William R. Greer, “In The ‘Lite’ Decade, Less Has Become More”
New York Times
August 13, 1986
Sociologists say that “lite,” which started as a marketing term used to denote dietetic products, has become a metaphor for what Americans are seeking in disparate parts of their lives. In their relationships, for example, they have turned away from soul-searching and stress of emotional commitment; at the movies, they would rather watch an invincible hero, like Rambo or the Karate Kid, who never lets the audience down.
The Light Decade is a time when men and women can “fall in love without paying the price,” as a Honda Civic advertisement promises. They can undergo psychoanalysis in one sitting, because today’s psychotherapy skips the formative years, namely childhood. For health care, busy executives can turn to a so-called Doc in a Box, a storefront medical clinic with extended hours, higher prices and no appointment, no referral—no medical history necessary.
There is light culture (books on tape), light shopping (buying clothes by video), light politics (candidates who run on image, not issues), light responsibility (the lowest voter participation rates of any democracy) and light music (Lite FM, where the heavy bass line has been removed so that the sound does not jar or stir listeners). And, of course, there is light food, with which people can cut calories without changing their diets by using products like Jell-O Light, Cornitos Light Corn Chips, Heinz Lite Ketchup; and Glace Lite, which, its manufacturer, Sweet Victory, says “gives you all the rich, delicious pleasures of 300-calorie premium ice cream” at 100 calories a scoop.
Food, notably dietetic food, is where the Light Decade started. It is also the clearest example of how the philosophy has caught on. “Lite,” or “light,” foods are now “one of the fastest growing segments of the American food industry,” according to a recent Federal Food and Drug administration report.
Before the 16th century, the word “lite” meant “little, not much, few” in English and was pronounced differently from “light,” according to Traugott Lawler, a medievalist at Yale University. But the word fell out of use.
Today’s “lite” is used to indicate fewer calories or less salt, and essentially refers to weight in the same way that ight is a reference to weight, Mr. Lawler said. The effect of light foods on weight loss has been, well, light.
“We know that the number of people who are obese has increased in the past 10 years,” said Thomas A Wadden, a psychologist at the Obesity Research Group of the University of Pennsylvania. “And the percentage of children who are obese is increasing.”
Bernard Phillips, a sociologist at Boston University, calls the Light Decade a “smorgasbord” approach to life, where people convince themselves that they can have the best of all worlds, immediately, by having a lightened version of
“What happens is the light things become a gloss to fool ourselves into thinking that we are getting what we want,” he said. “When you go to the supermarket and buy light beer, this is getting you away from the notion that there are serious problems with your not being able to lose weight. You don’t face the weight problem. You go for the quick fix.”
Clinton R. Sanders, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut who studies popular culture, says the mobility of American society, both geographically and economically, has helped to bring about a Light Decade. “When you have one out of four Americans moving every year, then one’s connection to people and objects become very light,” he said. “if we know that we are not going to have those friends next year, then we are not going to define them as being as important as we would if we were going to have an ongoing relationship with them.”
Dr. Sanders says that geographic mobility has increased the number of relationships based on daily routines and necessities, rather than on a shared background or common interests.
“The kinds of relationships we have most are secondary,” he said. “They are light relationships, instrumental relationships. I don’t go down to the grocery store to have a conversation with the checkout girl.”
That same lack of attachment is evident in the appliances people buy today. Because modern technology has made them inexpensive, and because Americans generally have a high standard of living, appliances have become cheaper to replace than to repair. They are what Dr. Sanders calls “light appliances, built to fall apart.”