Challenging Body Discrimination: Our Silence is Acceptance - Rachel King
Despite recovery from over a decade of atypical anorexia — over two decades of eating disorders in total — and being a body positivity activist, I am highly aware of society’s perception of fat people when flying:
Flying, in many aspects, perpetuates the narrative that fat people are not worthy of existing in the world. Flying reinforces the message that fat individuals should feel shame for occupying space.
It has become routine for me, when flying, to make myself as small and unobtrusive as possible. I do this to adhere to narrow societal narratives and views surrounding fat bodies — and to create a more pleasing flight for others. Therefore, prior to leaving the States, I had methodically selected a window seat that would afford me the ability to push a majority of my body into the wall and away from my neighboring passenger.
Unfortunately, the gate attendant informed me, minutes before my flight, that seats had been reassigned due to the airline overbooking the flight. My meticulously chosen seat had been taken away from me. I am now the reluctant owner of seat 36B — a middle seat near the rear of the plane and far removed from the other three women with whom I am traveling.
A cacophony of Spanish and English reverberates off the aluminum walls of the jet bridge as I board my plane home from Guatemala. “It is going to be OK,” I reassure myself while taking several deep breaths — though I knew it was certainly not going to be OK.
In an effort to ground myself in the present moment, I place my hand against the cool, smooth exterior of the plane. With a final deep breath, I step inside the constricted confines crowded with passengers.
As the aisle narrows from two seats on each side of me — to three seats on each side — I move my rolling suitcase from behind me to in front. My small, blue Samsonite bag becomes my shield — protecting me from the judgmental glances of others as I pass them.
Despite sharing a common language with less than half of the individuals around me, evidence of their inner monologues is written on their faces. I experience it each time I fly. Their faces echo the familiar refrain:
- “I hope her seat isn’t next to me.”
- “I’m not sharing an arm rest with a fat girl.”
- “What if she touches me?”
- “There’s no way she’s going to get that butt in that seat.”
Finally, seat 36B comes into view. My window seatmate, an elderly American woman, has already situated herself, and is engrossed in the New York Times. I heave my suitcase into the overhead bin, and hesitantly take my seat.
Seemingly unaware that I have arrived, the woman continues reading the paper; her elbow extending into my seat space and resting deep into my intestines. I shift in my seat in an effort to dislodge her elbow; my ample hips cause the armrest to raise as they settle in. She clears her throat and looks over her newspaper at me. Her subtle microaggression of defending her space reinforces the myriad messages I’ve already received:
fat people are undeserving of occupying a shared space.
Her invasion of my seat space with her newspaper and elbow signifies her dominance as a thin, white woman; her unwillingness to accommodate my fat existence is asserted in that moment. My shame accepts her attestation. I resign to my fate and will my body to become smaller — folding my arms inward and tilting my hips away from her.
My aisle seatmate arrives just as final safety checks are occurring. I quickly grab my seatbelt and attempt to fasten it before he sits. Out of habit, I extend the seatbelt to its fullest length. Bringing the two ends together, I’m stunned to find a two-inch gap between them. This has never happened before; it has always been a tight fit — but it has never not closed. My mind is racing. Asking for a seatbelt extender feels demeaning and serves as another reminder that my fat body is unwelcome in this environment.
Inhaling deeply, I force the seatbelt to buckle; embedding it securely to my stomach for the next three and a half hours. The man next to me sits with his legs wide apart; forcing me to tilt my hips further and contort my legs so that they become parallel to one another. Sitting is difficult for the duration of the flight: I’m constricted by a short seatbelt, my shoulders are folded into my chest, and my hips are tilted to one side. However, this is the way society insists that fat people fly.
I should speak up for my right to exist in a public space and I don’t. I feel powerless. This is exactly how society wants me to feel: disenfranchised, unwelcome, unwanted, and fat. By succumbing to this narrative of what fat people should be, I only serve to perpetuate it.
My silence is acceptance.
Only through asserting my right to occupy space — freely, outside of the confines of what society says fat people can do and say — do I give myself permission to exist. I am making a commitment to myself to assert my right to take up space — not just on my next flight, but in every aspect of my life — and encourage you to do the same.
1. Imagine a society where all bodies are good bodies, all bodies are worthy to exist, and all bodies deserve to occupy space.
I recognize that this is not an easy task. Public areas will always have inaccessible spaces that are of certain miniscule dimensions. This includes airplane seats, restaurant booths, roller coasters, and turnstiles. It will take time before those areas become accessible to people of all sizes. So, what can we do in the meantime to make space for and accept fat bodies? Here are some ideas:
2. Speak up when you experience size discrimination.
If you do not call attention to this issue, no one will know it is occurring. Change cannot be made unless society recognizes that a change is necessary. If you’re not comfortable speaking out, there are myriad other options: writing letters, sending emails, creating petitions, seeking out public officials, and more. Marginalization of fat bodies will decrease as we assert our right to exist in the world.
3. Be empathic.
If this isn’t an issue that affects you personally, try to understand why conforming to society’s literal and figurative narrow confines might be hard for someone in a fat body to encounter day after day for their entire lives. By being empathic, you are able to effectively listen to the voices, concerns, and stories of individuals living in fat bodies. From there, you can assist others in creating accommodations to make them more comfortable in public areas — only after they give you their permission to do so.
4. Fat shaming is not permissible
Do not engage in offensive talk against fat bodies (or any bodies, for that matter). Do not cast judgment over fat bodies. Do not size up fat bodies — as those on the plane did with me. When we reduce an individual down to a single characteristic — something as meaningless as their body size, for example — we dehumanize them and lose any opportunity to form a relationship. When we witness others engaging in fat-shaming behaviors, we must respond with education, awareness, and respect. Respectfully challenge their viewpoint and educate as to why this negative narrative of fat individuals persists in their lives.
5. Look inward.
Check your own assumptions. Could you have an internalized fat phobia within you? With the societal narrative we’ve all been taught about fat bodies, it is hard to discern what is fact and what is opinion as it relates to fat bodies. Take the time to reflect on your own views and assumptions, and to educate yourself on ways to create more accepting and accessible spaces for fat individuals. Could your attitudes be impacting how to interact with, relate to, or act around others?
Related Content: 7 Ways to Accept Your Body in a Society That May Not
Rachel is a teacher (preschool by day and adolescent patients at Eating Recovery Center, Cincinnati, Ohio by night), Christian, photographer, auntie, and aspiring writer. She writes to share that full recovery from eating disorders is — not only possible — but the single most rewarding decision an individual can make.