Fatphobia & Public Transportation
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Picture it: Rush hour traffic at the peak commuter time of 5:00PM in the New York City Subway. The platform for the 2/3 train at Times Square is filled to the brim. People scramble to get on a car, lunging for empty seats in site. They contort their bodies and adjust their bags when they have to stand, packing the train from wall to wall. But there's often a questionable site in this classic scene: the seat next to my fat ass is empty.
Weight stigma, or negative beliefs and behaviors towards fat people, continues to be an issue in today's world. Plus size clothes are harder to find than "normal" sizes, seat sizes on airplanes and theme park rides can be a scary concern, and a bigger body is sometimes judged and bullied by employers, doctors, dates, and peers regardless of the person occupying that body.
Since moving to Manhattan a year ago, I've found this particular type of discrimination, whether it be weight stigma or fatphobia (blatant dislike or fear of fat people,) to be magnified on the public transportation system throughout the five boroughs. My hips are wider than the seat outline on various train and bus models, and I'm reminded of that by others all the time. My chubby frame has been met with eye rolls, outright slurs, and conscious avoidance whether I'm sitting, standing, or moving in a car.
There is definitely a human desire to maintain boundaries and personal space, and I can certainly sympathize with that. I don't want to make physical contact with you if I can help it either, but it's usually easy to tell the difference between wanting to maintain boundaries and blatant fatphobia. When five disgruntled people are squished together in the center of a Subway train car aisle and there are two seats available on either side of me, I know it's not solely a personal space issue.
I often think about what could be done to reduce weight stigma and fatphobia on public transportation and struggle with finding effective answers. The MTA took a step in the right direction by replacing indented seats with flat benches on newer Subway car models, but they haven't addressed the rest of NYC's public transportation nor has the newer bench seats stopped the harassment of fat passengers. This issue runs deep in our perfectionist culture, and it's especially palpable when people are forced to interact with each other in close quarters.
This twice-daily dose of body shaming has made the Subway an all-together negative experience for me, and so I've started taking small but definite actions to protect myself and avoid harassment for the sake of having a decent commute. I try to walk to destinations whenever possible and avoid rush hour times by departing extra early. I'll hail a taxi if I'm desperate, even if driving in traffic will take me a longer time to reach my destination. When I do take a bus or a train, I am less likely to take a seat if the car is half full of fuller. If there is a single-person seat available on a bus, I'll try to grab that one first. If I am sitting, I cross or squeeze my legs tightly together in an attempt to reduce my physical volume (This action is like the opposite of manspreading to me. I can't say if this is actually effective though.) I will do everything in my power to make it so no one has to come into contact with my protruding hips.
It is generally polite to be aware of the space you take up in a shared area (especially if you are carrying luggage,) but I should not have to take these extreme actions because you're uncomfortable with what my body looks like. I should not be made to feel guilty to live in my body, the vessel I was born with. I will always give up a seat to those who need one, but I do not deserve to be shamed for sitting on a train with available seats or for trying to exit a crowded car.
This is a complicated issue, but it's essential to get the conversation started in your community and workplace. Talk to family, friends, and co-workers about weight stigma. Support companies and brands that have more variety in their sizing (ENOUGH of this one size fits all bs.) Find a transportation employee or police officer if you are experiencing harassment and feel you are in danger. Call out fat discrimination you experience or see on the Subway and in the street. Ask people why fatness makes them uncomfortable; this at least causes people to think about it. Speaking up can be incredibly difficult and you may feel vulnerable, but it can change the opinions of others and lead to the beginning of a more accepting world.
Most importantly, do not forget to show your body and yourself love. It's easy to start shaming your own body and the bodies of others when those around you exhibit discriminating behaviors. I've been in that vicious self-hating cycle before, and it's not pretty. Celebrate your individualism. Show kindness to others and try to avoid make snap judgments based on appearances. Love yourself so deeply that the comments and actions of others are irrelevant.
To learn more about weight stigma and fatphobia, check out Fatphobia 101 on This Body is Not an Apology.
Have you ever faced weight stigma on a train or a bus? Join the conversation and share you experience in the Comments section below.
Author Note: I'm aware that the word "fat" can come with a variety of connotations. It can also be complicated in terms of someone identifying as fat or being labeled as fat by another person. I'm not really interested in discussing what determines fatness level or why people are fat - it's complex. I'll leave it at this: Every body has a story than can not be determined by outward appearance.