardens one evening, and while the basketball game somewhat passed me by, I was enthralled by the range of snacks on offer. Fresh bagels, hot doughnuts (sold not individually but in multiples), cookies the size of tricycle wheels and loaded with lumps of white chocolate and marshmallow. My trip provided pathetically few eating occasions for exploring such diversity, and I was simply forced to overeat by the variety. Even so, I only fitted in half of what I desired.

Darwin took a five-year Victorian gap year after he finished university. Hired as a companion to the captain of a boat called the Beagle, he sailed around South America and on to the Galapagos Islands. On this trip he saw giant turtles and caught the germ of an idea that would grow into his Theory of Natural Selection and be published many years later as his Origin of Species. New York was my Voyage of the Bagel. On my trip I saw giant people and caught the germ of an idea that would grow into my Theory of Xtensity™. Darwin studied beaks, and I studied butts. My trip was over in five days, but in that time I came face to face with the Origins of Obesity. I collected all the specimens I couldn’t resist and archived them on my tummy, bottom, and thighs.

For marketing people, visits to the US are a real eye-opener. What you see there will come to the UK and the rest of Europe in due course. Ideas such as self-service supermarkets, commercial television, loss leaders, Avon ladies, testimonial advertising, Green Shield Stamps, Unique Selling Propositions, fast service restaurants, theme parks, home-delivered pizzas, and public address systems in department stores, were all developed in the US and then brought to Europe. In New York I felt I could see twenty years into the future. I saw clearly that if that future was coming to the UK, it would make us fatter and fatter and fatter.

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