Whether June Cleaver or the rise of processed foods are to blame, America’s collective waistline isn’t as svelte as it used to be.
As the country’s obesity epidemic continues to spiral out of control — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34 percent of American adults are obese with a body mass index of 30 or greater — it’s also fascinating to examine the stuff that’s gradually increased in proportion along with us. And we’re not just talking about brassieres and office chairs.
We can’t help think about that neat party trick where we ply Great-Grandpa Albert with a couple of extra whisky sours during the holidays and he starts in on his classic “When I was your age…” ramblings of the days when he was forced to walk five miles to his one-room schoolhouse (inevitably he was barefoot, it was snowing and the walk was uphill). Years from now, will we find ourselves tediously reflecting on the good old days, when sitting through a Broadway show was anything but a “plush” experience and when ambulances didn’t require special hydraulic lifts? Well, sonny, when I was your age, toilet seats weren’t 19 inches wide with weight capacities of 1,200 pounds.
Below, you’ll find seven unexpected things that have gotten bigger, brawnier and sturdier to keep up with these supersize times.
Toilet seats: From the office to the automobile, the width of the places where we frequently park our posteriors is getting bigger and bigger. And given that we spend years of our lives attending to business while perched upon commodes, it is no surprise that the measure of toilet seats has expanded as well. Well, technically they haven’t, but an American company named Big John does manufacture and market ADA-compliant, 19-inch-wide toilet seats — compared to 14 inches for “normal” seats — that can support up to 1,200 pounds. Featured customers include an array of hospitals and the official hotel of America’s favorite confectionary-themed amusement park, Hersheypark.
Theater seats: We’re certainly not going to complain about this one. According to a 2010 study conducted by theater design firm Theatre Projects Consultants, the typical theater seat of 1990 has jumped from 20 inches wide and 33 inches of legroom to 23 inches wide with 38 inches to stretch out in 2010. In the late 19th century, theater seats were 18 inches. That being said, the study is primarily focused not on traditionally comfort-centric movie theater seating but the effect that expanding seats have on performing arts spaces: “In cinemas it’s expected that patrons will sink back in chairs as comfortable as Barcaloungers with their popcorn and Junior Mints. In live performance, the actors and audience create the performance together. A successful performance requires alert and engaged patrons. Therefore auditorium chairs are quite different than cinema chairs, with less ‘cush’ and more upright posture.”
Theme park ride seats: Some of the “enchanted benches” that magically whip masses of ecstatic Muggles (and their mildly amused chaperones) through Hogwarts Castle on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey robocoaster dark ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando were modified in 2010 to accommodate patrons of decidedly more Rubeus Hagrid-esque proportions. (That's the ride at right.) Prior to this, numerous plump Potter fans were reportedly turned away from boarding the ride because they did not fit securely into the seats. One of these rejected riders included Banks Lee, a determined 300-pound-plus guest who launched a blog chronicling his diet- and exercise-based journey to “fit on the enchanted bench” with the three mandatory “clicks” of the seating restraints. The Daily Mail also reports that in 2011 Thorpe Park in England added two larger seats to a popular roller coaster described as a “mad inverted Hell ride into the fiery pit of a volcano.” We’ll pass on that one. The park’s divisional director Mike Vallis explained: “The reality is that we are super-sizing — and that's a fact we're embracing. Why shouldn't people be comfortable when they are enjoying a day out with their friends or family?"
Church pews: According to a 2004 Slate article documenting the increasingly bloated nature of stuff, even church pews have been subject to an upsizing. Thomas McElheny of “worship furniture” manufacturer Church Plaza explains to Slate that while the standard width allotment per worshipper was once 18 inches, most churches now require 21 inches per worshipper. And when it comes to heft, his company’s pews are designed to accommodate a staggering 1,700 pounds per seat. And somewhat relatedly, because soccer is viewed as a religion by millions of sports fans of all shapes and sizes across the world, we should note that the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be offering special plus-sized seating to attendees with a body mass index of 30 or more.
Home goods: Now that we’ve thoroughly covered plus-size seating arrangements of all stripes, let’s turn our attention to Brylane Home, an online retailer of bariatric-minded household odds and ends where everything is on perma-sale and involves excess fabric, exaggerated dimensions, sturdy frames and generous weight capacities. At the site — which, by the way, was originally a spinoff of the ubiquitous clothier for big-boned and full-bodied women, Lane Bryant, but is no longer affiliated — you’ll find rather hideous oversized bedding sets, jumbo bath towels, a 2-foot-wide recliner with remote control-operated power lift, and a portable folding chair, the King Kong model, that supports up to 800 pounds. In addition to items that themselves are XXL in nature, Brylane Home also sells comfort- and security-boosting personal care items such as telescoping back scratchers and high-capacity digital bathroom scales (shown above).
Ambulances: In order to safely and comfortably transport in-distress passengers of significantly ample carriage, emergency vehicles have been given a bariatric makeover in recent years. As reported by Everyday Health, in 2001 the nation’s top private ambulance provider American Medical Response introduced vehicles with specialized cots able to withstand a maximum of 1,600 pounds — that’s twice the weight limit of older vehicles. From Billings to Bernalillo to the Big Island of Hawaii, cities and towns across the country have introduced these vehicles to their fleets, which, in addition to larger cots, also include extra-wide interiors, ramps, hydraulic patient lifts and other special equipment. In Topeka, Kan., one city with AMR ambulances designed for morbidly obese patients, the corresponding bill for services is significantly heftier as well, leading to accusations of price gouging. “We really think this helps provide dignity to a patient,” AMR public relations manager Douglas Moore tells ABC News in reference to the purpose of the new vehicles, not the egregiously inflated costs of riding in them. Relatedly, CT scanners and surgical tables have also grown in size.
Coffins: The next — and naturally last item — that’s received the plus-size treatment in response to the growing obesity epidemic are coffins. Interment vessels have obviously evolved significantly since the days of simple and inexpensive pine caskets, and one company, Indiana-based Goliath Casket, has emerged to cater to the “funeral needs of the big and tall with 20-gauge steel coffins with extra length, width and depth.” Goliath Casket’s models range in size from 29 inches wide to a super-generous 52 inches wide and 8 feet long. Owner Keith Davis was even taken aback by the popularity of the 52-inch-wide model that was first introduced in the mid-1990s. “We sold 11 that first year, and we fluctuate from six to 12 of the biggest ones each year,” he told ABC News in 2011. He adds: “We're, unfortunately, a necessary frustration. A lot of times, a person's obese loved one has passed away, and they're not sure where to turn for help.” Even the standard casket, not the oversized models that Davis specializes in, has grown larger in recent years from 24 inches to around 28 inches.
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