Pitt MFA alum Sarah Wexler is the author of the recent book Living Large: From SUVS to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn’t Going Better. In each chapter, Wexler searches for a different experience – be it in the plastic surgeon’s office or at the casino in Vegas – and really tries to understand why we as consumers make the choices we make. Wexler took time out of her busy life as a fancy New York magazine writer to talk to Hot Metal Bridge, for which we are immensely grateful.
Hot Metal Bridge: So I hear tell Living Large started as your MFA thesis. How did you get into this idea of big things?
Sarah Wexler: I’m from the DC suburbs. Every time I went home from Pitt for a break, the look of the neighborhood had changed. What had been colonial or split-level houses from the ‘50s and ‘60s had turned into rows and rows of McMansions on small lots where people were looking right into each other’s windows. So I started seeing things and thinking about how they might be connected and if it would be an interesting project to work on. Once I put together a bunch of them, I could sort of make connections about what was driving it and an overarching theme about what supersizing means and why we do it and that kind of thing. I thought it might just be a collection of essays about all of these supersized things, but as I did more research, and really got to writing it, I started finding connections about how they were all tied together.
Hot Metal Bridge: There was a big transition from starting your project in a boom economy and then watching it all go bust. What was that process like?
Sarah Wexler: When I first started, my main concern would be that I was finger waging and nobody wants to read that. You know, how to not be preachy and say, “We’re expanding at a rate that’s not sustainable. It’s doing really bad things for our finances and the environment.” And then the economy collapsed, and I thought, “I might have to scrap this project.” It was very obvious: this is what led us to that. Then I thought I could see if we’ve learned from this. That way of life was not sustainable, yet people went back to how they were living before. McMansions are being foreclosed on at eight times the national average. With supersized cars, after 9/11, Hummer sales shot up. Then when gas prices went above three dollars a gallon, Hummers were sitting on the lots. Hybrids and compact cars were flying off the lots. You would think we really learned our lesson. As soon as gas prices went back to historic averages around two-something a gallon, SUVs started to sell again and there was a glut of compact cars sitting back in lots. So have we really learned our lesson?
Hot Metal Bridge: You have a pretty even mix of the personal and the journalistic in each chapter. Was that something that came organically while you were writing or was it something you had to work harder toward in revision?
Sarah Wexler: I really wanted to be a really present narrator in every chapter because I felt like I was going to be taking people through the underbelly of these weird worlds that we don’t usually get access to or we don’t stop to think critically about. We might drive by a McMansion or park next to a Hummer or your sister gets married and has this huge engagement ring, but we don’t stop to think about it. I really wanted to be a narrator who the reader could attach to and follow on this journey. I could ask the sorts of questions the reader would want to ask. It was also really important to me to not just let my one-time experience tell the whole story. That’s why I really wanted to bring in contacts to add to that one experience. I probably did a hundred interviews with people who make those decisions – people in the Hummer club or the mega church. Or at the Mall of America – talking to people who are compulsive shoppers. I also really wanted to talk to experts. I’m never going to know as much as someone who’s spending their whole life studying it. I really wanted to bring in quotes from experts and lots of statistics which can make a really interesting case without interjecting my opinion. I wanted to blend something experiential with something very grounded in facts and context.
Hot Metal Bridge: Speaking of the personal, you had some interesting reactions when trying on fake boobs and massive engagement rings. What experience surprised you the most?
Sarah Wexler: I tried to go into every situation being open-minded and empathetic and truly understanding. The boob job one was probably the one I came into with the most dubious preconceptions. I think working at women’s magazines and considering myself a feminist and writing about being happy with your body and what you have made this difficult. I went in a little on edge, thinking this is stupid, and I don’t understand why you would do this. It was more like shopping for sweaters at the mall than anything else – trying on the different size implants. It’s not even about imagining. I got seduced. I totally got the allure in the moment. I wouldn’t have a different personality; it’s not like I’d be ditzy or less valuable as a person. I’d just look hotter. Of course then, I was like I gotta get out of here. That surprised me the most – that I could get seduced to that degree.
Also in researching big box stores. Like everyone else who wants to save money, I’ve been guilty of going to a Target or a Wal-Mart because it’s easy and it’s cheaper. In doing my research for that, I was shocked to find out the impact to the community when a Wal-Mart opens: unemployment goes up, PTA involvement goes down, infant mortality rates go up, pollution goes up. In researching the book, I actually changed in my life. I don’t think the cost of saving fifteen percent is worth the cost to the environment and the community. So I will no longer shop at big box stores especially when I’m given the option not to.
A lot of these decisions to live smaller are easier in New York City because we’re priced out of living large here. It’s easier to not have a car and rely on public transportation or shop at mom and pop stores. In other parts of the country, people might have to work a little harder to make those decisions, but they still can.
Hot Metal Bridge: Several times throughout the book, the tension between large consumption and the embarrassment over large consumption comes up. What do you make of that?
Sarah Wexler: After the economic plummet, people were still shopping at Versace and Dolce and Gabbana, but they were asking for plain shopping bags to take their stuff out in. People still want to live how they want to live, but they don’t want to be judged for it. People want to live large, and they don’t want to be judged for it. Part of it is that they don’t want to look at the impact of their decisions. It’s a lot easier to live with your choices when you don’t think about the impact of them. I’m asking readers to look at the information I’m presenting and then make a conscious decision. Know that you’re making a choice and then make an informed decision. We’ve lost our sense of scale, and our default is to go big. Maybe once people have this information, they will look at right-sizing their lives.
Hot Metal Bridge: I think that comes up again for me when you write about the anti-Hummer people and the freegans and such. The anger and the frugality are excessive in such an American way. As someone who has had a foot in both worlds, are you seeing these similarities?
Sarah Wexler: There’s basically a rebellion in that sub-culture, which is just as extreme as supersizers. What I was trying to show was that that’s not necessarily sustainable either. Basically, you still have to have a supersized system to make that work. By showing both extremes, neither is necessarily sustainable nor necessarily the right answer. It would be easier to write this as a polemic and be really reductive about it, and that was partially an impulse I had to fight as a reporter going in. I was constantly checking my expectations and my judgments and instead trying to make it really about understanding.
Hot Metal Bridge: Is there anything you want to add?
Sarah Wexler: I want to talk about how some of the chapters workshopped. That helped me see where my biases were and my judgments were. None of us is truly objective. We all go in with opinions and biases. Some of these drafts were so different than where they wound up. Especially in the beginning, when I was trying to find what I wanted to say and how I wanted to present this information, it was really helpful to have the opinions of fifteen or twenty people in my workshops at Pitt who could say, “This line is really sticking out to me.” They were really able to point out my biases and places where maybe my insights were funny and maybe where they crossed the line from poking fun to judgmental. They could say, “This isolates me. This pushes me away from you.” Or, “I see what you mean here. You’re asking questions I want to ask.” It helped me refine the way I wanted to write the book.
Past that, it was really helpful to have my editor steering me toward the daily-life ways we supersize without really thinking about it. So, steering clear of the freak-show aspect of it, like competitive eating or road-size attractions. Also, we know already about supersizing at a place like McDonald’s. Having that kind of advice really helped make it a stronger book.