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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Manufacturers catch up to their supersized consumers

Originally published Jan. 14, 2006, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

Ever since I can remember, there has been a quiet denial in our society of those who don’t fit within acceptable size standards.I remember desperately wanting a Jockey bra-and-panty set when I was in the fifth grade. All of my friends had them, and they were enviably cute. Not only did the cotton set match, they had the coolest elastic bands that went around the rib cage on the bra and the waist on the panties in contrasting colors. Sadly, Jockey did not make these sets for an almost-200-pound girl. These lingerie sets were more about style than function.

Looking back, I imagine they were created for pre-pubescent girls to emulate their older sisters and moms. But when I was 10, I needed support, and that didn’t come in a stylish manner. I remember begrudgingly nodding when my mom would point out various styles of Playtex’s 18-Hour bras. As if the lace was supposed to make me feel as cool as the other girls at school. I didn’t throw a temper tantrum about not getting what I wanted. I wasn’t a na├»ve kid. I knew my size limited my choices and that I needed to be happy with what I got.

As I grew up, I became bitter at the industries that seemed to ignore consumers of my size. By the time I was in college, I realized that I had a choice. As a consumer, I could use the power of my dollar to make a statement by supporting size-friendly businesses. An added bonus was that it was less embarrassing to tell my friends I only bought clothes at Lane Bryant because I liked how the store empowered plus-size women to be fashionable instead of admitting that I couldn’t find clothes in regular stores that fit me.

After working in the casual-dining industry, I discovered that most restaurants kept armless chairs handy for larger customers. Before being seated, I would often ask for a table with those chairs. Occasionally, I’d get a blank look from a hostess, but I would stand my ground to prevent the embarrassment of a companion not being able to fit in a booth or wedge herself into a standard-size chair.

Little did I know that manufacturers were starting to take notice of the expanding girth of their consumers.

I bought a brand-new Mitsubishi in 2003. To be honest, I didn’t want another Mitsubishi. I had just totaled a Mirage. It seemed to be a courtship with disaster to replace it with similar car. But when I researched cars, I came upon a startling fact: The 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer had seats a few inches wider than any other car in its class. Not only that, but the seat belts were six inches longer, and there was an extra inch or two of head and leg room. The Lancer became a desired car because it would comfortably accommodate both me and my tall, skinny husband.

Two weeks ago, USA Today reported that other automakers have followed suit. Honda’s 2006 Civic offers front seats almost an inch wider than its 2005 model, according to an article published Jan. 3. Mercedes-Benz and Subaru have done the same in some of their models marketed to U.S. customers.

And it’s not just automakers who’ve noticed their consumer base growing in width. Scripps Howard News Service reports that coffin-makers are increasing the size of their caskets to meet the needs of larger people. It’s a lucrative move, if you believe the Trust for America’s Health study that blames obesity for 400,000 American deaths each year.

Caskets used to be built with a standard interior width of 22 to 24 inches, according to the article published last April. Southern Heritage Casket Co., in Oxford, Ala., offers a line of oversize caskets up to 44 inches wide. Batesville Casket Co. of Indiana offers 13 oversize models under its Dimensions brand.Indiana’s Goliath Casket Co. gives new meaning to the term “supersize.”

The company now offers a 52-inch casket — which is a little bit wider than a standard pickup, according to the company’s owner.

“The 44-inch, 48-inch, 52-inch are for body weights between 650 and 1,200 pounds,” owner Keith Davis said in the SHNS article. “There are extra supports to make sure the weight doesn’t cause the casket to break.”

On one hand, I’m happy to see manufacturers finally realize that our society is not the same size as the celebrities it covets. On the other, I find this trend depressing.I think we should all be accepted for whatever size we are, but the fact that there is a market out there for coffins that support corpses between 650 and 1,200 pounds proves that obesity is truly epidemic — and we pay for it with our lives.

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