The title of this blog is slightly misleading because there are, in fact, fat people in Arlington — just not too many, at least by national standards. The U.S is currently fatter than it has ever been and it only looks like we’re going to get even fatter in the future. But if you happen to live in a highly educated, wealthy urban area, you may be wondering where all these fat people are. Among certain Arlington/DC circles, specifically, the college-educated, upwardly mobile crowd, fatness is almost non-existent. Although I live in the outer reaches of the D.C suburbs, I do try to spend time in Arlington and D.C; I work near Arlington and when I go out, I usually go out in Arlington. Plus, my sister lives in D.C and being in an “urban” environment from time to time makes me feel better about the fact that I live in Centreville, land of cookie-cutter developments, manicured lawns and suburban sprawl.
I’ve been doing a lot of walking and biking on Arlington trails and I’ve noticed something over the last few months: People seem to take fitness very seriously. And I’m not the only one who has noticed; apparently, D.C is the second fittest city in the U.S. I am a kind-of newly single size 12 28-year-old and I’ve found myself asking: Can I compete against size 2 marathon runners in this city? I can only run 48 seconds and I have no illusions that I will ever be a size two. I sometimes feel like I live in the wrong city. I’ve visited other places, like rural Iowa, for example, and I felt great. I felt like hot stuff. Yes, I even felt that I was thinner than most people I saw. But this is not the case in D.C. People are always signing up for 10Ks, half marathons, full marathons, triathlons and accomplishing all kinds of impressive fitness feats. They do yoga and Pilates and eat quinoa and organic free-range chicken. When I hang out with Arlingtonians and DCers they casually mention they “can’t drink too much” because they’re running 11 miles in the morning. Really? That would be the crowning accomplishment of my fitness life and they’re dropping it in like it’s no big thing.
My job is just two miles from the Arlington portion of the WO&D Trail so I sometimes drive down to Glencarlyn Park after work to take a walk or go on a bike ride. Yesterday, I decided to pay special attention to my fellow trail-users. I was surrounded by girls with chicken legs (said with no contempt — how I would love to have chicken legs), guys with six-packs and zero ounces of fat on their bodies, flat abs, flat butts — people who can wear shorts without fear of exposed muffintops, cellulite or cankles. There is nothing short of a large economic incentive that would get me to wear shorts in public, even in 100 degree, 100 percent humidity weather. People wear actual biking uniforms as if they were racing in the Tour de France and have all kinds of official looking backpacks, fanny packs, cellphone holders and headphones. I found myself wondering, if this is what success looks like in DC am I going to have to play this game if I want to be successful.
I went out in Arlington last week and as soon as I walked into the bar it was very apparent that I was the largest person there. After four glasses of wine it didn’t bother me much but I did start thinking about something: What is it that makes DC residents and Arlingtonians so fit? Is it that the kind of people willing to pay $2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment are naturally the kind of people who go running on the Potomac everyday, buy all-organic produce at Wholefoods and Trader Joe’s and spurn hot dogs D.C is a competitive place. In certain neighborhoods, everyone has a B.A, most people have a graduate degree, and “smart” and “ambitious” aren’t distinguishing factors that deserve mention. Are these kinds of people just more likely to take care of their bodies? Is this a class issue? Because, as non-politically correct as this may sound, fitness and thinness seem to be a characteristic relatively unique to the upwardly mobile, at least in the U.S. How many obese CEOs, politicians or think-tank project managers can you think of?
I have my theories about what makes D.C and Arlington meccas for the fit and firm — namely that DC residents and Arlingtonians are probably younger and more motivated than people in most cities, they are often idealistic and many want to change the world and are into being their best selves — but I decided that the best tactic would be to discuss the matter with a brilliant UVA-educated urban design major (my brother). So I asked him “Why do you think D.C is so fit?” and he responded (please note that because I’m quoting him as my expert, I’ve cleaned up his prose and grammar): “Young, upper-middle class college-educated elite — urban professionals — move to this area. Also, there is a great park system and good mass transit. The city is walkable with lots of public recreation space.” That sounded good, but I was hungry for more opinions, so I got on Gmail to see what other people think. My best friend said she doubted my assertion but if she absolutely had to give an answer it was “maybe cause they walk places.” Yes, this might be true, but people walk places in lots of cities and while that may explain the overall thinness of D.C, it doesn’t particularly explain the fitness craze (the marathons, triathlons, etc.). My sister, an Eastern Market resident, said: “I don’t know because I don’t think image is as important as it is in other cities.” Arlington is not the kind of place where you see a lot of lipstick or bold eye makeup on a day-to-day basis, and most girls look like they purchase their entire wardrobes from Anne Taylor or J-Crew, so we’re not talking about a lot of booty-tight pants and low-cut shirts a la Miami or L.A. Subtle is the name of the game here. But I wanted more so I asked my sister to think a little harder. She said “I think there are probably a lot of driven people in the city who are just very disciplined in all facets of their lives.” I think this is very true. People here are ambitious. Not really in a make money/get rich kind of way, but in a get power or make a lasting, significant difference kind of way. Though there are plenty of people who make a lot of money doing one of these two things. I guess if you are the kind of person who believes you can change the world, you might as well feel and look good doing it and running a 10K really is no big thing.
To test my sister’s theory out, I posed the same question to my cousin, one of the fittest and most ambitious people I know (who used to live in Crystal City) and it went down like this:
Me: Why do you think people in D.C and Arlington are so fit?
Cousin: …there are some fat people, especially in the poorer areas.
(At this point I realized how skewed my worldview is and felt ashamed)
Cousin: Upscale people have the time to exercise and the money to eat well and the education to know that too many hamburgers will give you a heart attack.
Me: Any other thoughts?
Cousin: People are also vain and into physical appearances.
Me: What is your reason for saying that?
Cousin: Based on all the magazines selling images of “sexy” fit people and diets and fitness plans and my own experience, that I like to look good and part of my motivation for working out is to keep pudge off the belly even if it is an endless and nearly impossible struggle the other part is that it feels good to be fit and exercise for me is addictive.
Of all the things I have been addicted to…Diet Pepsi, Vietnamese summer rolls, Cadbury eggs, cookies and cream ice cream, Doritos, icing…why has exercise always eluded me.
During my informal survey, education and relative affluence seemed to be the biggest reasons people believe the D.C area is so fitness crazed. Another friend, a rare Arlingtonian native who is in great shape, has a great job and is very driven, answered my question by saying “[the D.C Area is] highly educated and affluent which is correlated with high exercise levels and eating healthy (i.e. they can afford Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s).” When I asked her to expand she said, “Well if you are more educated you likely care more about your body and the food you put in it. Also, it’s part of upper society ethos to be active and fit. Also, I think well-educated and affluent people understand the potential benefits. For instance, attractive and fit people are more likely to be in upper management positions and get promotions.” Another friend, one of those infuriatingly naturally thin, highly intelligent and disciplined types said: “People are educated and wealthy.” When I asked her what this means she said, “Many of them grow up in a culture that values fitness and athleticism and a certain ideal body type, and they have grown up on healthy foods as well, so they continue it into their adulthood. They also have enough extra income to buy gym memberships and nice bikes and rock-climbing gear, and they have leisure time to use it.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I have never been thin. I remember being at least 10 pounds heavier than all the other kindergartners in Mrs. Monk’s class. While I was tipping the scale at 55 pounds, the vast majority of my puny classmates were barely hitting 40. In my defense, I was a tall kindergartner But I have accepted that I will forever have cankles and I will never be able to use the words slender and legs in the same sentence. However, despite the fact that I am constantly surrounded by girls who don’t have to lay down and suck in to zip up their pants, I have one source of consolation: A government study showing that Hispanics are the longest living ethnic group in the U.S, despite the fact that we are, plainly speaking, pretty fat as a group. So in all likelihood, I will make it to 83.1 years-old despite the cankles. Yay! To find out more, click here.