IT'S ALL ABOUT CULTURE

Walking through Bloomingdales recently, I stopped to look at a blue and tan stripped dress shirt that looked very similar to one I'd purchase at Kohl's a few weeks earlier. I paid $14 for mine–on sale. Bloomingdales had the virtually identical shirt for $195. I thought I should call the police, or at least report this outrage to someone.

My friend and I then walked through the women's fashion section, and I took note of the manikins that were displaying tight clothes. The butts on these manikins looked like they belonged to skinny 13-year olds. But in real life, more and more 13-year old butts are much bigger than that, as they are on most everyone. Still, “thin is in,” if you ask Bloomingdales, Hollywood or any fashion magazine editor. Betty Grable came to mind as I looked at the manikin. I mentioned her to my friend, and she replied, “She had a big butt.” But if you mention Betty Grable to most people under 50, they give you a strange, blank look.

The National Center for Health statistics has been tracking America's obesity problem for over four decades. It appears that about 2/3rds of Americans are currently overweight (Body Mass Index (BMI) in excess of 25.0) and over a third of us are obese (BMI in excess of 30.0). They report that childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled in the past two decades.

If you are female, and were raised in Mauritania (that's a country in Northwest Africa), the chances are you are intentionally obese. For much of the last decade, and still today to some extent, the more obese a woman becomes, the more desirable she becomes. According to a BBC article by Pascale Harter, “Obesity is so revered among Mauritania's white Moor Arab population that the young girls are sometimes force-fed ... A generation ago, over a third of women in the country were force-fed as children.” Today only 11% of young girls are force-fed. Now that's culture at it's… most noticeable. I guess Moor is better in Mauritania.

Here in the U.S. we don't need to force-feed our kids. They seem quite capable of ‘porking' up on their own, while idolizing teen stars who look like Bloomingdale manikins. And as we walked through the mall, we saw small groups of not-so-skinny teens, all talking on cell phones instead of to each other. There is nothing like getting together with friends so you can chat with people who are not with you.

The most applicable definition of culture, as it applies to weight, fashion, prices, values, habits and attitudes, is the set of attitudes, values, goals, and practices shared by a group or a society. Culture changes with each generation. I saw a brief portion of the Grammy Awards this year, and I did not recognize any of the five songs nominated for song of the year, nor had I heard of any of the artists. Evidently I am in a different culture. But neither did I know who was playing in the Super Bowl until the day before. I'm still not sure why it was so important to so many people. I wonder how many of them are overweight. But let's keep our priorities straight.

It has not gone unnoticed, at least by me, that all of our most celebrated holidays promote overeating. Valentine's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas are all associated with big meals and chocolate. Who started this, and why? Muslims have a month-long holiday (Ramadan) where they are not allowed to eat between sunrise and sunset. I don't think this would be very popular in the U.S. Perhaps the Pope and other religious leaders should do us a favor and declare the Christmas season a time of fasting. Then perhaps only the atheists would gain weight.

I'm not sure why shirt prices and big butts got me thinking about culture, except that both are, in their own way, measures of our culture. For a country where independence is a national pride, I'm seeing a lot of sheep. Our culture is diverse in that it breaks down into age groups, ethnic groups, political groups, income groups, and professional groups, each with its distinctive cultural norms and values. I guess that, in a sense, we are free to join whichever flock of sheep that we wish–albeit with some significant limits. There are a lot of glass ceilings, glass walls, and glass floors. For example, middle and lower class folks aren't out there buying $195 shirts, and I don't see any dreadlocks on Wall Street. Tattoos seem to be crossing over, so some cultural phenomena are more attractive than others, but big butts are not… unless you happen to be from Mauritania.