America has suffered from an obesity epidemic, so an extreme counterculture has grown up of people trying to stay healthy and trim. I happen to live in the heart of a particularly wealthy, health-obsessed metropolis, New York City, where everyone exercises and eats well, or says they do. The middle-class women here look like they’re built from sinew inlaid with fat-eating bacteria.
How they achieve this look in part comes down to the manipulation — emotional rather than physical — they receive in the gym. When I joined my local health club, I booked a personal trainer for one free “assessment.” “Why not?” I thought, if they’re offering. After five minutes spent pinching the flappy parts of my limbs with a set of metal jaws, my trainer person furrowed her brow and told me I was fat. She didn’t even bother to disguise it in friendly terms. Needless to say, I went home, ate seven brownies and cried.
This is a land where gym staff aren’t afraid to humiliate paying customers into good health. Even the people whose job it is to replace the dirty towels look at you with eyes that scream, “Those abs are a disgrace!” At the same time, they dart around the free weights trying to avoid getting clunked in the face by twig-like ladies furiously benching 900 lbs with no regard for the skulls of hovering underlings.
In London, gymming tends to be more laissez-faire, mostly through apathy. Mrs. Fat pumps the bike next to Ms. Thin, and they ignore each other. And the staff ignore both of them. In New York, judgment is rampant. I expect some fitness centers offer plans where you can pay extra to be insulted and intimidated into dropping those last few inches. And if you’re not getting enough grief in the gym, chances are your good pals will make up the shortfall. I’ve witnessed groups of friends competing over exercise regimes. Someone will boast about a new type of pilates they’ve just taken up that’s a steal at 50 bucks a session, and that’ll set someone else off on a monologue about Tibetan yoga and spinning.
Outside the gym, Americans who want to stay trim have a job on their hands. Restaurant portions are vast and supermarket food that’s labeled to look healthy often isn’t really. You need to study the ingredients like an obsessive. “Low fat” can mean “high sugar,” and the meat and dairy ooze hormones and antibiotics unless otherwise specified. The dried fruit, bread and cereal are laced liberally with sugar, often disguised as “evaporated cane juice.” True health foods — especially snacks — are hard to find in the U.S., and they’re often excessively expensive.
Supplements, on the other hand, are sold everywhere. The choice will make your brain ache. Americans grow up taking vitamins and the practice is viewed as a shortcut to good health. When I moved here, one friend revealed to me to her favored hangover cure: Wholefoods prenatal vitamins. Now, as an actual pregnant person, I’ve fallen into the habit of taking these costly little pills for their designated purpose, but I find this just gives me an excuse to eat badly. Back home, I don’t know any women who bothered to take “prenatals” (apart from the obligatory folic acid) when they were pregnant. But they mostly ate well and didn’t have any health problems during or after their pregnancies. The vitamin business is what my aging dad (who’s never knowingly exercised or eaten a health food) would call “a racket,” and he’s not wrong.