Mugger: Fat Chance

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The constant drumbeat of medical and sociological studies dutifully reported by the media every week or so can lead an attentive reader to the point of the despair that so many Mets fans are experiencing as the baseball season winds down this week. Nearly every American is fat, it seems, and if you’re not, it’s best not to keep company with those who are, lest the friendship change your own metabolism over time. Adolescents are binge drinking, don’t know much about history, engage in casual sex and count Big Macs instead of sheep while trying to fall asleep.

These revelations, often contradictory, aren’t new, of course, just more prolific in a world that increasingly explodes with information. For example, my two sons, now 13 and 15, were born in New York-Presbyerian Hospital on the Upper East Side and were attended by the same obstetrician, an accomplished doctor who had the full confidence of my wife. You’d expect that the pregnancy regimen offered within a span of 22 months would be roughly the same, but that wasn’t the case. In 1992, the doctor told my wife that alcohol was strictly prohibited, as was caffeine, along with the obvious ban on tobacco. Message received, and so Melissa would drink club soda while I polished off another cocktail at Odeon or Ecco. Nearly two years later, the rules had changed: a cup or two of coffee a day presented no risk, the doctor said, and she upped the ante—to my wife’s delight—allowing that a glass or two of wine each week might relieve any anxiety.

This isn’t meant to cast any aspersions on the particular physician, but rather to illustrate how quickly medical opinions can change and the confusion that might understandably ensue. I’ve no idea what advice expectant mothers receive today, but it’s a safe bet that there’s a new set of do’s and dont’s.

Last July, within the space of nine days, two stories about adolescent sex, both citing new analyses on the subject, reported opposite conclusions. An Associated Press dispatch (July 13) led with this paragraph: “Fewer high school students are having sex these days, and more are using condoms. The teen birth rate has hit a record low.” I raised an eyebrow at that finding—kids are kids, after all—but didn’t think much of it. Then, on July 22, Washington Post reporter Rob Stein informed his readers: “The long decline in sexual activity among U.S. teenagers, hailed as one of the nation’s most important and public health successes, appears to have stalled.”

As the father of two outgoing, healthy teenagers, I have an interest in such matters—whether it’s sex, drugs, drinking or the consumption of fast food—but I’d rather keep my own counsel than rely on “nanny state” politicians like Mike Bloomberg or the raft of white papers released by universities or the federal government. It’s not in vogue, at least from what one reads, but like my own dad, I’m not a “birds and bees chat” kind of fellow. About a year ago, I made a stab at this kind of conversation with my older son and ultimately felt kind of foolish. After beginning with an earnest, “Now, Nicky, as a middle school teenager, you ought to realize…” and being met with a stare of disbelief, I simply muttered, “Mom and I would love to be grandparents, if that’s what you want to do, but not in the near future.”

Perhaps this is naďve, but do parents really believe that the media’s fascination with no-commitment “hook-ups” and “rainbow” condom parties are all that different from teenage recreation a generation ago? Back then, the equivalent of a hook-up was a “one-night stand,” and not many people really thought twice about it—boys or girls. One afternoon during freshman orientation at college, two new friends disappeared from a keg party for a short period, and later I asked Joe what had taken place. “Oh, it was cool. We went back to my room, I screwed her with my boots on and then went to the cafeteria for dinner.” His temporary partner, grilled by another acquaintance, was equally nonchalant.

Obviously, the terrifying onset of AIDS in the mid-80s changed the equation to a degree, and the safety precautions, but I find the contrasting reports of kids increasingly treasuring their virginity while others “score” for the first time in fifth grade equally unbelievable.

As for binge drinking, it seems unlikely that its prevalence among youths is much different from preceding generations. Joseph Califano, an LBJ cabinet member, who must be about 105 by now, sounded an alarm last May in his position as director of Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. “The children thing is important,” he said. “Probably the most important thing we’ve learned here is that if a kid gets through the age of 21 without smoking, drinking, doing drugs or abusing alcohol, that kid is virtually certain to be home-free for the rest of their life.”

Probably so, but is this breaking news? Binge drinking, according to the experts, is, for males, the consumption of five or more drinks during one session. Visit any bar in town after 5 p.m., whether they feature “happy hour” specials or not, and you’ll find a lot of “binge drinkers” of all ages. Why this admittedly potential problem has recently been pinned on today’s youth is puzzling. I happen to be in favor of television and print advertising of all kinds, but if the U.S. Surgeon General and bureaucrats like Califano are so distraught over the suspicion of an alcohol epidemic, then why not prohibit Budweiser and Coors commercials and newspaper ads promoting those brands just as cigarette come-ons were outlawed in the 1960s?

Finally, does anyone believe that the strictures against trans fat—thanks a lot, Mayor Mike—that have spread across the country will do anything to curb Americans from putting on extra pounds? I, too, find it disturbing that when attending a movie theater, say, what not so long ago was considered a “large” cup of Coke is now a “medium,” but a consumer ought to have the right to make his or own dietary choices. If you want to lose weight, eat less.

The obesity obsession is getting out of control. Two weeks ago, when I took my younger son to Brooks Brothers for his school chinos, the salesman whispered to me, “I think he needs a ‘husky.’” Yeah, so what? He’s a teenager who’s growing up with the normal body swings that result from puberty. As it happens, Booker drew a favorable genetic card on the metabolism front, and in all likelihood will be a beanpole for most of his life. But I’m glad he didn’t hear the “husky” admonition; that might’ve caused a stigma resulting in visits to the doctor for an antidepressant prescription.

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