There were stomach folds. Jiggling thighs. Broad backsides with spilling flesh striding down the catwalk in nothing more than lacy, revealing underthings. Size-14 model Mia Tyler, Liv’s sister, and Anna Nicole Smith were launching Lane Bryant’s line of plus-size lingerie. (Bra sizes start at 38B.) A dozen other supersize women strutted down the catwalk wearing thongs and garters, their large breasts falling out of cups of white and fuchsia satin, their big behinds barely concealed by translucent chiffon robes. The room was packed and cheering, and with all these real, fleshy bodies on parade, the show had a voyeuristic, carnal quality to it. The scene was shockingly sexy, and seemed almost illicit. These women were big. I was bowled over.
“Being bigger and being O.K. with it has become more mainstream,” said Ms. Tyler before the show.
Could Rubenesque fat be back? It used to be that being bigger was less than O.K. It was bad. Being fat was sinful, a flabby weakness meant to be defeated with the help of power-drive, super-tone body-sculpting classes and Snackwells. Being thin, being fit, being strict with your nonindulgent diet were signs of good discipline, not to mention, for women especially, the esthetic ideal. Even as the lineup of sexy Amazons paraded down the runway, I couldn’t help but think-fleetingly, guiltily-that the less large, less jiggly women still looked better. Fleshy is sexy, but could being fat be good?
In terms of brute numbers, we are fatter than ever: Fifty-five percent of the United States population is overweight and, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association , 18 percent of Americans are clinically obese, up from 12 percent in 1991. According to Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., the number of obese adults worldwide, 1.2 billion, is now equal to the number of people who have too little to eat. And the United States, they say, is the fattest country in the world.
In New York restaurants, menus are full of the last decade’s fat mines. “It’s actually a problem,” said Terrance Brennan, chef and owner of Picholine, of the demand for his restaurant’s cheese course (read: fat feast). “There are waits for cheese. I have two and a half full-time [staff members] working on cheeses. We’re requiring the other managers, the maître d’ and the sommelier to know cheeses as well.” He added: “This might be the first time I have two foie gras dishes on the menu.”
“Take Eleven Madison Park as an example where people are just devouring pig’s feet, sweetbreads and full-roasted foie gras, marrow, custard and flan,” said restaurateur Danny Meyer. “A few years ago, people would have politely overlooked it for the halibut. At Gramercy Tavern, there’s a fresh bacon cassoulet, which is essentially a pork barrel. It’s essentially 80 percent fat, and it’s selling like crazy.”
Colman Andrews, editor of Saveur magazine, calls New York’s new eating habits a move from “surface sophistication” to “real sophistication.” According to him, we’re emulating the skinny, fat-consuming French. “They would rather eat two ounces of something high in fat that tastes good, than eight ounces of something low in fat. The real sophistication is admitting that food that tastes good is more satisfying. Those segments were preoccupied with heart-healthy dishes five or six years ago more than they are today.”
“People understand that fat has flavor in it,” explained chef David Bouley, “and they’re willing to make concessions for it. Chefs have learned to refine the process and add fat just at the end, to add flavor. Diners are more educated, know flavors better. Fat or no fat, it’s flavor that’s important.”
“There’s just less self-consciousness and more of a willingness to relax,” said Mr. Meyer, “to go to a restaurant and experience those three hours in the fullest sense. To restore yourself and nurture yourself. Fat is very nurturing.”
Of course, Americans, unlike the French, never really want just a little of anything, and if Americans are going to start eating fat again, we’ll eat all the fat we want. If we have to, we’ll skip the carbohydrates. All of them. “The [diet] cycle we’re in now is a low-carbohydrate, high-fat, high-protein cycle,” explained David Levitsky, professor of psychology and nutrition at Cornell University. The Dr. Atkins, Protein Power, Sugar Busters and Hellers’ diets are in, even as Jennifer Aniston, eating her daily-delivered, high-protein Zone meals, has visibly shrunk.
“The alternatives-the truth that if you really want to watch your weight, you have to watch your fat-is difficult.”
Which brings us back to the original problem. “Being overweight isn’t back,” said Dr. David Blumenthal, clinical associate professor of medicine in cardiology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
Of course, there are the miracle drugs that accompany any bona fide American diet fad. As the famously lean David Letterman’s 500-plus cholesterol level showed, there’s only so much that even a skinny guy can do to alter his genetically predisposed cholesterol level. Available since 1997, Lipitor is a popular cholesterol-lowering drug and, according to The Wall Street Journal , it is expected to become the highest-selling prescription drug in the world by 2003. Despite side effects like anal leakage, sales of Xenical, a fat blocker, approved only in 1999, have already reached $800 million.
“That’s the American way,” said Dr. Blumenthal, “eat all the fat you want and take a pill.”
And given the possible results of taking that pill, those Americans, even as they judiciously consume brie and confit, may never seem quite as sophisticated as the flavor-savoring French. We would like to be as thin as them, though. Maybe New Yorkers are learning moderation, both in discipline and indulgence, learning to enjoy pleasure, without guilt, in smaller portions. Or maybe, swept up in the voluptuous throes of this expanding economy, we’ve created a new American dream: After working hard and getting rich, you can eat fat and be thin. In fact, the fatter you eat, the thinner you get.
So, we’ll indulge. Binge! Now there’s Lipitor.