In the summers, after a breakfast of cornflakes and milk with a teaspoon of sugar—for treats, sugar-coated Frosted Flakes and Trix—we were out the door by eight.
There was only one rule: be home for supper at five in the afternoon.
We walked, we ran, we bicycled, we crawled, we hid, we played, we jumped hedges; we climbed fences, lampposts, buildings, garages and trees—we roamed our Chicago neighborhood at will until we dropped. After supper we went out again and played until dark. We slept soundly and jumped out of bed in the mornings, ready for another satisfying breakfast of cornflakes and a day of nonstop playing.
We were kids, and with a couple of exceptions, none of us were fat. How could we have been, what with engaging in eight to 10 hours of physical activity every day?
I mention this because there’s another idiotic theory on the obesity epidemic that has supposedly turned America into a nation of 300 million butterballs. This one, by Melinda Sothern, a fitness and nutrition expert at Louisiana State University, says that we’re all fat because of mothers in the 1950s and 1960s. Those moms smoked during pregnancies, didn’t breast feed and had kids too often. That has, according to Sothern, led to metabolic and physiological body changes that have turned us all into waddling, diabetic slobs.
If my ma were alive and had read Sothern’s theory she would have rolled her eyes, waved a hand and proclaimed, “That’s so silly. Doesn’t she have any common sense?” She would have answered herself, “no.” There are so many complex theories about obesity by over-educated PhDs., sociologists and other alleged deep thinkers that someone needs to throw simplicity into all the yakking and handwringing. So here it is:
Maybe we’ve turned into a nation of tubbos because we’ve become inert slobs who stuff our faces with chips while vacantly staring at wide-screen TVs and computer screens. Maybe we’re fat because we don’t do anything anymore—none of us.
I’ll start where obesity starts, with kids and their parents.
Our parents weren’t fat. Oh, some of the women were stout, and some of the men had beer bellies—back then a sign of prosperity and a nobly-lived life. They couldn’t have been fat because they actually did stuff. Most of the men worked in factories or machine shops and spent their eight hours lugging around hunks of steel. Others were mechanics or carpenters or printers, and who knows what else. But they moved all day and, for the most part, didn’t sit in offices and at desks. There were no computers or cell phones, so they couldn’t waste hours sitting still playing solitaire or checking stock prices.
Most of our moms were housewives. They didn’t sit around like lumps either. They washed clothes, ironed, vacuumed, swept, dusted, washed floors on their hands and knees and made breakfast, lunch and dinner. When they needed groceries or clothes for us kids, they—a shocker here—walked to the neighborhood stores. They had to walk because most families had one car, and the fathers took those to work. My ma walked somewhere every day.
Those moms weren’t fitness freaks who believed that kids could live on ionized air and melted glacier water. No, they believed in hearty meals. We ate fatty foods—lots of sour cream, butter and rich and tasty gravies. Pie crusts were made with lard, and fillings with real sugar.
Cauliflower was boiled and then slathered with bread crumbs and melted butter. Same with cabbage. Pork chops were fried in bacon grease. Chicken was baked in a roaster with a couple of sticks of butter for gravy. Pound cake and mashed potatoes were made with butter. We drank chocolate milk and ate cheesy, greasy pizza.
So why weren’t we fat? Because we moved—constantly.
If we weren’t out of the house by eight in the summers, we were told to get out and stay out. It’s not that the parents didn’t love us; they just knew instinctively that kids had to be out in the fresh air playing with their friends. So we did. And it was fun and glorious because we were with our pals and there were no parents hovering around worrying that we might fall and scrape our hands and knees, bump our heads or break a fingernail.
We walked and biked everywhere—to parks where we played ball, to junk-strewn lots where we played guns and army, to the railroad tracks where we put rocks and pennies on the tracks, to magic shops a couple of miles away. We played football, baseball, hide n seek and guns in the narrow streets and 16-foot-wide alleys. We caught spiders, hunted grasshoppers and raced each other for the hell of it. Our dads made us dig weeds in the lawns and cut the grass—with push mowers! We had to wash windows and blinds, sweep sidewalks and basements and otherwise work around the house. Later on, many of the guys had paper routes, which they walked.
During the school months we were in our play clothes and out of the house within 10 minutes of getting home. Here’s another shocker: We walked to and from school! For some kids it was a six-block walk. In kindergarten we were walked by parents, but from the first grade on, by older brothers and sisters. In nine years (1959-1968) of walking to the same grammar school, none of us was ever kidnapped.
We walked home for lunch and then back where we had Playground, which is now called recess, and which is increasingly banned by sissified and terrified school administrators. We chased each other, fought each other, played basketball, dodge ball and other games that are now considered horrifyingly dangerous by parents who are afraid of everything and who think that life is a risk-free proposition.
In the winters we shoveled snow, built snow forts, had snowball fights and played hockey. During the two-week Christmas break we were at Koz or Mozart parks every day, where they flooded the ball fields to make ice rinks, and skated until we dropped or our toes went numb. Then we’d go home, warm up, eat and go back to the park at night to skate some more.
The girls played too, maybe hopscotch and jump rope, who knows. But they were active because none of them were fat either.
As evidence that obesity is related to metabolic and physiological changes in Americans, one journalist who wrote about Sothern’s theory cited statistics. In 2002, middle-aged American men were 27 pounds heavier than guys in 1960, and gals 25 pounds heavier.
To that, we in the neighborhood would say, “No shit.”
In 1960, men and women moved and did physical labor. By 2002, most were behind computer screens and sedentary, and so were their kids. If you eat the same or more and become less physically active, you turn fat.
Rather than blaming obesity on 1950s moms, Sothern should cheer them for having had the common sense to have known that kids needed to be out playing constantly by themselves and burning up all that energy and all those cornflake calories. If she wants to end obesity, it’s simple: stop babying kids and get them playing, walking, fighting, jumping rope and running again, and get Americans out from behind their desks, computers and all-you-can-eat buffets.
And if Sothern wants to be taken seriously, she should slim down her mind; it’s obese with over-educated theory.