I’ve never been more humiliated than when I was forced to ask for a seat extender...The flight attendant offered me a look of pity...The man I was sitting beside snickered and muttered “lose weight” under his breath...I, of course, eloquently told him to “fuck off"...
“You’re getting thin, gal!”
My mom said as I strutted through the archway of my parents’ front door.
“Thanks, mom,” I muttered.
It was the fifth time I’d heard the compliment in recent weeks. Close friends, other relatives, and even my live-in partner were showering me with incessant praise about the sudden slimming of my wide waist and rotund thighs.
I hadn’t intended to lose weight. There was no special diet or exercise plan that fueled the dropping of 57 pounds in five months. Yet I was being treated as if I’d discovered a magical cure for fatness.
Prior to this unexpected weight loss, I was tipping the scales at 305 pounds. It was the most I’d ever weighed and was a direct result of a crippling sadness. At the time, I was an overworked graduate student residing in rural Illinois. Attempting to locate community in a place where there are few women of color led to intense isolation. Couple the loneliness with a long-distance relationship, and food evolved from a nutritional need to solace. I gained weight because I hadn’t developed effective coping mechanisms for combating sadness. Sadness, for me, manifested in midnight runs to McDonald’s and convenience stores for double cheeseburgers and pints of ice cream.
Not all women of size gain and lose weight based on emotional eating and sadness. In fact, I’ve always been a larger woman — I'm accustomed to squeezing into a size 22. With large breasts sprouting at age 9 and stretch marks that showed up shortly after, I’d never existed in a body other than the large one I walked through the world in. At no point did being a woman of size bother me. Confidence was instilled within me, especially since I was one of several larger women in my immediate family. Being comfortable with how much I weighed was customary, so losing weight was never the objective.
Yet the weight fell off when I finished graduate school, moved to a metropolis, and fell in love with a man who considers hiking among his hobbies. I was eating less because I wasn’t using food as comfort. My weekends were suddenly filled with hiking and exploring trips. Soon, I was 57 pounds lighter, and realizing that the bombardment of praise indicated that I was being treated better because I take up less space in the world.
Losing weight has shown me how much discrimination exists against women of size. Prior to losing weight, I’d been a size-positive activist committed to erasing the stigmas associated with larger bodies. Having a smaller waist and hips magnifies the importance of fat studies and size-positive activism, especially as I no longer face the discrimination I once did.
Fat liberation is a concept that’s existed since 1969, when the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance was formed to combat size discrimination. Size is a determinant in multiple aspects of life, including work promotions and wages. The Council on Size and Weight Discrimination found that workers of size are often paid $1.25 less an hour, which could lead to a loss of around $100,000 over the course a career. Additionally, women of size make 6% less than thinner women, and also receive fewer raises. Currently, Michigan is the only state that prohibits discrimination on the basis of weight or size. Fat liberation activists pinpoint these issues as ways that society ostracizes people of size. “People in the United States, regardless of their own weight, have strong negative attitudes about fat people, and the stigma of weight is particularly apparent for women,” Rothblum wrote in a book chapter about fat liberation.
The cornerstone of size-positive activism and fat studies is that discrimination against people of size is both cruel and illegal. Additionally, as scholar Esther D. Rothblum writes, “Fat studies seeks to remove negative associations that society has about fat and the fat body.” As fat studies has evolved into an academic concept, several texts, including Shadow on a Tightrope, a collection of foundational essays, have emerged to illuminate the ways people of size are treated poorly.
I’ve witnessed this discrimination firsthand. It is prevalent in workplaces, but also in airports. For far too long, airlines have instituted policies that require people of size to purchase extra seats if they exceed a certain weight. Rosie Mercado, a plus-size model, experienced this when she was traveling from Las Vegas to New York in June 2011. A flight attendant told Mercado she needed to purchase two fares in order to board the flight because she was unable to fit in a singular seat. Not only was this a cruel way to approach a passenger, the interaction also persuaded Mercado to lose more than 200 pounds.
I’ve never been more humiliated than when I was forced to ask for a seat belt extender on a flight from St. Louis to New Orleans. The flight attendant offered me a look of pity as she found and passed me the extender. The man I was sitting beside snickered and muttered “lose weight” under his breath, further extending the humiliation. I, of course, eloquently told him to “fuck off,” but couldn’t hide the embarrassment I felt at being unable to fit in an airplane seat without requiring an additional seat belt.
However, what I now know is that airlines choose to discriminate against people of size by not offering seats that can comfortably fit our bodies. We’re shamed into losing weight in order to travel by plane, to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park, or to earn a raise. Airlines could choose to offer seat belts that come with automatic extenders for larger passengers, but instead force people of size to ask for extenders or purchase two seats. That is the prime example of how fat discrimination operates. Instead of addressing the institutional problem, the individual is forced into guilt for daring to be larger.
Now I fit in an airplane seat without accommodations. I can get on a roller coaster without wondering if I’ll be forced to exit because I can’t fit in the seat. I am deemed worthy of raises because I’m smaller. However, losing weight has reinforced the need for policies that prohibit discrimination against people of size. People of size, including me at 243 pounds, deserve to be accommodated and treated with respect.
After all, as Rothblum said, “…an American citizen is more than a BMI.”