Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fettes Brot

On our first day in Germany, someone asked me if I pictured German women as muscular, gruff, and ugly. I deferred to my usual response in an uncomfortable situation, which was to make fun of Jeff. I think I made some comment about his hope that Heidi Klum is the intersection of all tributaries to the German gene pool. But I will admit to having made a few Helga jokes and having heard about a thousand of them from Americans who have never been here.

On the other side of the coin, I'd never thought a lot about the stereotype of American physical appearance before I moved away. I knew we'd get a few questions about George W. and the war, and I knew that American tourists could usually be spotted by identifying their white tennis shoes and loud voices. But I didn't realize that so many people picture the typical American as being fat.

The expectation that we're all bursting at the seams has caused some of the only really prejudicial comments I've heard from Germans in the past few years. Most Americans here who aren't very obviously on the thin side have heard from their doctors, even before a height and weight check, that they need to watch the scale and probably lose a few pounds. When I said I was hankering for American food during my pregnancy, my OB acted surprised and said, "You don't look like you eat like an American." It's come up several times in a friend's German class, and even the teacher argued that most Americans are sedentary and overweight.

Like most stereotypes this one stems from the truth. Many Americans are unhappy with their weight, and our country is, for good or ill, the birthplace of Fast Food (as in the Golden Arches, not fast food as in fresh street food which can be found all over the world. Have I been watching too much Tony Bourdain?). But when I look around at the expats I know, or the tourists I see, I don't notice any more overweight people than I see at my local German grocery store every Saturday. Do Germans think this way because of our exported reality TV? Or because we just can't shut up about it, from celebrity Jenny Craig ads to a million and one diet ideas in our magazines and newspapers?

It has made me consider why Americans imagine German women as Nurse Ratched with an accent, even though most German women - including many, many famous ones (Claudia Schiffer, Marlene Dietrich, Steffi Graf, and our Project Runway Host included) - don't fit that stereotype. Burgundy hair - yes. But burly and frightening? Not in my experience.



Maria said...

OMG! Kevin (my professional athlete husband) was told in France that he is overweight and needs to trim up. I almost died. Then, they told him that his weight is why his achilles tendon tore. Seriously. Twisted.

C N Heidelberg said...

When my inlaws visited us, they were surrounded by hundreds of Germans every day. And about three times within a week, they saw Germans who fit their stereotype and exclaimed, "WOW, he/she looks REALLY German!!!" It was amazing that with all those Germans around, who all looked and were German, they could only see the ones who looked like some gruff boxy stereotype. Maybe those are the only Americans some Germans can see too.

Nicole said...

Because I am fat, I spent a lot of my first few months of living in Europe feeling huge and self-conscious. As much as I was working to fit in by speaking the language, living local, and adopting my Euro-flage, I knew that my American-ness was generally obvious because of the size of my ass.

I got over it. Very few Czechs had any problem with me because I was polite, spoke their language, and loved their country. I had one negative doctor experience, but even that turned out to be kind of funny because the doctor was clearly expecting me--a fat, pregnant woman in the early stages of labor--to be some high risk basket case, while he couldn't even find a single indicator that showed me to be anything but healthy.

American society is absolutely nutso on the weight issue. Other countries are, too, but I think some of that stems from the very American conflation of fat with immorality, over-consumption and sloth and thin with control and virtue.

Maria said...

Interesting perspective Nicole. I wonder if either side looks at the other and is saying "fat" and meaning obese (versus overweight) or overweight-- two very different levels of "fat" IMO. Is one more "immoral" than the other? Hmm... I might borrow that idea for my "A Piece of My Mind" blog this week (unless you object).

Blythe said...

CNHeidelberg, I think you're right. Sometimes I do that when I'm on the plane to Montana. I look for the one or two guys wearing cowboy hats and think, "Yeah, that's Montana for you."

Nicole, I agree, Americans just won't shut up about their weight. That, and money. But every culture has their thing, I guess. Around here it's making sure everyone gets enough fresh air.

Maria, I think it would be interesting if you posted about this too!

Nicole said...

For an interesting perspective on what it means to be "fat"--as defined by that oh-so-wonderful 19th century Belgian tool the BMI--visit Kate Harding's very cool BMI project:

But Maria, to answer your real question, yes, I do think that those of us who are very fat are viewed as being "worse" than those who might be just "chubby". And I know that I now prefer the term "fat" to "overweight" (over whose weight?) and "obese", in part because of what a crock the whole BMI thing is.

According to the BMI, both Brad Pitt and George Clooney are obese.

But I digress.

Thanks for an interesting O.P., Blythe.

Maria said...

I finally got to the post. I had to prepare and influence young minds today. Daunting task to face a room full of high schoolers... well, not too much, but it still took time.