Supersize me

By and large—no pun intended—big is considered beautiful in America.  Our country’s history of expansion, immigrant “rags to riches,” and overall wealth has allowed us to have the biggest and the best of everything, even when we don’t need it. Pondering big size as a pervasive mindset of our society made me wonder what the lasting impact might be for our great nation.   

To further explore the topic of “Big,” I sought out the opinion of my pal and cookbook editor, Deborah Mintcheff. Over a healthy lunch of salad and grilled shrimp—don’t be so impressed as I also had wine—we came up with a short list of big things Americans covet most: cars; homes; diamonds; stores; food; and boobs. 

Big Car Lust

Growing up in France in the 60’s I remember seeing the bewilderment and bemusement of the locals observing our mammoth American cars shipped to our new homes abroad.  In comparison with their compact Peugeots and Renauds, the French didn’t know what to make of something so big which consumed so much expensive gas.  And, how in the world could one maneuver such a car on the small, cobble stoned-streets let alone park it?

Fast forward and our love affair with super-sized cars, now including SUVs and trucks, remain as resilient as ever.  Why someone would want to drive a Hummer which looks more like an army tank than a luxury car, simply baffles me.  Call it my European upbringing, but I am also mystified by why people would want to watch on TV big trucks with over-sized tires drag race. Could it be the sexy girls in bikinis and the mud that are often thrown in for good measure? 

McMansion Fetish

Doing some research, I learned from Sarah Z. Wexler’s book, Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, that over the past 50 years the size of the average American home has increased 120%. Yet, the number of people living in them has decreased.  While the average American family still spends from 1/3 to 1/2 of its income putting a roof over its head, this desire for McMansions may be slowing.

Yesterday, between upper body exercises, my trainer, Jennifer Spina, told me about a group of Americans, members of the “Tiny House” movement, who are reducing the size of their homes even more drastically from the average 2,600 square feet size to under 400 square feet! Now, that’s downsizing.

While this may be just a Nano trend to counter the “more is better” mindset, Tiny houses are popping up across America, offering an alternative approach to housing and a freer lifestyle.  Less clutter, lower mortgages, and less maintenance means more money and time to pursue other personal interests. Less extreme than the people with tiny homes, there are also other Americans, who even if they can afford them, are now opting to build smaller and more ecologically friendly houses.

Big Diamonds are forever

Our appetite for large diamonds, however, seems as steady as ever, even if millennials claim otherwise.  Years ago, I hired Mary Gorman, MW, a talented young Irish woman who arrived to Cornerstone Communications from Dublin with an MBA.  She was fascinated with America’s appetite for big. One day, she showed me her wedding ring—a discreet, beautifully set diamond—and shared with me how shocked she was to see the huge rocks on the fingers of American women. “In Ireland,” she explained,” it is considered very bad taste to flaunt your wealth.” Conversely, here in America, the larger the diamond, the happier the bride.

Big-Box Store Mania

Another American super-sized phenomenon which remains strong is the Big-Box store.  One of my husband’s caregivers, Bibi, explained that when he first arrived from Ghana, he couldn’t believe the vastness of these stores. “My cousin took me to a Sam’s Club. I can recall seeing tubs of mayonnaise and wondering how anyone could ever consume that amount? Months later, we went to a Costco and bought a giant container of ice-cream with swirls of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.  It took my two roommates and me three months to finish up the container and it wasn’t even that good.” 

So how much does one save going to these Big-Box stores?  According to Wexler’s book, only about 15%.  She adds, however, that the negative impact on the local economy can be devastating when large stores take over from the small mom-and-pop businesses.  “Basically, the unemployment rate goes up, the voter participation rate and PTA-participation rate go down, the infant-mortality rate goes up and the pollution rate goes up, because people are driving farther and spending more time on the road.” 

Insatiable Appetite for Fast Food

With so much easily available and affordable food in our country, America has also become a nation of big people.  Have you recently been to a State Fair and had a look at the people? As the media constantly reminds us, obesity has reached epidemic proportions here at home. The CDC claims that between 2015-2016 39.8% of our population (or 93.3 million adults) fell into this category. The resulting effect? A substantial impact on the cost of our healthcare and overall health of our nation.  

How did we manage to get this big? One of the primary culprits is fast food. Remember the 2004 documentary called “Super Size Me?” It featured Morgan Spurlock who ate a diet of McDonald meals for 30 days to trace the negative impact on his health and psychological well-being.  It also made the point that the fast food industry encourages poor nutrition in exchange for profit. No surprise there.

Continuing the theme of excess, consider all the supersized containers of popcorn and carbonated beverages at our movie theatres’ concession stands. And while former Mayor Bloomberg’s 2012 proposal to limit the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces was overruled by the courts—thanks to the soft drink industry muscle—it did fuel a significant and on-going global debate on public health issues related to poor nutrition.

Big Body Parts

America is known for its infatuation with women with large breasts. Responding to societal pressures, some women will undergo surgery for breast implants in order to make their bodies more attractive to the “more is more crowd,” even risking their health by doing so. Thanks to Kim Kardashian, we can also add the latest trend of a generous booty. Welcome to the advent of butt lifts.  Being voluptuous, front and back, is changing America’s ideal of what a perfect 10 body should be.  Luckily, not everyone has bought into this new look, preferring instead a trim and taut silhouette.   

Despite all the criticism in this piece, going big in America has not become a way of life for everyone.  Many people are coming to their senses and “right-sizing” by making the most of what they have.  There people are shunning the notion of excess in favor of moderation. Whatever their motivation—health, ecology, social economic or otherwise—these individuals give me hope for our future.   

When Bigger is Better

That said, Deborah and I both agreed over lunch that there were certain instances when bigger was unquestionably better. Take for example today’s martinis. In the 50’s when three-martini business lunches were de rigueur, the size of the glass was 5-oz.  Today it is 7-8 ounces.  Yet, for those of us martinis drinkers, a larger glass size is not a bad thing.  In fact, it reduces the number of martinis needed to create the desired buzz.  See what I mean? There are always exceptions to the rules.