It's not just our waistlines that are expanding.

The way things look.
March 3 2004 10:59 AM

Supersize It

Our waistlines aren't all that's expanding—our stuff is, too.

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George Farquhar once said that necessity was the mother of invention, but we know that to be nonsense, really: Who needs an iPod that holds 10,000 songs? There is, however, one area of life in which technology keeps step with nature—the size of things. As we Americans are getting bigger (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimate that roughly a third of Americans are overweight, with 20 percent of us qualifying as obese), so, too, is our stuff.

Take our seats, for instance. Irwin Seating, a Michigan company that supplies the AMC and Regal cinema chains, has found that the movie theater industry now demands increasingly wide seats: The standard width used to be 19 inches, but now, according to Irwin, the bench mark is 23 inches. A popular Irwin model, "the Ambassador," is 23 inches wide, includes flip-up arms for easy access, and a drink holder wide enough to hold a 44-ounce soda.

The trend continues into every corner of our sitting lives. Cars are getting larger, of course—the 2004 Ford Excursion fits eight average-size passengers (or roughly six obese ones). And apparently so are the people driving them—the Excursion's driver's seat is 40 inches wide. The same goes for our places of worship. Thomas McElheny, the CEO of Church Plaza, a manufacturer of "worship furniture" based in Florida, says that whereas 18 inches per worshipper used to be the allotment when fitting for pews, most churches now require 21 inches. Church Plaza's pews have been made to support an almost miraculous 1,700 pounds per seat. "The last thing you want is the tragedy of a chair collapsing in church," McElheny says.

But it's not only more sitting space we require. We also need more room to get into and out of the places where we're sitting, or working, or shopping, as the case may be. Revolving doors are thus getting wider. The average width for revolving doors used to be about 6 feet, or 3 feet per compartment. But these days, says Tim Mohl, of Horton Automatics, a revolving-door maker in Corpus Christi, Texas, he rarely installs anything narrower than 8 feet. "We're just figuring that people are a little larger now." Horton has models that stretch up to 18 feet, particularly popular with Las Vegas casinos.

Horton also makes those extra-large automatic sliding doors you find in the new breed of superbig supermarkets—where, not surprisingly, the aisles have also widened. Supermarket aisles used to be about 5 feet wide; they are now 7 to 7 1/2 feet. This trend is not meant to accommodate larger shoppers, according to industry insiders, but rather to allow for larger carts, which range in size from pretty big (over 3 feet in width) to, in stores such as Costco, platform-on-wheels big (designed to carry several hundred pounds of food). The larger carts allow for larger products—the 4-gallon drum of mayonnaise, the jumbo pack of pork chops—which are made for bargain shoppers with larger appetites.

So are the huge stores making us huge? Or are they huge because we are? Is it even possible to say? Trying to determine cause and effect, one inevitably finds oneself in a kind of What Came First conundrum, the Fried Chicken or the Extra-Large Egg?

Unfortunately, none of the designers or executives I spoke to was able to answer these questions. Nor did the federal government have much to offer. While it's true that certain things in America (elevators, wheelchair ramps) are more plentiful and bigger these days thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act, when it comes to larger people, the ADA is not very helpful. The only place where obesity seems to be addressed on the ADA Web site is in the "Myths and Facts" section—"MYTH: The ADA protects people who are overweight. FACT: Just being overweight is not enough. ... The Department has received only a handful of complaints about obesity."

But let's get to the important question: What to wear while you're shopping in the 7 1/2 foot-wide supermarket aisle or watching a movie in the 23-inch Irwin Ambassador?

For football enthusiasts, Russell Athletic now makes an XXXXXL (that's five X's) team jersey. This fits a 62-inch-wide chest and an even larger belly, if the jersey's mesh-blend stretchiness is put to full use. But high-end clothiers have also come to recognize the value of getting into plus sizes, which now account for about 5 percent to 10 percent of the male clothing market and, by some estimates, as much as 20 percent of the female market. At Rochester Big & Tall, the country's largest clothing store chain for the plus-size male, you can now purchase clothing made by Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and even suits by Ermenegildo Zegna (whose advertisements feature the wafer-thin actor Adrien Brody).

There's no question the market for products custom-made for the heavy set is burgeoning. If Tiffany can't supply you with a suitable plus-size band, you can find one at Winged Elephant, a Kent, Wash., jewelry designer that offers rings, necklaces, bracelets, and "hair-sticks" for the "style-conscious BBW"—that's Big, Beautiful Woman. A Bearville, N.Y., company called Amplestuff offers XL umbrellas, XL bicycle helmets, seat-belt extenders for car and airplane seats, leg lifters (for those who can't lift their own), and the Ample-Sponge, a brick-sized sponge attached to a bendable plastic handle specially designed for reaching between folds of flesh. Amplestuff's motto: "Make your world fit you!"

Finally, in the event that you should succumb to the heart disease, diabetes, or risk of stroke that the CDC warns are several times more likely to occur with obesity, you can take solace that even death can be made to fit. At Goliath Casket Inc., in Indiana, orders for specially made double-wide caskets have skyrocketed, says a spokesperson for the company. Goliath introduced a 52-inch model in July (a standard casket is 24 inches wide), and it is already on back order, despite the casket's own weight—200 pounds—the $1,000-plus cost of shipping it out of state, and the fact that it can only be towed on the back of a flatbed truck. (Goliath admits that, as yet, no known hearses can carry its double-wide model.)

If we reduced the size of our stuff, would we shrink accordingly? Maybe, maybe not. But in the meantime, there's one thing we can be sure of: We're more comfortable. Who wants to return to the days when you had to squeeze by other patrons in the supermarket? Commodiousness means comfort. Roominess is happiness. Bigger is better.

You can read James Verini's other work at www.jamesverini.com.