Librado Romero/The New York Times
Manhattan is far thinner than the nation, the state or the city's other boroughs, according to the study released Wednesday by Senator Gillibrand, which relied on federal data on body-mass index. For Brian Ermanski, a slender yet muscular painter who lives among the trendy boutiques and bars of SoHo, the news that Manhattan was the thinnest county in New York State was no surprise. What shocked him was that, even still, 42 percent of Manhattanites were overweight or obese — a figure he found vaguely disturbing, as if it gave his borough a bad name. “It’s probably more like 20 percent overweight down here,” said Mr. Ermanski, 28, sitting on a bench outside Balthazar, the brasserie that is a crossroads of the neighborhood, where he spends an hour a day watching the beautiful people go by.
“It might even go down to zero percent during Fashion Week, when all the models are here,” added Mr. Ermanski, who attributed his slim frame (5-foot-11, 160 pounds) to a combination of healthy and unhealthy habits: daily two-mile walks, weekly soccer, and breakfasts of coffee and cigarettes. Manhattan is far thinner than the nation (with 67 percent of the population overweight), the state (nearly 60 percent) or the city’s other boroughs (58 to 62 percent), according to the study released Tuesday by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand that relied on federal data on body-mass index, a calculation based on height and weight.
Manhattan’s wiry and willowy were eager on Wednesday to dissect how they brought home such an honor. First and foremost, they said, Manhattan is a place where people walk. Even subway riders need to climb stairs. Storefront yoga studios, parks and pedestrian-friendly streets make working out relatively easy. Beyond that, Manhattan is the national capital of disparate subcultures of the skinny: Aspiring models. Nightclubbing hipsters. Gay men with the time and money to chisel their physiques at the gym. Park Avenue society matrons who remain preternaturally slender into their 70s, the “social X-rays” satirized by Tom Wolfe.
And, too, Manhattan is a borough of extreme inequality — in socioeconomic status and obesity rates, which generally correlate. The island’s poorest areas, like Harlem, have high rates of obesity and diabetes, and advocates are working for improved nutritional education and access to healthy foods there. Meanwhile, the borough’s richest swaths have the lowest obesity rates — and, some argue, an obsession with thinness. “My mom always says, ‘The smaller the dress size, the larger the apartment,’ ” said one lifelong Upper East Sider, who said she did not want to be named because she disapproves of the maxim.
What better place to test that hypothesis than the Exhale gym and spa, looking out on Madison Avenue from the banklike Carlyle Gallery building. (As if to prove the point, the gym sits directly above the Douglas Elliman real estate office advertising a “Trophy Mansion Townhouse” for $22 million.) Behind a front desk that offered $1,600 Caribbean yoga weekends, a core fusion class huffed and puffed to an instructor’s stentorian count and a Corey Hart song. The gym’s director, Susan Tomback (5-foot- 7, 118), said that for women who can afford leisure and child care, exercise is “a lifestyle thing,” not a chore. “All the neighborhood women drop their kids off and come here,” said Ms. Tomback, 29. “It’s like a club. They go to brunch afterwards at Sant Ambroeus,” the ladies-who-lunch mecca on the next block featuring $22 salads.
For an even more rarefied crowd, there is Verve Private Training, sharing the fifth floor with the Gagosian Gallery, a temple of contemporary art. There, Mary Ann Browning gives $300 coaching sessions designed to produce the narrow hips required to wear, say, Carolina Herrera. Leaving with a bottle of spring water was Gail Zweigenthal, a former editor of Gourmet magazine, where she had to balance Manhattan’s twin obsessions — eating well and looking good. “I exercise so I can eat,” said Ms. Zweigenthal (5-foot-3 ½, 114; like many residents of the Upper East Side, she was quicker to give her weight than her age). “If I feel fat, I can’t enjoy eating,” she said. “This is unhealthy — that if I gain a few pounds, I’m not happy — but it’s the truth of me.” Now training to be a psychoanalyst — she wrote a master’s thesis called “Food Beyond Pleasure” — Ms. Zweigenthal lifts weights and walks three miles a day. “Look at my cute little triceps!” she exclaimed, pinching them. Fear can be a motivator, too.
“Our closets are filled all these expensive clothes that are like swords of Damocles, because we may not fit into them anymore,” said Simon Doonan, (5-foot-4, 135), emerging from the Crunch gym on Lafayette Street, where men on treadmills could be seen through the windows. Mr. Doonan, 56, the creative director of Barney’s — the designer emporium where real estate brokers lunch on chopped salads — said he did not want to appear “fatist.” Yet, he admitted, he notices the weight of people in other states. “I’m appalled by people my age who can’t get through the airport without a wheelchair,” he said. Fashion, indeed, is merciless. Intermix, a designer boutique, doesn’t usually carry sizes larger than 8, said the manager of the Madison Avenue store, Lynn Bacci (5-foot-8 ½, 137), who works out to fit into skinny jeans and tank tops.
Chuck Ortiz, 52, a plumber from the Bronx who was ordering $5 sandwich from a halal cart near Intermix — chicken, his version of a diet — scoffed at the way Upper East Siders spend money to get thin “when there’s a park right there.” A brawny 6 feet, 220 pounds, he said he stays fit by hiking and working hard renovating the Surrey Hotel.
Nearby, in Central Park, New Yorkers’ willingness to exercise in public was on display — not only defined pectorals but also jiggling thighs. Meanwhile, Verve’s founder, Ms. Browning, supervised as Ilene Zatkin-Butler (5-foot-4, 118), a lawyer who has dropped three pants sizes under her tutelage, fast-walked on a treadmill. “Everything is in excess in Manhattan — whether it’s how beautiful you are, how thin you are, or how hard you work,” said Ms. Browning, (5-foot-8, 119, and healthy, she added with emphasis, “No eating disorders going on here!”)