Here's something to chew on: Gum wraps itself in respectability

August 03, 1998|By Andrea Higbie | Andrea Higbie,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- It was a fairy-tale wedding. The sky was a glorious, sunny blue. Everything, from the radiant bride to the fabulous flowers, was perfect. Everything, that is, except the bridesmaid chomping away on a wad of gum.

"I was appalled," said Letitia Baldrige, the etiquette expert, who was a guest. "It was so incredibly rude. But the sad thing is that it was not shocking: all of a sudden gum chewing in public is so prevalent that it has become acceptable."

Openly, brazenly, people are chewing gum. At work, gyms, restaurants and clubs, gum has become the big cigar of the season. Part of the reason is that smoking is forbidden in many places. But mostly, it's that like a too-large Bazooka gum bubble, the taboo surrounding gum chewing -- that it's tacky, especially in public -- has burst.

"Gum chewing is definitely cool," said Ruth Hiller, an artist and a trainer at Peak Performance in Gramercy Park. "It's everyone and everywhere right now."

"People are popping gum at restaurants," said Hiller, who is partial to Trident bubble gum and Dentyne Ice. "At the gym, lots of people chew. It feels good, and it tastes good."

Jack Nicholson accepted his Golden Globe best-actor award for "As Good as It Gets," wad-in-mouth. Other high-profile chewers, including Farrah Fawcett, Mary-Louise Parker and Reese Witherspoon, have been photographed chewing gum in public recently, following the lead of Burt Reynolds.

Smiling

All this chewing is making gum manufacturers happy. "People are chewing more gum than ever," said Christopher Perille, a spokesman for Wrigley Co., the world's largest maker of gum. In July, Wrigley reported year-to-date net sales of more than $1 billion, up $42 million, or 4.4 percent, from the first half of last year.

While this is good for manufacturers, it's bad for the nation, Baldrige said. "I just saw someone chewing gum at a memorial service, someone who was right in the front row, chomping away," she said. "At graduations, students were going up to get their diplomas, and they were chewing gum.

"People used to just chew gum in private, but lately they're chewing it everywhere and all the time," she lamented.

Why now? "It's all part of this attitude now that 'anything I feel like doing is fine,' " Baldrige said. "People just don't care if they're rude or not, and some of them don't know that it looks uncivil. It destroys the beauty of the landscape."

Alex Forbes, a performer and songwriter who lives on the Upper West Side, said she takes the gum out of her mouth before going into clubs but has noticed that others do not. "I've seen singers take the stage with a piece of gum in their mouth," said Forbes, who used to chew Juicy Fruit and then moved on to Big Red and Winterfresh. "I usually chew when I'm bored or stressed, like during long car rides. I don't smoke and I don't drink, but I chew and I drive a lot."

Along with the new chomping in previously uncharted territories, gum chewing is suddenly not just acceptable but also practically required for stress and weight control.

Substitutes

Gum -- either Nicorette or the conventional kind -- is the mouth occupier of choice for smokers who aren't allowed to light up, as well as for former smokers, or hopeful former smokers who are trying not to.

"People are chewing gum instead of putting food and cigarettes in their mouths," Hiller said. "When I want to avoid sugar, I pop in a piece of sugarless gum."

Even when it's not in people's mouths, gum is clearly on their minds. There's the "X-Files" obsession with the force that controls the world's gum supply, and a "Seinfeld" episode in the last season about George's groping for things in common with a new girlfriend. "We both like gum!" they cheered.

Yet, all is not so sweet in the world of gum.

"I notice it all over the sidewalks lately," said Teresa Gallo, the assistant to the chief financial officer at the Food Network.

Because this formerly private act now carried out in public places is such a new phenomenon, chewing gum right now is a badge of behavioral courage. It's about rebellion, or actually rebellion lite, since compared with other vices it's relatively benign. "It's a safe rebellion," said Ilka Peck, a clinical social worker in Manhattan. "Gum chewers are breaking the rules of etiquette, but not so they'd get punished."

What used to be verboten at work is now taken for granted. The Wrigley Web site (www.wrigley.com) points out that as early as 1939, scientific studies, including "The Psycho-Dynamics of Chewing," by Dr. H.L. Hollingworth of Columbia University, showed how chewing relaxes people while they are working. But not until just recently did so many people act on that.

Richard McGill Murphy, the Brooklyn-based anthropologist and writer, said the gum craze can be attributed to the strong yet anxiety-provoking economy.

"It's a healthy economy, so people feel they can get away with more, that it gives them license to thumb their nose at taboos," Murphy said. "Yet, dramatic consolidations are going on, so people are also feeling stress. What's left in the puritanical '90s but to chew gum?"

Gotta chew

Peck agreed. "In my business consulting on Wall Street and Madison Avenue, I'm noticing that people are chewing gum," she said. "And this is in the conference rooms, too!"

Belinda Salzman, a senior accountant for the Food Network, added, "A guy I work with always keeps a 10-pack of Extra on his desk for everyone to take."

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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