Babette is typical: She's not obese, she doesn't have an eating disorder, she doesn't devour five gallons of ice cream at a sitting. But like a third of all Americans, she just can't get thin.
By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Photo Editor: Judith White
Eating in America
Babette is typical: She's not obese, she doesn't have an eating disorder, she doesn't devour five gallons of ice cream at a sitting. But like a third of all Americans, she just can't get thin.
Kinda chunky" is how Tiffany, 14, describes her mom, Babette. "But she can't help it," says Tiffany. "She is 41 years old. You can't be skinny when you're so old."
Other people would not exactly call Babette "old." And they may not even call her chunky. Instead, they might see her as typical. The fat thing is a definite struggle for Babette. Her body just isn't the petite 122-pound beauty it once was, back when she was a teenager, madly in love with Butch, the high school sweetheart who would become her husband. Babette gained 60 pounds during her pregnancy with Tiffany. A lot of the weight never came off. Then she got pregnant with Nicole, now seven, and soon after, even more weight piled on. And now life is just spinning so fast it seems impossible to figure out a time to focus on something as relatively meaningless and at the same time so completely overwhelming as fat.
Babette, Butch, Tiffany, and Nicole: This is the Guballa family. They live in a suburb of Pittsburgh, minutes from a shopping mall. Spend some time with the Guballas and you begin to see how America is doing in the war against its own reputation. For decades now, America has been known by the rest of the world as the Land of Fat People. Now it has become the Land of More Fat People Than Ever. The statistics tell the ugly truth: In the mid-1990s, the number of fat people here has ballooned to one-third of all adults. It doesn't really make sense. The 1980s brought us low-fat foods and a mushrooming diet industry and public awareness about fiber and cholesterol and health clubs and home exercise equipment and exercise videos featuring every conceivable celebrity, including Barbie. We should be skinnier. But we are fatter.
Babette is typical: She's not obese, she doesn't have an eating disorder, she doesn't devour five gallons of ice cream as soon as no one is looking. She just can't get thin. She eats OK. So some days she only has time for Wendy's. She says, "I'm busy!" But, hey, she has exercise videos. She has a Fit for Life exercise bike in her basement. No, this bike and these videos don't get used too much. She repeats, "I'm busy!" She is not lying.
The Guballa Family
From left: Babette, Butch (in full Indian Princess dad regalia). Nicole, and Tiffany.
EAT YOUR SUPPER
The Guballas are seated around the dinner table, having chili dogs, salad, green beans, and brownies Nicole baked all by herself for dessert. It's a typical Thursday night. Well, Thursday is the easiest night around here. On Monday, Babette has to get Tiffany back from band practice and then to private flute lessons and Nicole to and from gymnastics. On Tuesday, Tiffany has more band practice, and Babette has to go tend to her mother, who is ill and living alone. And then on Wednesday, Tiffany has her ethnic-dance practice, and this week, Nicole has parents' night, and Babette has to take care of her mom again... and it goes on like this. Babette, who works full-time as an office manager in an accounting firm, spends most of her evenings in the car. Butch, a maintenance supervisor at a nursing home, takes a lot of odd jobs at nights, securing the family's future in their beautiful new suburban home. Or else he tends to one of the six rental properties he owns. These are hardworking people, devoted parents, and are known in the community as the kind of people you can call when you need a favor. Sometimes Butch gets mad when Babette takes on too much. Like, this Sunday, she agreed to bring the doughnuts to church even though the family always goes to Saturday night Mass.
Between working, keeping house, and driving the kids around, Babette has little time to think about meals. As her mother recently said, "Wow, Babette, you sure cook simple."
"Simple" means lots of prepackaged foods. For instance, these chili dogs. The chili is canned chili that Babette tasted at the supermarket one Saturday when some lady in an apron was giving out free samples. Babette thought the chili tasted pretty good. The lady said Babette could cut up hot dogs and mix them in with the chili and voilà: chili dogs. Babette said, "Great." Another supper strategy in the bag.
Sometimes Babette thinks about how different meals were when she was a kid. Her mother's food was always homemade. Pastas from scratch and breads fresh from the oven, meals prepared with such love and care. Tiffany remembers her grandmother's pasta and to this day regards it as the best food on earth. Babette agrees. But it's impossible to have food like that on the table every night in this day and age, when you are working and living in the suburbs. So you buy a few cans of chili, chop up some hot dogs, and hope for the best.
Tiffany does not like the chili dogs. She will have a plain hot dog instead. Nicole doesn't like the chili either; she will do whatever her big sister does. "OK, OK," says Babette. Whatever.
Butch likes the chili but worries privately about what the heck this is going to do to his ulcer. Butch is in good shape. He gained a lot of weight when he quit smoking a few years ago. But then he was hospitalized with pneumonia and lost 20 pounds, so that took care of that. Ever since, Butch has paid attention to his weight. He switched to light beer. He walks every night. "The next street over," says Butch, "there's a large hill. That's why Babette doesn't like to walk with me -she can't make it up the hill."
"I can make it, but..." Babette says.
"Then I come home and do my situps," says Butch.
"I don't," says Babette.
"And push-ups every night," says Butch.
"I don't," says Babette.
Then, out of nowhere, Butch lets the secret out. He says, "Did you know Babette goes to Jenny Craig?"
Tiffany: You weren't supposed to tell, Dad.
Nicole: Yeah, Dad.
A woman's desire to lose weight can for some reason be a very embarrassing thing. There is something so shameful about fat. It turns out Babette started the Jenny Craig diet a few months ago and has already lost more than 20 pounds on it. That puts Babette, who is five feet six, at 157 pounds. She'd like to lose 20 more.
"Twenty!" says Tiffany. "Mom, I think you should lose, like, 30 or 40 more."
"Forty!" Babette says. "I don't think so."
"But don't you want to look more like... me?" Tiffany says. Tiffany looks like the high school girl all high school girls throughout time have dreamed of looking like: slim, five feet nine, long legs, blond, perfect skin and teeth, everything. "Don't you want legs like mine, Mom? See, they're not all wobbly like yours." Tiffany also has a lot of trouble with the way her mom's eyelids are "wiggly." "I'm not 14 anymore, Tiffany," Babette says. "I can't look like you."
"Well, I think it would be cool," says Tiffany. Yes, cool. It would definitely be cool for women of all ages everywhere to just magically have a body like Tiffany's. But it doesn't work that way, especially here in America, Land of Plenty gone berserk.
For groceries, Babette goes to Sam’s club, where members can –and must- buy everything by the vat. On one recent trip, Tiffany went along and loaded up the cart with ranch dressing, Chicken n’Cheese Party Time Nuggets, juice, Pop-Tarts, and a few more of her favorite things.
Total cost: $317.26
LAND OF WRETCHED EXCESS
The richest nation in the world is also the fattest - and growing fatter. It shouldn't be this way. We have the information. We have the media to spread it. You'd have an easier time finding an American who hasn't heard about O.J. Simpson than you would finding one who hasn't heard about eating less fat and exercising more.
Yet studies show that less than half of Americans exercise in their leisure time. The average American gets about 37 percent of his or her calories from fat, even though nutrition experts recommend 20 to 25 percent. Accordingly, the surgeon general tells us that reducing dietary fat should be our number one priority. And it shouldn't be so difficult. We have more help than ever. Since 1988 more than 2,380 reduced-fat products have been added to our nation's grocery-store shelves. And for the most part, we are actually eating these things. More people are drinking lowfat milk than whole milk nowadays, for example. But the problem is, we are eating a lot of other stuff too. For instance, cheese. Our consumption of cheese was way up in the last decade. according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, keeping our total dairy fat intake steady at about 20 pounds per person per year.
Our discipline in eating low-fat foods is fickle. On the one hand, it's true, we are eating fewer eggs and less red meat than we were a decade ago, according to the USDA. On the other hand, our intake of vegetables has declined by about 10 percent. But guess which vegetable we are eating more of? In 1989 consumption of white potatoes made up one-third of our total vegetable consumption. And guess how we prepare these potatoes? We cut them up into skinny little sticks and, yes, drop them into a vat of fat.
French fries. According to GDR Enterprises, a food service research and consulting group, French fries accounted for 22 percent of all meal transactions in 1992, a frequency exceeded only by beverages, at 30 percent. And why are we eating so many fries? Well, because of hamburger. What else are you going to have with a burger? The average American consumes nearly 30 pounds of hamburger a year -that's 3 burgers per person per week- totaling 38 billion burgers. Placed end to end, that's 1.8 million miles of hamburgers.
And why are we eating so many hamburgers? Well, because of pizza. You can't have pizza every night. Between 1977 and 1989, pizza consumption tripled in this country. Fifty percent of Americans ate pizza at least once every two weeks last year, up from 31 percent in 1984.
Meantime, a full 93 percent of us are not getting the recommended six servings daily from the breads, cereals, and grains group, according to a 1993 survey from the Wheat Foods Council.
Indeed, our commitment to eating better is ebbing: In 1993, according to the Food Marketing Institute, 10 percent fewer shoppers than in the previous year said they were "very concerned" about nutrition. Fewer people were making the effort to watch cholesterol intake and eat less fat and oil. And more people were saying that good taste was more important than good nutrition when making food selections.
Echoing this study, a Louis Harris poll found that in 1992 Americans ate less carefully than they did in 1991. One year later, the results of another Louis Harris poll came out and didn't surprise anybody: Americans are more overweight, about ten pounds per American, than they were a decade ago.
The bottom line is, we know exactly what to do. And we don't do it.
Babette serves a lot of prepackaged foods. As her mother says, “Wow, Babette, you sure cook simple.”
Butch, left, gained a lot of weight when he quit smoking. But then he had to be in the hospital, and he lost 20 pounds.
KIDS EAT THE DARNDEST THINGS
Nicole is happy. Tonight the Indian Princess meeting is going to be at her house! Indian Princess, a national program run by the YMCA, is one of those things that dads and daughters do in America. It is a time for dads and daughters to be together, to go on camp-outs and make crafts, and also a time for dads to consume a good amount of "firewater," also known as beer.
Babette and the other moms are not supposed to attend Indian Princess meetings, but what is Babette supposed to do? Just let these men and these girls have the run of the place? So she handles refreshments. She puts snacks in the living room for the dads: potato chips, M&Ms, peanuts, corn chips, dips, everything arranged in Styrofoam bowls. And downstairs she has candy, chips, cheese popcorn, orange soda, and crafts ready for the kids.
Tonight's craft is bird feeders. You smear a thick layer of peanut butter over a Styrofoam cup, then roll it in birdseed. Pretty soon the peanut butter is being smeared on bodies as well as on Styrofoam cups. Pretty soon Nicole ("Little Fawn") and her best friend, Amanda ("Little Fox"), are dumping birdseed onto each other's heads, becoming human bird feeders! Pretty soon Amanda is crying.
Meantime, the men of this "Wyandott" tribe are busy having their firewater upstairs. Butch ("Running Bear") is proud to announce that he is serving his term as "Wampum Bear," also known as treasurer. He hears the commotion of the kids downstairs and says it's time to bring the girls up. They come up, covered in goo, and Babette lets out a fairly enormous sigh. She tries not to intervene. She is a little tense. She gets a beer. No, beer is not exactly permitted on her Jenny Craig diet. In fact, practically nothing is permitted on Jenny Craig's diet except Jenny Craig's food, which you buy, prepackaged, and eat according to Jenny Craig's rules.
Well, apparently Jenny Craig has never had to host an Indian Princess meeting. What is Babette supposed to do? Sit here and sip water? She takes a napkin, opens it, fills it with potato chips, and sits quietly by the fireplace.
The chief questions the girls, one by one. "So, Princess Running Deer, have you seen anything in nature lately?"
"I saw a dead snake at the creek behind the soccer field," says Princess Running Deer.
"Let's have a big heep-haw for Princess Running Deer," the chief says.
"Heeeep-haw, Princess Running Deer!" everyone says, and Princess Running Deer blushes and folds her head into her arms.
Babette smiles and brings out a bunch of cupcakes with orange icing and brown sprinkles. "I was trying to find something with Indian colors on it," she says, serving them to the men and the children. The men drink beer and eat potato chips with their cupcakes, and pretty soon Babette is breaking down and having a cupcake, too. Well, it's not exactly permitted on her Jenny Craig diet, but what is she supposed to do? Sit here and gnaw on ice cubes? Or whip out a can of Jenny Craig tuna? She has some M&Ms. She has some more chips. She has some more M&Ms. Soon she has the full bowl of chips in her lap and the dip by her side. The brakes are officially off.
The girls are down in the basement again, saying the heck with the bird feeders, let's do some concocting. They take the cups and fill them with cheese popcorn, then some peanut butter, then some chips, dip, and orange soda to soften it up. And they crunch all this together and stir it in the cups, laughing harder than laughter can possibly contain them. Who will eat it? Who will eat the amazing concoction? Nicole? No, Amanda! No, now Amanda has a nosebleed. There goes Amanda, crying again.
And so the food concoction downstairs continues to be made as the food concoction upstairs continues to be devoured. And so two generations of Americans continue to live out the one certain truth about food: Food sure is fun. Food is play. Food is fantasy. Where there is food, there will be no boredom.
“I come home and do my sit-ups,” says Butch. “I don’t,” says Babette. “And push-ups,” he says. “I don’t,” she says.
Tiffany, above, plays basketball, is in the band, takes ethnic dance. She eats pretty much what she feels like eating.
BABETTE GOES TO CONFESSION
When Saturday comes, Babette has to go to her Jenny Craig counselor and try to figure out how to lie about all those chips and M&Ms she ate. It is early morning and Babette and George, Nicole's hermit crab, are the only ones up. Butch and Nicole are off at Indian Princess camp for the weekend. Tiffany is sound asleep in the living room with her new girlfriend, who was allowed to come for a sleepover.
Babette is stirring up some instant Maxwell House, planning the day's events. Another Saturday, another day in the car. It's a nice car. A blue Buick with a trunk that Babette opens with the push of a button on her key chain. Today she will walk through parking lot after parking lot -the grocery stores, the Kmarts, the malls- because that is what Saturdays are for.
The Jenny Craig Weight Loss Center is about ten minutes away from Babette's house, sandwiched between a Chinese and an Italian restaurant. Babette will have a lot more to lie about than just those chips at the Indian Princess meeting. Like, just last night, at midnight, she broke down and had a burger. Well, what was she supposed to do? She had a carful of kids, shuttling them home after a football game. Tiffany, who plays the flute in the Thomas Jefferson High School band, was starving. So were the other kids. So Babette took them all to Borrelli's, that place with the amazing fries that Babette and Butch used to go to as kids. And what was Babette supposed to do? Sit there and chew on a straw? No, she got the fries, for old time's sake, and then the burger, and two drinks, and all in all, it was a pretty fun night.
At Jenny Craig, Babette weighs in. Whoops, she didn't lose any weight this week. (She thinks, Duh.) Whoops, she gained a pound. (She thinks, No joke.) Babette' s weight-loss counselor, Mary Beth, takes her into a private room where they might have a little chat.
"So how's it been going?" Mary Beth says.
"I guess, obviously, not too good," Babette says. On a wall are photos of thin women encircling a sign: "Mary Beth's masterpieces." Babette checks this out. Nope, she is not one of Mary Beth's masterpieces.
Mary Beth: Tell me what's going on.
Babette: I think I eat out of nervousness, you know. I eat out of being happy. I eat out of being sad. I eat either way, happy or sad. I like to eat.
Babette talks about the logistical problems. It's difficult, for instance, for her to eat her prepared Jenny Craig lunches when she is working out of the office and clients insist on taking her to lunch. And dinners are hard to get in because she has to cook for her family. And maybe her priorities are mixed up. Sometimes, Babette says, it seems like her priority is her family, not her weight -and for a split second she believes that this is backward. She does not mention the chips or the burger at midnight, although she does say, "I have weaknesses." She says, "I cheat, that's what it is." She says, "I have totally lost my motivation."
But she buys some more Jenny Craig food, just to soothe her conscience, and says good-bye to Mary Beth. She drives the Buick home to pick up Tiffany, who wants to go with her to the grocery store. But Tiffany isn't ready. Tiffany still has to do her hair. And Tiffany wants to know if her mother would please put different jeans on. "I just want you to look good, Mom," Tiffany says. Babette sighs. Babette waits for Tiffany to do her hair. Babette looks at George. Babette has a bologna-and-cheese sandwich on a hamburger roll with Miracle Whip.
HUGE VATS OF FOOD 'R' US
Sam's Club warehouse is a humongous beast of an emporium owned by WalMart where Americans like Babette go for bargains. At Sam's you buy food not by the ounce or the pound. You buy it by the vat. Tiffany is loading the cart with vats of her favorite things: Honey Nut Cheerios, Pop-Tarts, pretzel sticks, juice, microwave popcorn, cheese, Tyson beef patties, Tyson chicken, Chicken n' Cheese Party Time Nuggets, ranch dressing.
Suddenly Tiffany's eye is caught by a Starter jacket. "Hey, Mom!" And a laptop computer. "Wow!" And some knit vests. This is the way the eye moves at Sam's. You go from stuff to stuff in no particular order: from cheese crackers to snow shovels, from file cabinets to Oreos, plastic pants to Yoo-Hoos, Milk Duds, children's ski jackets, reclining chairs, keyboards, John Grisham novels, socks, bunk beds. Look out! A guy on a forklift is hauling in the Doritos.
This is what it is like to be in Sam's, where America shops for stuff. It's hard to take it all in. American society has moved so far away from the rituals surrounding a visit to the corner bakery for bread, the butcher for meat, the fruit store for apples. Now our shopping is more of a bombardment kind of thing, all these goods under one gigantic roof, literally tons of stuff screaming for attention. Our stores teach us to become stuff-happy. Is it any wonder we are all so stuffed?
America is big. American stores are big. American houses are big. Could it be that, like goldfish, Americans swell to fit the size of their containers?
Babette leaves Sam's with two carts full of stuff totaling $317.26. She pushes the button on her remote-control key chain and the trunk pops up. Babette and Tiffany can't even fit all this food in the trunk of the Buick. They cram the stuff in every which way. They get in the car. Tiffany says she still needs hair-care products. Babette sighs. Babette can't bear to go into another store just yet. Tiffany says she can't go to church looking like this, she needs hair-care products. Babette pulls up to Kmart, hands Tiffany a 20, and Tiffany comes out with many bottles of gel and spray and assorted goo. They finally head home, pull into the driveway. Babette pushes another button and the garage door flies up. It takes Babette and Tiffany nearly an hour to unload everything. Tiffany goes off to take a nap. Babette wants one, too: But it is time to get back into the Buick and bring her mother something to eat.
"Wow, Babette, you sure cook simple," her mother will say. And life will go on like this. "You're still not losing any more weight," her Jenny Craig counselor will say. "You should be skinny like me," Tiffany will say. "You should buy more stuff," the stores will say. "You should come walk up the hill with me," Butch will say. "Look at yourself!" the media in every conceivable form will say. "You could be so much skinnier, so much healthier, so much more worthwhile a human being if you only tried."*