Americans are obsessed with fat. Low fat, no fat and the number of calories from fat dictate our food choices and turn a simple meal into a strategic event necessitating precise planning fraught with anxiety. Americans are so fat-conscious that television producers have seen the wisdom of creating a series based on the premise of fat people trying to lose weight.
All of this fat frenzy is in marked contrast to the Europeans, who succeed in eating whatever they like, whenever they choose, with little or no thought to fat content, calories or consequences. A chocolate éclair? Why not? French onion soup? Bring it on. Fettuccini Alfredo? Of course. Despite these indulgences, most remain, on average, slimmer, fitter and healthier than the majority of fat-frazzled Americans.
This discrepancy can be explained by the American need to seek expiation for excess in every facet of life other than food. While Europeans remain largely guiltless (they, after all, are not the ones running around in SUVs), we feel we have to make amends for our unrestrained patterns of consumption. Of course, none of this is at a conscious level. It's not that we wake up one morning and say, "Oh, I've got a 4,500-square-foot home and there are only two of us living here--I'd better watch my fat intake." But the need to compensate for our cornucopia bursting with every imaginable thing manifests itself in our relationship with food.
Being slim is a visible testament to a lack of greed. It says to the world: "Look at me. I can control my cravings. I am not driven to consume beyond my fair share." Never mind that in other aspects of life, this same person may drive a gas-guzzling vehicle, own two dozen pairs of shoes, eat at the top of the food chain and consider a $300-day at the mall an exercise in thrift.
Meanwhile, the dimensionally challenged of this world are looked on as embarrassments, not fit for polite company and guilty of an inability to keep in check their runaway appetites. Pity the poor slob whose only real sin is putting an honest face on a culture of consumption.
But herein lies the problem: The overweight are living, visual reminders to the rest of us that while much of the world goes without the basic necessities, we are blessed (or cursed) with a superabundance of every material item we desire. As the disparity between rich and poor grows, the men and women among us who fail to fit our notions of slender-defined beauty force us to face a truth we would rather deny, a truth we spend time and effort ignoring: We have more than we need and likely more than we should.
It's much easier, far more pleasant and certainly more satisfying to convince ourselves that counting fat grams is a commendable activity demonstrating our willingness to deny ourselves pleasure by not succumbing to the world's edible enticements. We are, after all, in control; and we can prove it by presenting a thin self to the world.
So we count our fat grams, and we count our carbs, and we flit from one diet plan to another all the while telling ourselves it's in the interest of our health, when what we are really doing is pretending to be something we are not: conscientious consumers. We are smug and self-righteous in our fat abstinence, as if being fat-free places us in the company of saints.
And as if this weren't enough, we talk endlessly about our weight to anyone who is willing to listen (and to anyone who is not), about how much we've lost and how much more we still need to lose in order to reach our "ideal weight." We compare success strategies with our slim cohorts and spend endless hours in the supermarket reading labels in our search for the lowest amount of fat and the least number of carbs. We are positively slavish in our pursuit of svelte.
In the meantime, those among us carrying significant extra weight struggle on, sometimes trying to emulate the patterns of self-denial, but more often relenting and reaching for the donut, or chocolate cake, or chips and salsa that help provide a measure of solace. In moments of desperation, some may be driven to extreme measures such as stomach stapling in order to curb their desires, whether brought on by metabolism, genetics or simple self-indulgence.
Perhaps they can gain some consolation if they keep one thing in mind: Inside the body of every thin person is a fat one plotting to get out.