Fat Boys and Buff Toys

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I have been thinking about the correlation of two disturbing trends in American children.

According to the research conducted by Massachussetts psychiatrist Harrison G. Pope Jr., the popular G.I. Joe action figure has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis since 1964. Jonathan Rauch, writing in the November 2000 Reason magazine, summarized Dr. Pope's findings:

In 1964, G.I. Joe sported a respectable but unremarkable physique; if he were five feet, 10 inches, he would have had a 32-inch waist, a 44-inch chest, and thin 12-inch arms. By 1991, G.I. Joe’s waist had shrunk to 29 inches, and his arms had grown to 16. He had, in other words, become a bodybuilder. Star Wars action figures--Luke Skywalker and Han Sol--were ordinarily athletic in 1978, but by 1995 they were on steroids.

The idealized images of masculinity presented to children are physically more powerful than ever before, to the point of exaggeration. But what is happening to the children themselves? According to the study Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance 2005, prepared by Washington DC's Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy (www.iom.edu):

Over the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and it has more than tripled for children aged 6-11 years. At present, approximately nine million children over 6 years of age are considered obese.

How do we reconcile these two apparently contradictory trends: we are raising fatter (and correspondingly, weaker and unhealthier) youngsters while cultivating them to believe in ever more powerful and stronger body images.

In the weird world of American thought, there is no contradiction. As I wrote a few months ago in an article on the U.S. culture of incompetence, we have become so image-riddled that we no longer recognize that the image is not the thing itself. Our politicians have fueled this evolution for decades, for two reasons: first, because they themselves have come to believe that battles are won or lost based on spin, rather than actualities of wealth and poverty, life and death, or other real world indices of success and failure. That is why unspinnable events, such as Hurricane Katrina or the explosion of a shuttle, are so shocking to us. Secondly, to the extent that the people in power are even aware of the contradiction, they certainly regard it as being part of an approach that creates complacent, satisfied voters.

Children, like the adults who foster them and who they will ultimately replace, believe that idolizing strength, playing at being strong, and talking of strength makes them strong. The American voter, like the American consumer (same person), has been told for many decades that you can have something for nothing: weight loss without dieting or exercise; phsyical strength without pain. The problem with this is that, based on this self-delusion, we will get in fights we can't win. The Roman empire went through a similar evolution, in which its actual strength faded much more quickly than its self-image, until the shock of the loss of Rome to the barbarians, less than five hundred years after Caesar, administered a correction. I do not know if Al Qaeda is the modern barbarian horde. But it certainly aspires to be.

The Bush administration promised us a war without sacrifice, without a draft, a war which could take place in the same breath as tax cuts. This administration, and the Iraq war it started, are the product of a fat kid dreaming that he has the power of a pumped-up G.I. Joe.