51st State? American trends challenge British ways
LONDON ” Anyone searching for a sepia-tinted rugby photo, antique cuff links or a precious piece of art deco jewelry at the Antiquarius Center had better come fast.
Blink and it will be gone. The dozens of diverse, very British shops on the chic King’s Road in Chelsea face eviction to make way for Anthropologie, an American-based chain planning an American fashion emporium, much like the stores it operates in St. Louis and Miami Beach.
“There used to be three antique centers in Chelsea, soon there will be none,” said Sue Norman, who has sold hand-painted 19th-Century china here since 1972. “I think it’s very sad. It seems the younger generation much prefers American-style things to English style.”
The pending loss of the Antiquarius Center is part of the wider, inexorable Americanization of Britain, where rich veins of eccentricity are being snipped as American customs catch on.
Remember the dapper English gentleman? Shoes polished and dressed to the nines? He’s often found in blue jeans, an open shirt, and sneakers these days.
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And those bad English teeth, neglected for years? Tooth-whitening is catching on, a l’americaine. There has been a surge of cosmetic surgeries as more women ” and teenagers ” embrace the Hollywood ideal and have their breasts enhanced and wrinkles Botoxed. Pillbox psychiatry is catching on too, with record numbers gobbling antidepressants, and Britons are turning to fast food at such an alarming pace that obesity among young people is reaching epidemic proportions.
A Prozac-popping, surgically enhanced nation of overweight slobs? Sometimes it seems dear olde England could almost be the 51st state.
The cultural mood is changing along with the physical landscape. Harried British physicians are more likely than ever to prescribe antidepressants, in part because the waiting list for individual psychological therapy under the government-run National Health Service is so long. The mental health charity MIND reports that roughly 34 million prescriptions were written in Britain in 2007, more than a 20 percent increase over the 27 million prescribed just two years earlier.
Alison Cobb, senior policy director at MIND, said publicity from America is an important reason why growing numbers of British doctors turn to antidepressants as a first resort.
“Part of it is the literature and endorsement message we were getting from the USA,” she said. “In terms of the profile, and the brand recognition, with Prozac in particular, there was an American influence in that.”
Another factor is the public’s increasing desire to seek treatment for depression rather than endure it with typical British stoicism. The days of the “stiff upper lip” seem numbered.
Attitudes toward cosmetic surgery have also evolved. The nonprofit British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reports the number of operations has more than tripled since 2003, with breast augmentation increasing by 30 percent in the last year alone.
And British men are turning to the scalpel. There were only 22 male breast reductions in 2003, but that figure rose to 323 last year as more men sought a sculpted look.
Much-maligned British dentistry is changing too.
It’s long been a national stereotype that many Brits have awful teeth made worse by years of neglect. There’s a tendency to postpone trips to the dentist until there is a real emergency, but in recent years the use of cosmetic dental techniques pioneered in America has increased.
Dr. Jonathan Portner, a spokesman for the British Dental Association, said there is still a push to inform many Britons about the need for regular appointments and the harm caused by a sugary diet, but at the same time there has been a new zest for the use of implants, veneers, advanced orthodontics, and tooth-whitening. The goal for many, he said, is a Tom Cruise-style Hollywood smile.
Some of his adult patients did not have orthodontic work when they were young ” it was not common in Britain several decades ago ” and are having the work done now.
“Things have changed,” said Portner. “There is a lot more elective dentistry now. People are more concerned about the appearance of their smile and the color of their teeth and the impact it has on their social life and careers and general confidence. I’m finding my male patients are more vain than the women.”
The British are also eating more American fast food. The fast food chain KFC, for one, already has more than 700 chicken restaurants here, with plans to add another 200 to 300 in the next five years. Sales are up 14 percent so far this year despite the economic gloom.
Health officials in Britain blame the popularity of American-style fast food for a startling rise in childhood obesity. One of three British schoolchildren is either overweight or obese by the time they enter high school, said Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum.
“It is basically your U.S. fast food, which is mass processed, available everywhere, and probably comes out of some factory in Illinois,” he said. “It is breaking all the rules in terms of fat, sugar and salt.”
The trend toward Americanization is not new: In 1925, Time Magazine reported that dollar-rich American financiers had invaded London, infusing the postwar British capital with “American engineering and American habits and customs.” But it’s picked up pace in the last decade, said Mark Glancy, a history professor at the University of London who has written about the impact of Hollywood films on the British psyche.
“It’s much more Americanized now, because it’s so much more affluent,” he said. “People’s purchasing power has gone up so dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years that they’ve become very caught up in the American consumer lifestyle.”
He said the British infatuation with Hollywood movies ” dating back to the silent film era ” has shaped the public’s view of glamour and style and given Britons a taste for American rebels who challenge authority.
“There are different values at work in American films,” he said. “Authority in British films is respected, not challenged ” partly because of British film censorship ” and American films tend to challenge authority and make heroes out of ordinary people.”
Today it is American urban music ” primarily rap ” that is setting the style agenda for British youth, Glancy said.
“The low-cut baggy jeans, the gold chains, the rap style, really extends to a huge swath of British people under 20,” he said. “It’s a defiance of middle class values.”
It’s hard to tell how far the Americanization will go, and whether it’s only skin deep, essentially a fashion statement.
After all, church attendance is still very low in Britain compared to the United States, and U.S. sports have not caught on ” nothing can dent Britain’s passion for soccer, rugby and cricket. Tea remains very popular despite the proliferation of U.S.-style coffee bars.
But in general the move toward American ways is clear, and not just in London but also in the towns and cities of the bucolic British countryside.
Michael Harling, an American who moved to the town of Horsham in West Sussex 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of London, said small, quirky British shops have gradually been replaced by chain stores and burger shops, including many of American origin.
Most upsetting, he said, is the loss of all but one of the town’s tea shops.
“It’s becoming like America in that you have the same McDonald’s and the same stores in every town,” said Harling, author of “Postcards from across The Pond.”
“It’s hard to stop this American invasion because people like fast food and cheap stuff, but it’s very sad. If I had wanted that, I would have stayed in America.”