Go big or go home. He who dies with the most toys wins. There's no end to the figures of speech we've created to explain—or is it justify?—our growing belief that bigger=best. Sarah Z. Wexler, a resident of one of America's largest cities—New York City—traveled around the country exploring this idea in her new book, Living Large. From test-driving Hummers to getting a plastic surgery consultation to seeking out the world's largest ball of twine, Wexler chronicles her adventures with wit, humor and insight. She answered a few questions for us about the topic and the inspiration behind Living Large.
This is your first book—can you tell us a little about how you chose the subject?
I got the idea because one time I went back to Northern Virginia to visit my parents, and I noticed that more and more, small businesses were being replaced by big-box stores, perfectly nice houses from the 1950s and '60s were being bull-dozed to build identical McMansions, with a super-sized SUV in every driveway. It seemed like the norms were shifting, as they had in fast food, where a large is labeled medium, and XL is labeled large, etc, but with everything. I wanted to understand how all of these super-sized things about American life were connected, and why we were defaulting to XXL as the new norm.
There are moments in the book when you seem to be seduced by the larger lifestyle yourself—the Hummer chapter comes to mind! Did you expect to have that reaction?
Definitely not! My goal was to go into every chapter with an open mind and earnestly try to understand what people were getting out of super-sizing this aspect of their lives. But some chapters, like the Hummer, I had a difficult time putting my preconceptions aside and really struggled with it, since I had a lot of judgments about people who drive Hummers. That's why I was surprised that when I drove one myself, after getting over the initial terror of driving something that felt like a school bus, that I was seduced by the comfort, the feeling of safety and machismo and superiority. I understood the appeal--and I understood why I needed to get out of the car, stat!
Is there a time when bigger IS better?
The biggest ball of twine, or the biggest cow sculpture, those kinds of Big America roadside attractions, are just fun, wacky Americana. And there are times when bigger certainly feels better—like saving time when shopping at a big-box store and buying a T-shirt along with Windex and a gallon of milk, for example. If you'd asked me when I was trying on three-carat engagement rings at Tiffany's, or even trying on triple-D breast implants at a plastic surgeon's office, if bigger is better, I would've had to answer yes. But once I did the research about the impact of these choices, bigger consumption is rarely better—it rarely leads to us being happier, better off or more fulfilled.
Did researching the book change any of your own daily habits?
After spending time at the country's largest landfill, I became completely paranoid about how much trash I create, so I've tried to cut down on buying things with lots of packaging that goes straight to landfills. I got rid of my SUV and take public transportation. I also promised myself that whenever possible, I'd avoid shopping at big-box stores. Though you can save about 15% by shopping at a Wal-Mart, in communities where Wal-Marts have opened, the unemployment rate goes up, and participation in PTA groups and even voter registration goes down. The impact on my community is not worth it to me to save a few bucks on dish soap.
One of the things you investigated here is the backlash to the "more more more" stuff—like freeganism, a lifestyle you conclude is just as unsustainable. Can you tell us more about that?
Freegans were fascinating to me, because they live entirely on what the rest of us throw away. They're the antithesis of "living large." It's not that they're financially forced to do it—they're making a conscious choice and a political statement about waste and American excess, and most of them claim they live very well. But even if you can get over the idea of foraging for your dinner in the trash, freeganism is unsustainable for the majority of Americans, because if we all started living off the excess, there wouldn't be enough waste-makers to provide the excess. It's a fascinating ideology, and I learned a lot by Dumpster diving with freegans, but to suggest my mom or my grandma get her food or clothes that way would be completely unrealistic.
A lot of the people you talked to—from Tiffany's store owners to the manager of the MGM Grand—seemed to think that their luxury businesses were here to stay despite the recession. What do you think is the future of the "living large" movement?
Americans have short-term memories. Many Americans have had to downsize in the recession, especially those who lived large above their means; for example, eight times as many McMansions are in foreclosure as the national housing average. But as long as we continue to see living large as good, a sign of success, influence and prosperity, and downsizing as a punishment, when we have money again, we'll go right back to super-sizing. That's why I'm hoping that the silver lining of the recession is that some of us see that living with less doesn't have to be a negative thing—that a smaller house can feel just as, or even more, homey, or that a hybrid will get you there as well as a mega-SUV. Hopefully, this moment is a chance to hit the pause button on our rampant super-sizing—and that in the long run, we'll be able to find the right size, rather than just defaulting to the biggest because we assume it's best.
author photo by Andrea Volbrecht