The Shape of Things
By A.D. Freudenheim  

16 November 2003

Last night, I took a good, long New York walk, the kind that makes Manhattan such a joyous city in which to live. Following Broadway from the west 60s down to 4th Street, I passed through parts of town I often see only from the window of a cab – or that I have to imagine as I pass them underground, riding the subway. Walking through Midtown, into the heart of Times Square and along Madison Square Park, down the side of Union Square, and into the Village is a reminder of how much activity, diversity, and life there is in this place.

A walk like this is also shows up some of the serious contradictions in American society, and particularly those around body image. Manhattan is awash in images of the human form: underwear ads on billboards in Times Square; posters on scaffolds, barricades, phone booths, and elsewhere of singers and musicians wearing tight clothes; and news stands galore with magazines facing passers-by. The theme that unites all of these disparate, in-your-face promotions is beauty, although that is a very general term; in fact, it is a specific definition of beauty centered mostly on young, thin, firm women.

The magazines on display are all about this kind of body image, covering everything from fashion (Vogue, ELLE) to fitness-and-self-help (Shape, Self), and even crossing over to music (check out almost any cover of Rolling Stone or Vibe), sports, and business, to say nothing of Hollywood. The advertisements around the City likewise focus on the suggested hand-in-glove relationship of thinness and sex, from the scrawnier women of Calvin Klein to the buff models in 2(x)ist ads. And the shop windows participate too, with varying degrees of sexual allure from Macy’s to the Gap to Victoria’s Secret – all of which can be seen while walking on Broadway.

I am not someone who has “issues” with the human form – bodies can be beautiful, and without that beauty where would any of us be? Nor would I disparage the suggestion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; the scrawny young thing that looks beautiful to one person may be fundamentally unattractive to the next. In fact, none of the astounding, visible range of barely-clad human forms would be particularly noteworthy except for the fact that they present such a dramatic contrast to the state – the shape – of the American people themselves.

In addition to taking in the physical sights of a slice of Manhattan, and absorbing (or trying to ignore) the rampant commercialism that surrounds us New Yorkers, while walking down Broadway I also saw many, many people. These folks were consuming – happily, greedily – the culture being fed to them: they stop and look in the store windows, they come in and out of the magazine stands, go to the movies advertised by large posters of striking actors, buy expensive tickets to Broadway shows, and invade the music and book stores selling the best and worst of American pop culture. They do not merely “consume” our culture, they buy into it, and, I suppose, they spend money and time on it because they want to be part of “it” in whatever way they can.

Yet making a visual assessment walking through the City’s crowds, we are only getting further and further away from the same culture – those same body images – we appear to seek with such energy. Many of the people I saw yesterday were fat, which is to say significantly overweight and looking that way quite evidently. (There are, of course, a great many Americans who think that they are grossly overweight when they are not, although this seems to be a phenomenon that occurs more frequently among women than men. These are not the people to whom I am referring.) None of them seemed even to recognize the contradiction between the way they look and act and the people – the models, musicians, and other celebrities – whose lives they so desperately seek to connect with. Perhaps this realization is internalized, repressed; but this would seem likely to create a spike in overly-thin people with eating disorders. Instead, we Americans seem to grow larger.

I can only guess at what accounts for this contradiction between people who so avidly consume the products of a culture from which they themselves grow – quite literally – more and more distant. A desire to be like someone else, to have that fantasy in mind, if not in body? The need for a distraction, as I suggested in a column in April? That Americans are overweight is no longer even shocking news: a quick search of Google’s news compiler finds 1,030 articles with the terms “Americans” and “overweight” as of this writing. Some articles even suggest that gym memberships are on the rise across the country, and the sales of self-help and fitness related magazines and products seems equally strong. All of which seems to be having no impact, as we clearly get bigger and bigger.

On a random walk through Manhattan, the size of the people around me does not bother me. It is, however, very noticeable – not least because unlike most of them, I can still walk quickly.

  Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.