Fat Like Me
Photos by Mark StoufferJohn B. Good, Fullerton bartender and aspiring magician, strolls through Disneyland's Tomorrowland with gluttonous, gooey smears on his white shirt, remnants of the grease he's wiped from the two turkey legs he's taking turns devouring. Wet stains spread like tiny oil spills under his arms; globules of sweat glisten on his neck, cheeks and upper lip.
Check that: he's not strolling. He's working. Hard. Churning his massive legs through the sea of strollers and the ass-to-crotch crowd marveling at Disneyland's fireworks spectacular. He's a Fat Bastard doing his best to emulate Moses desperately trying to part a Red Sea of bedazzled humanity.
Good is grotesque, a fat fuck with a monster truck spare tire flabbily jiggling from his torso, breasts like a pair of Thanksgiving turkeys and an ass that looks like 25 pounds of oatmeal crammed into a 10-pound polyester sack. He's one of those disgusting, heaving, wheezing, moaning, crimson-cheeked wrecks of humanity that, every time you see them, force two questions: How the fuck can someone do this to themselves? And how the fuck can I prevent it from ever happening to me?
And it's all a put-on. Good is wearing a fat suit, courtesy of Astrid's Costume Attic in Buena Park, and his fleshiness is illusion, courtesy of Anaheim makeup artist Heide Nichols.
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Why is he sweating his ass off at Disneyland? Well, he's being paid, by this very newspaper, to experience firsthand what it's like to be a morbidly obese person at the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland, a cultural symbol of America as iconic as they come.
Call it a pig's-eye view of Disneyland. And you can argue that it's a cheap, lame attempt to make fun of fat people by dressing someone in a suit of foam, rubber and Dacron and unleashing them on Disneyland, a perfectly apropos symbol of American consumerism and over-the-top indulgence. And you're right. In Orange County, there is no target so easy to denigrate, satirize and goof on as Disneyland. And in the United States of America, circa 2005, there's no target so easy to denigrate, satirize and goof on as fat people.
But consider this: most Americans are overweight—slightly more if they read The Orange County Register (just kidding; sort of)—according to the Centers for Disease Control. Thirty-one percent of the country is obese, and other studies suggest 3 percent are morbidly obese—so fat it's likely to kill them.
America is getting fatter, and America loves Disneyland.
A KILLER DIET
Disneyland opened to invited guests on July 17, 1955. It featured 19 attractions. A family of four could walk in for less than a five-dollar bill. There were five themed lands, 900 employees and 25 places to buy food or drink.
In the 50 years since, 12 people have been killed at Disneyland. Senior citizens have had their pelvises fractured, teenagers have had their legs crushed, children have had toes amputated, seven American presidents have visited, there are three times as many attractions and thousands more employees, the price of admission has increased 40-fold and there are eight themed lands.
One thing has stayed eerily consistent: the grub. Although the original park has expanded greatly, there are still only six more places to eat. And the food offered then is still, by and large, the food offered now: hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, candy, ice cream, fried chicken, cookies, sugar-saturated soft drinks, potato chips.
Clearly, Walt Disney knew that the easiest and quickest way to a guest's heart was to offer it the kind of food that, over time, would make it explode.
ON BEING FAT
Good and his two-person entourage roll into Disneyland's immense parking structure—the second-largest in the world—around 6 p.m. on a Saturday, seeking to avoid the worst heat of the day. Astrid, a longtime costumer who has created fat suits and other regalia for the biggest of A-list celebrities, has warned us that if we're not used to lugging around 40 extra pounds of fatty tissue, the heat'll be murder. It's hot, explains Astrid, no ballet dancer herself. And the suit is heavy, difficult to maneuver.
Good is a 24-year-old bartender at the Back Alley Bar and Grill in Fullerton. He may be sporting a few extra Jaeger bombs around his midsection, but he's in no way fat. He had to learn to be fat. In her stuffed-to-the-rafters Buena Park costume shop, Astrid provided Good a primer on being fat. Walk with your toes pointed out; fat people are in a constant battle to balance themselves, she said. Raise your legs slower and don't bolt out of chairs—gravity's a bitch.
"Don't make eye contact with anyone," she said. "It's not that we're ashamed of who we are. We just don't care about your opinion of what we are." And don't dress like an idiot, in blue overalls and a straw hat. "Fat people are people. They want to be like everyone else. They wear the same clothes. They're just a lot bigger."
Our first encounter with a Disney employee is a young parking attendant who takes our money. I tell the kid that we have someone who is a bit overweight in the car. "Is there any way we can park closer?" I ask.
"Do you have a handicapped sticker?" he says.
"He's not handicapped. He's just overweight."
He peers into the car and sees the mass of Good in the passenger seat, a bag of Cheetos spilled on the floor in front of him.
"Oh. Sorry to hear that," he says. And he really looks sorry. "Well, you can try to get closer by telling the attendants up ahead. But if there's no room, he'll have to walk up to the shuttle."
"Is there some way that he can be carried?"
"Can he be carried? He's awfully big . . . it's glandular."
"Uh . . . no, not really."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Good luck."
THE FATTEST PLACE ON EARTH
Anywhere in America is a perfect place to view the chunky, plump, rotund, stout and robust. But there are few places where you can witness the truly elephantine, corpulent, distended and gargantuan. Disneyland is one of them. Anyone who has hung at the park can attest to this fact: fat people are all over Walt Disney's bucolic vision of long-lost America like an 8-year-old fat kid on a box of Ding Dongs. It's tempting to make psychoanalytic generalizations about this phenomenon, so I will: Disneyland is a place designed to convey illusion, fantasy and make-believe. And if you're living in a culture where the dominant visual paradigm is six-pack abs on men and slim women with cheekbones sharp enough to slice someone's jugular, then Disneyland is a suitable venue for denial and avoidance of the cottage cheese accumulating on your rapidly expanding ass.
But there are both more obvious and more complicated paths to explore. The obvious is that America is the fattest country on earth, and Disneyland draws 13 million visitors a year, most hailing from this country. Mathematically, you're going to get a lot of porkers. The more complex is that Disneyland is a quintessentially American byproduct of the consumerism that has, over 229 years, transformed this country from a nation of second-rate disaffected religious separatists and entrepreneurs into a superpower.
Disneyland, like so much of America, is about consuming more than we need. And just as the still-embryonic empire that Walt Disney kick started into full growth mode with the opening of his Anaheim theme park has morphed into a world-straddling business colossus, this nation's waistlines have expanded to gargantuan proportions.
In 1963, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 44.8 percent of the American population was overweight. In 2000, that number had risen to 65.2 percent. In 1963, 13 percent of Americans were obese; in 2000, it was 31 percent. In 1970, 4.5 percent of American children were overweight; in 2002, it was 15.8 percent.
And the fattest are getting fatter. A study published in the February 2005 International Journal of Obesity reported that, in 1990, less than 1 percent of Americans were morbidly overweight; in 2002 that figure had nearly tripled to 2.2 percent, or 5 million Americans.
And they all seem to be coming to ?Disneyland.
Which begs the question: Is it irony, poetic justice or simple direct advertising that many of the trash receptacles at Disneyland are emblazoned with the following words:
We're waiting in line to buy our admission tickets. A petite woman pushing a red-clad toddler in a bright green baby stroller runs over Good's right foot (In real life Good stands just 5'7", but he has size 13 feet.) She stops and is about to utter a hasty apology when she sees Good. Her eyes grow huge, and she continues her journey wordlessly.
Good asks the good-natured middle-aged woman inside the kiosk if there's a way he can get a special-assistance pass.
"What do you need it for?"
"I'm kind of large."
"Oh. Well, you can go to City Hall and ask them."
I notice something on the counter behind her. It's a bag of Cheetos.
"Are you going to eat those?" I ask.
"Those . . . things. Are you going to eat them?"
"Uh. Yeah. I was planning on it."
"Oh. Because my friend's really hungry. He's a hungry beast, and there's a lot to feed."
"Well, there's plenty of places to eat inside the park," she says.
"Where's the nearest one?" Good asks.
She patiently tells us about multiple options just inside the gates.
"There aren't any stands out here," I say, pointing to the huge concrete expanse between Disneyland and California Adventure. "Even cotton candy or something."
"No, sorry. They're all inside the gate."
"It's like he's a cat locked inside a house, salivating at the thought of rivers of canned salmon flowing right outside the door," I say.
"Do we have to walk, or can we get a ride?" says Good.
"You have to walk, hon. But, really, it's not that far."
BROUGHT TO YOU BY . . .
Wonder Bread, Pepsi-Cola, Fritos, Nestl, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Kellogg's: these are a few of the empty-calorie, preservative-laden, sugar-drenched, fat-packing corporate sponsors that have helped underwrite attractions or restaurants at Disney over the years.
INVISIBLE FAT MAN
Our story is simple: if anyone asks why a photographer is following Good through Disneyland, the reply will be that Good is none other than Roscoe Arbuckle, a growing star on the morbidly obese porn circuit. Our photographer, Mark Stouffer, is a German photojournalist on assignment. The Germans eat this shit up. His nom de guerre is Shnikt Kleinhundt. I'm going to stay out of the way and watch what transpires.
We've already decided not to fork out $35 for a motorized vehicle that we can drive across the park. And we're not going to seek out any kind of special-assistance pass that will move Good to the front of lines quicker; they're available, we've heard, but while it's not against Disney policy to wear a fat suit to the park, we're guessing it's highly unorthodox to pretend to be fat in order to obtain a special-assistance pass.
So we walk.
In the next five minutes, we cruise down Main Street, passing two ice cream parlors sponsored by Nestl, a bakery sponsored by Nestl, the Carnation Caf with its chicken pot pies and Mickey waffles, the closed Plaza Inn, which offers (of course) an all-you-can-eat breakfast every morning. Ragtime pours from Refreshment Corner. Smaller boutiques sell everything from saltwater taffy to psychedelic-colored lollipops.
Good is munching on Sweet Tarts and gnawing on a Slim Jim. He's smuggled snacks into the park; our fat bastard is allergic to chocolate. He's genuinely hungry. While Good spent 90 minutes in makeup, Stouffer and I quaffed a couple of pints at Captain Bombay's in Anaheim. He wants Mexican, courtesy of Disneyland's only authentic ethnic cuisine, Rancho del Zocalo, the latest incarnation of the Mexican restaurant that has been on-site almost since Disneyland opened.
But to get there we have to wade through the thousands of people lined up to watch the centerpiece of Disney's 50th-anniversary celebration: Walt Disney's Parade of Dreams, an excruciatingly long if visually stunning tribute to "Disney magic." It's floats, mostly, paying homage to Disney films like The Lion King. We're advancing upon the parade near its tail end: the cheesy strains of "Circle of Life" are pumping as Simba and Nala are surrounded by assorted African wildlife.
I watch to see how people react to Good. The amazing thing is how few actually do; you can't help but notice this candy-popping golem. But most people act as if he's not really there. No one makes eye contact, no one brushes past him. It's like Sue Storm has projected an invisible shield around him. But the instant they pass him, eyes bulge out, jaws drop, people snicker and laugh. And some get genuinely pissed.
As the last float in the parade cruises by, the sea of people parts. We're on our way again. Good, gnawing on his third Slim Jim of the day, waddles onward, ever onward. He's slower than most of the crowd and he's constantly on the verge of being bumped into, but his force field remains in effect. I see a Latino dude almost run into his ass. He drops back a couple of steps and begins warily eyeing Good. He's with his wife and young son, but his attention is on Good. His facial expressions range the entire gamut of emotion from disgust to revulsion. He can't stop looking at the folds of fat cascading over Good's waist or his hideous, almost autonomous rear end. He's muttering something to his wife. I'm not close enough to hear, but I can almost read the lips: "You see that fat fucker?" She looks, and now she can't take her eyes off him. She's mesmerized by lard. This, of course, draws the attention of their kid, who had been transfixed by the cavalcade of Disney characters still in their midst. But now he sees the fat bastard too. He learns in this instant the lesson that will last his whole life: he looks up at his dad's sneering face with a look of confusion. But then he gets it. He looks back at Good, grabs his mother's hand and spits on the ground.
The funniest thing? The guy is bone thin, but his wife is packing a few extra tamales on her hindquarters, and their young boy has obviously discovered the joy of churros.
FRY ME A RIVER
In 1954, Ray Kroc unsuccessfully appealed to Walt Disney to open something called a McDonald's at his park, then still under construction. On Dec. 18, 1998, an old covered wagon in Frontierland became a French fry stand. On sale? McDonald's French fries.
Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante, hosted by Ortega—that's the whole name—is packed. It claims to be authentic Mexican food, but while the menu includes camarones al mojo de ajo and fish tacos Mazatlan, the buffet-style restaurant, like all the food at Disneyland, seems geared exclusively toward quantity rather than quality.
Good stands by himself. Everyone else in the crowded joint is standing shoulder to shoulder. There's about a two-person gap between Good and everyone else. He gets to the counter.
"Everybody else was asked what they wanted," says Good later. "But when it came time for me to order, no one asked. They waited for me to say something."
Good orders a burrito Sonora, a lumpy mass of shredded beef, Cheddar and jack cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla, drenched in a viscous red sauce and topped with even more cheddar and jack cheese and sour cream. He orders two more sides of sour cream and also a red chile enchilada and taco plate.
The chick behind the counter is pleasant enough and doesn't seem affected by his girth or his order. But the instant he picks up his tray and turns toward the cash register, a look of unbelievable shock electrifies her face. She laughs soundlessly, mouths an "omigod," and makes eyes with the food preparers, all of whom nod in unison that they too have witnessed this freak show on legs.
Good's order is a fraction of the food consumed by the rest of these happy, noisy patrons; no one balks at the mountains of nachos, tamales, beans and rice in the mouths, hands, guts and colons of everyone else.
And why should they? Why should they—even for a moment—question the fact that the amount of food they're eating in this single sitting could feed a family of four anywhere in the world, probably even in the barrio that lies a hundred yards from where they're sitting? Why should they once think about themselves or their choices when they've got a big, fat fuck sitting in front of them being a disgusting piece of shit?
The happiest of the Seven Dwarves is, duh, Happy. He's also the fattest. The skinniest of the dwarves is Dopey. He's also borderline retarded.
Few Disney villains are as dastardly as the dog-napping Cruella De Vil or the terrible witch in Sleeping Beauty. They're also emaciated anorexics. Meanwhile, few characters are as lovable as the Jungle Book's Baloo, Dumbo or that honey-guzzling, potbellied Pooh Bear named Winnie.
Clearly, in Walt Disney's wonderful world of imagination, thin is evil and manipulative when it's not just plain dumb. Fat and lumpy, meanwhile, is lovable warm goodness incarnate.
IT AIN'T EASY BEING FAT
I have one goal on this mission: to fulfill a childhood dream by walking into the Blue Bayou, Disney's closest thing to fine dining, waiting for the server to ask Good what he wants and having him reply, "Page two, please."
But that doesn't happen. We're an hour into this, and our fat bastard prima donna is throwing a hissy fit.
"Could you guys walk slower, I'm dying here," Good croaks, leaning on a rail behind Big Thunder Mountain. "This is horrible, absolutely horrible. It's the worst feeling I've ever had."
The fat suit is slowly losing its definition as Good sweats like a typhoon beneath its layers. His thighs are chafing, he says, and his feet are aching. He's downing water like a camel after 40 days in the Negev Desert and is beginning to pant. "No one is looking at me. No one touches me. If this is how it feels to be really fat, it sucks. Can we go?"
"But we haven't done anything yet," I tell him.
"You haven't done anything. But I have," he retaliates. He's really angry; this is no act. "I'm being fat!"
I tell him we have a job to do, he's committed to this, and if he doesn't like being fat maybe he ought to throw in a salad from time to time.
"Fuck off," he huffs. He girds up his fat suit again and trundles toward the gleaming spires of Sleeping Beauty's enchanted castle.
INTO THE MAW
According to one of the ubiquitous websites about Disneyland, in one calendar year, Disneyland guests buy: 4 million hamburgers, 1.6 million hot dogs, 3.4 million orders of French fries, 1.5 million servings of popcorn, 3.2 million servings of ice cream, 1.2 million gallons of soft drinks and 2.8 million churros.
"As someone who wakes up every day in a fat suit, I'll tell you it's no picnic being this way," says Astrid, our costumer, obviously in full pun mode. Our makeup artist, Heide, can empathize. She's the first to admit that she's carrying a few dozen extra pounds.
But how did she get so big? How does anyone get this big? And why are we, as a people, getting fatter and fatter?
In his book Fat Land,Greg Critser explains the complicated matrix at work in what he terms the obesity epidemic: the confluence of governmental, agricultural, industrial, economic and social factors that helped spark the overeating of high-sugar, high-fat foods, on one hand, and a lack of exercise, on the other. The junk food explosion of the 1970s was spurred in large part by new technologies that allowed high-fructose corn syrup to be used as a cheap substitute for sugar and highly processed palm oil as a cheap substitute for fat. It was suddenly cheaper than ever to manufacture shit—shit that tasted really, really good. Combine that with high-profit fast-food value meals, fewer people eating at home, cash-strapped school systems eagerly accepting subsidies from soft drink and fast food companies in the form of contract commissions, and a decrease in the need for physical activity (in this age of freeways and DVDs, exercise requires conscious choice), and it's no surprise our guts are expanding and our arteries are hardening.
But, still, it's all about over-indulgence, right? People who drink too much alcohol get fleshy and flabby and their livers give out, right? People who do too much coke die of heart attacks, right? People who eat a lot and don't move around enough to burn it off get fat, right?
Well, sure. In many cases. But consider a person like Heide. By any measure, she's overweight. But she has a kind, generous soul and is cheerful to a fault, even if she has every reason to be bitter. But as we explained to her, somewhat reluctantly, that we needed someone to make Good look really fat, she was full of ideas. Later, she explained that she used to be a child dancer—at Disneyland. At 19, she suffered a horrible fall that broke her hip. That led to chronic hip trouble. It severely affected her mobility, and, over time, the pounds have accumulated.
"If you've never been fat, you just can't understand what it's like," she said, dabbing at Good's fingers in her Anaheim kitchen to make them look like sausages. "And if you were never fat before and then all of a sudden become fat . . . it's something no one would ever choose to be."
A protein spill is the code among Disneyland's "cast members" that a child's vomit needs to be mopped up.
HAIL, FELLOW WELL-FED
We've heard that most of the rides at Disneyland can accommodate just about the fattest of fat asses. But we might have a problem with the ones in Fantasyland. So here we are, outside Pinocchio's Daring Journey. It takes about five minutes to get to the front of the line. For the first time in the nearly three hours we've spent here, a Disney employee talks to Good before Good says anything.
"She told me to have a good time on the ride," says Good, who worked at Disneyland for several years. "I realized that until then no employee had initiated contact with me. I had to almost confront them into going into their show, which is the fake, pretend, you're-happy thing that Disney drills into you. It's like most of them wanted nothing to do with me. They all waited for me to say something; if they didn't, no one talked. Except her."
She was also the plumpest cast member we saw that day who wasn't in a costume.
DON'T BE A LAYER HATER
With the night winding down, Good decides to check out a relatively new attraction in Tomorrowland: the interactive, high-tech world of Innoventions, which one Internet wag describes as a half-closed Circuit City located in the Twilight Zone. While standing in the five-minute line, Good hears someone humming behind him. It's a kid, somewhat punkishly dressed, and he's making up a song to the piped-in instrumental music.
"He was basically improvising about what a disgusting gross fat guy this person in front of me is," Good says later. "I turned around and saw that both he and his girlfriend were fat-ass motherfuckers. I wanted to rip off my suit and scream at them that they're the fat ones, not me. But I didn't. It would have taken too much effort."
All in all, what Mr. Good and entourage learned is that Disney does nothing to keep fat people from its park. From the plentiful food options to the XXXX shirts sold at most kiosks, fat people are embraced as any other segment of the population. But it's what isn't said that made the mental experience of wearing a fat suit at Disneyland more harrowing than the physical exhaustion and near heat stroke.
"It was a horrible experience for me," Good says later. "It was hot and it was tiring and it was a lot of work just moving around. But it was even worse mentally. When you're normal-sized, people bump into you all the time. It just happens. But being that big, no one wanted to touch me. No one even wanted to look at me. From the minute I walked in there, I started feeling fat. It really got into my head. The employees were nice enough if I started conversations with them, but when I walked away I could feel their stares. And I could always hear people talking shit behind me. To my face they wouldn't do anything. But once I passed, they'd start. It was really kind of horrible."
The only people who treated Good like a fellow passenger on this train called Earth? "Other fat people. They'd all look at me like, 'Hey, what's up, buddy?' Like we're in the same clan or something. That was weird. I think they must be used to how other people look and treat them. I wasn't."
Good is as convinced as ever that he'll never become that huge. "Personally, I'm never going to be fat." And while he says he hasn't changed his opinion of the really overweight—"I still kind of hate them because they're grossly fat"—he has changed his opinion of people like himself. "I don't like the way people treated me, or the way they treat fat people," he says. "I guess it's cool to hate all you want. But it ain't cool to show you hate."
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