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How Businesses are Making Money Off Americans Getting Fatter

As Americans grow bigger, there's a greater and greater demand for things like BBW porn, larger wedding dresses, and even plus-sized coffins.

by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
21 August 2015, 4:00am

I know you don't need me to tell you this, but America has a lot of fat people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012, 69 percent of Americans were overweight or obese. That was up from 45 percent in 1962.

Some more recent studies suggest that the size of Americans has reached a plateau and that obesity rates are no longer getting higher. But one thing is for sure: There are currently a lot of big people in this country. And wherever a group of people are, you'll find a business trying to figure out a way of making money off of that group. Below are some ways in which American businesses are cashing in on plus-sized Americans.

Joey Conzevoy, of ABC Caskets in Los Angeles, places a dust cover on an oversized coffin.

"People are getting bigger," Joey Conzevoy explained to me on a recent visit to ABC Caskets, the casket factory he owns in Los Angeles, before outlining the difficulties associated with burying a deceased person of size.

Once a person gets to a certain weight—250 pounds is where Conzevoy says people start getting into trouble—they will need to go into an oversized coffin. As burial plots are only large enough to house a standard casket, people in oversized coffins require multiple burial plots. With plots starting, generally, at around $1,000—at least in the Los Angeles area—this can get very expensive. Most large people, Conzevoy explained, end up going with cremation as it's a cheaper option (though it should be noted that funeral directors in Scotland recently complained that people there were getting too big to cremate as well).

There are also logistical difficulties that funeral directors face when burying a large person, with everything from the size of the doors that the bodies have to be taken through, to the amount of space available in the hearse having to be considered.

A 2009 article in the funeral industry trade publication Funeral Home & Cemetery News gave this advice to funeral directors: "The easiest way to handle an obese funeral is to refer the family to your competitor."

Riders pass through It's a Small World at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.

In 2008, Disneyland closed the It's a Small World ride for 1 months for refurbishment. According to a report published on the Disney blog Mice Age, this was done because the increasing weight of park guests meant that the ride's boats were frequently hitting the bottom of the artificial river and getting stuck. (A spokesperson for Disneyland I spoke to declined to comment on this.)

Other parks are also retrofitting existing rides to accommodate larger riders. Speaking to Theme Park Insider in 2007, Damon Andrews, a spokesperson for SeaWorld Entertainment, which operates the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks, said, "Depending on whether the ride manufacturer allows it, we've made accommodations ranging from extended seat belts to adding extra-large seats on some rides." Universal Studios Orlando also recently added larger seats to some cars on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride.

In addition to modifying old rides, theme parks are now building new rides with larger people in mind, too. "Every new coaster I've seen in the past several years either has special seats or rows for larger riders, or extension options so that the restraints can hold larger riders," Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider told USA Today back in 2011.

Additionally, most theme parks have introduced "test seats"—a sample of a ride's seat that guests can try for size before lining up for an attraction. The idea is to save larger patrons the inconvenience and humiliation of being turned away from the ride while attempting to board after waiting in line for a long period of time.

A diner prepares to eat an "Octuple Bypass Burger" at the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas.

The Heart Attack Grill is a hospital-themed restaurant in Las Vegas where people who weigh over 350 pounds get to eat for free. The restaurant gained international media attention when it opened in 2006, for serving food that the owner, Jon Basso, described as "so bad for you it's shocking."

Which is a pretty accurate statement. Everything in the restaurant is fried in lard, milkshakes are made of butter, and the "vegan menu" is just a list of cigarettes.

"It's a place where you really don't have to be insecure about anything at all," the restaurant's manager, Rikii Ogawa, told me, although she did admit that some customers get embarrassed while being weighed in the center of the restaurant to determine if they qualify for free food.

More mainstream restaurants have also made concessions for fat people. Since the late 1980s, Olive Garden has been providing customers with "Larry Chairs"—a larger, armless chair that's rumored to be named after a customer named Larry who struggled to fit into the chain's regular seats.

A sponge on a stick (for washing difficult to reach places,) an extra wide umbrella, and an extra long tape measure from Amplestuff.com.

Amplestuff.com is an online plus-size retailer that's been operating since 1988. In a recent phone interview, Bill Fabrey, the founder of Amplestuff, explained to me why he started the company. "My wife at the time was a very large person and we decided to sit down and make a list of things that could make her life easier," Fabrey said. "We came up with over 70 items, so we decided to start a company."

In addition to the obvious products—seatbelt extenders, oversized blood pressure cuffs, etc.—Amplestuff also stocks a host of items you wouldn't necessarily think of. Like extra large coat hangers, anti-chafing bra liners, and miniature steering wheels designed for people with bellies too large to fit under a traditional steering wheel.

From left to right: Angus Maple, Jade Rose, Erin Green, and Tim Von Swine.

I recently visited the house of porn producer Tim Von Swine as he filmed a BBW porn scene for the mature, chubby porn site ChubOld.

In between takes on the set of the shoot, one of the BBW performers in the scene, Jade Rose, told me that, in recent years, she's noticed a rise in the amount of people looking at—or at least admitting they look at—porn featuring fat people. "There's a huge fan base for it," she said.

In an analysis of their data released last year, the porn site PornHub revealed that "BBW" was the 13th most popular porn category among male viewers, beating out "Asian" (14th), "Creampie" (15th), and "Threesome" (16th).

Rose said that, though there has always been a small niche market for plus-size porn, mainstream porn companies are slowly starting to come around to the genre. "Hustler made a BBW DVD for the first time last year," she told me. "Jessica Drake did a guide to BBW sex that was a huge hit. Evil Angel have started doing BBW, too."

Sara Viola, the manager of Della Curva poses with a size 24 wedding dress.

Della Curva, a plus-sized bridal boutique in Tarzana, California, was started in 2013, after Lisa Litt and Burt Warner, who own a nearby bridal store that carries "straight sizes," noticed an increase in demand for larger dresses.

"The store is a safe place where women are not judged," the store's manager, Sara Viola, told me. "They can feel very free and be themselves without worrying about judgement from other people."

According to Viola, at the time it opened, Della Curva was the only plus-sized bridal store in California. There is at least one other one now, Viola said, and she expects more to follow.

An outpost of the plus-sized women's clothing store Lane Bryant in Los Angeles, California.

Stores selling everyday plus-sized clothing are getting more popular, too. Whereas in the past, plus-sized clothing was drab, basic, and aimed to cover up the body rather than enhance it, recent years have seen a shift towards cooler, more modern designs.

In recent years, H&M, Target, Michael Kors, Forever 21, Mango, and a bunch of other brands have released trendier plus-sized lines aimed at a younger market. Celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon, too. The actresses Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson both recently announced that they are launching lines of clothing aimed at larger women.

A study released last year by the market research company NPD Group found that plus-sized fashion sales generated $17.5 billion in sales between May 2013 and April 2014. This was an increase of 5 percent on the previous year.

Speaking to the New Yorker last year, André Leon Talley, a former editor at Vogue (and, presumably, someone who knows a lot about fashion,) said he'd noticed a difference in the way larger ladies are dressing. "The big girl rocks. The big girl is dope," he said. "Walking down the street, all the big girls are looking and thinking fashion. They're on point with the fashion trend."

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