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Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old

February 5, 2023

Recently the New York Times featured an article about weight loss myths and a 2019 essay written by Laura Lippman started to pick up a new surge of popularity. Because of Melanie’s December review at Grab the Lapels, I picked up Kimberly Dark’s essay collection from 2019 entitled Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old. At the same time, I was reading Aubrey Gordon’s 2023 collection, “You Just Need to Lose Weight” and 19 other Myths about Fat People. None of these had any surprises for me.

If you’re not familiar with the issues relating “body mass index” to the weight loss industry, the Guardian lays much of it out in this 2013 article. Gordon’s chapter on BMI traces its history from its early 19th-century origin; she points out that “to its inventor, the BMI was a way of measuring populations, not individuals, designed for the purposes of statistics, not individual health.” Gordon traces the popularization and misapplications of BMI to the 1970s and 80s, culminating in its adoption as a standard in 1995, based on studies funded by Abbott and Roche, makers of weight-loss drugs that were stuck in a then-more-restrictive approval process by the FDA.

I found that Dark’s essays convey some of what it was like to grow up at the end of the twentieth century as a girl who was bigger than everyone else:
“It’s not that the adults withheld food, but they made us feel bad for eating it. They wanted us to say no to food. They wanted us to deprive ourselves, and why would they want that if we were really worthwhile? It was hard to figure out as a young person…. Some girls, like me, were never lovable when we were eating. We were already too large, already a problem to be solved. Even if we were hungry and the kitchen was full, even if everyone was eating together, even if a family member made something we loved, in order to show love, we were supposed to not eat it.”

My reaction to Dark’s continual references to her work as a yoga teacher was to find them slightly defensive and repetitive, but clearly her work helps her take a stand as a fat activist. I like what she says about dignity:
“Remember that your dignity can heal others. Every time you calmly stand against the lie of the bad body, time stops. When someone sneers or laughs at your body and you calmly refuse to take the shame you are being handed, time stops. And in that brief quivering moment, a new world is born from your bravery.”

Laura Lippman’s essay is also about claiming your own dignity. She says “every day, everywhere I go, the culture is keen to remind me how repulsive I am. I thump the culture on the chest, push back and say one of the most infuriating things a woman can ever say: Actually, I like the way I look.”

Sometimes, though, what feels like dignity to people like me is called “glorifying obesity” by others. Gordon says that
“objections about fat people ‘glorifying obesity’ are entirely rooted in bias and disgust. Those objections are products of deep anti-fat bias, weapons wielded to perpetuate anti-fatness, to literally and figuratively cut fat people down to size. Commenters don’t seek to understand fatness or fat people; they do not want to see us. And the accusation that we are glorifying obesity and exacerbating a so-called obesity epidemic means that they aren’t judging others based on appearance; they are vanquishing threats to public health….conversations about ‘glorifying obesity’ often reveal that the accuser is concerned that seeing fat people depicted without stigma will ‘encourage obesity.’ As if we all need to be reminded constantly that fatness means unending sorrow, public bullying, and a life of Sisyphean dieting, losing and regaining the same 30 pounds ad infinitum.”

And, as Gordon adds,
“perhaps the most frequent refrain of my life as a fat person is thinner people expressing a ‘concern for my health,’ frequently without knowing anything about it. Their concern for my personal health may be genuine, but it’s also based in deeply regressive, inaccurate stereotypes about fat people—that we cannot be healthy, that we do not know how to be healthy, and that we need a thin person to teach us.”

The toughest place to feel like you have any dignity, no matter your size, is on an airplane. Both Gordon and Dark write at length about the extraordinary struggles large people experience when they dare to fly.

Gordon’s chapter on the subject is entitled “Myth 18: Fat People Should Pay For a Second Airplane Seat.” She tells the stories of people who have been been escorted off of planes because thin passengers are irritated that their bodies touched their own or because a flight attendant has decided they are “too fat to fly.” As she says and as I have experienced, “among the most persistent challenges of flying while fat is navigating the maze of airline policies about when and whether we’ll be permitted to stay on a flight. Current policies…vary substantially from airline to airline….Within the United States, domestic airlines have a patchwork of policies that require fat passengers to conduct extensive research to see if we’ll be permitted to stay on the flight.”

Here are a few of the stated policies for a few of the airlines that operate in the United States:
“Southwest passengers must purchase a second seat but may call after their trip to request a refund….Alaska Airlines requires that customers pay for a second seat if they “cannot comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in the down position.” Fat passengers can call customer service to request a refund for the second seat after travel, but it will only be granted if the flight had at least one vacant seat. Hawaiian Airlines recommends that fat passengers buy a second seat but notes, if it’s booked online, that second seat is ‘not guaranteed to be adjacent.’”

What makes planning for a flight more difficult, as Gordon says, is that airlines don’t make much of the necessary information available. “Policies may require us to fit in a seat but never disclose that seat’s width….Spirit Airlines requires purchase of a second seat if a passenger is ‘unable to sit in a single seat with the armrests lowered’ but doesn’t disclose the distance between those armrests….American Airlines and JetBlue go one step further, disclosing neither their seat measurements nor their policies for removing fat passengers from flights.”

The last time I lost a significant amount of weight (something I’ve done regularly throughout my life) was during the winter of 2020. I had recently been pulled aside by a Southwest Airlines agent at the St. Louis airport while waiting for a flight home with my husband and questioned about my ability to fit into the seat. It was the first time that had ever happened to me, and I decided to make sure it would not happen for the flights I had scheduled in March and April. So I severely restricted what I ate and exercised more than usual and lost twenty pounds. Then the lockdowns happened and the events I planned to fly to were canceled. I stayed home, and what happened next is what always happens after I lose a significant amount of weight—I gained it all back, plus some extra.

Now I still have that extra weight. Buying a ticket to fly anywhere is an expensive gamble, as Gordon notes, because “thin passengers complaining is a frequent trigger for fat passengers being escorted from the plane….If they get their way, a fat passenger will be kicked off their flight. Sometimes, they won’t be offered another flight. Other times, they won’t be offered a refund….Most airline policies….set up a bizarre dynamic: one in which the fate of the fat passengers rests with the discomfort and bias of whoever happens to sit next to us.”

In an essay titled “Cozy or Uncomfortable: Tight Public Places,” Dark talks about the discomforts of flying. She describes how it can feel:
“I can see the judgment on my seatmate’s face sometimes, especially if I’m already seated when he or she approaches….the pain is the possibility of inconveniencing someone, invoking someone’s irritation just by being there….There are set rituals on the airplane that help us pretend we are not in such close proximity. It’s not that the contact is much less comfortable, it’s that touching ruins the illusion that we are really enjoying private space. Nothing private is happening in the space the airline sells us. The fat passenger dispels the illusion, and this can cause anger.”

But Dark tells a story about how she once had a pleasant experience on a flight; she was seated next to a person named Kalani who she describes as “a big guy” and was pleasantly surprised at the way he tried to make them both comfortable even though they were strangers and their bodies were touching. “He accepted that he was going to be touching me,” she says, “that we would be sharing an experience, and his acceptance made me more comfortable.” She mentions that “as a man, he might have felt more entitled to the space, but some of that gift was cultural….In Hawaiian culture…fat people are not generally felt to be useless, lazy, or invisible.”

Individuals from other cultures may vary, of course. The most unpleasant experience I’ve ever had on a plane was when a man from India palpably bristled with indignation at being seated next to me. He finally simmered down when I turned to him and apologized, explaining that I bought a seat in first class but that when the flight was canceled, the airline put me in a smaller seat next to him to make my connection for an international flight.

I’m taking a trip with a friend in March, and although we intended to buy first class seats, she ended up having to buy regular seats on the kind of small, regional airplanes that connect us to flights at larger airports. I guess we’ll see whether anyone complains or if we’re allowed to stay on the flight.

I’ve decided that I’m not going to work on losing weight again because I can’t afford to regain it afterwards; the cycle has to stop. In an afterword to Dark’s essay collection, nutritionist Linda Bacon points out “it is well established that biological safeguards—some we understand and others we don’t—cause our bodies to resist long-term weight loss. Failure to maintain weight loss is not a personal failure of will.”
But can I get that on a lapel button?

Even if I’m okay with the way I look, that won’t matter much if I can’t go anywhere. My hope is that my invisibility as an old woman in our society will continue to grow as long as I’m lucky enough to continue to get old.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2023 1:07 am

    My generation grew up with Fat is a Feminist Issue. I still have my much-underlined copy – covered in plain brown paper.

    I have four younger sisters. I measured all our wrists once – all four of them have wrists that are 2/3 the circumference of mine. I look like my sturdy Hungarian forebears, the ones who survived winters. I have no idea where my sisters came from.

    • February 5, 2023 8:14 am

      Oh yes, I read and reread Fat is a Feminist Issue too, and loved the part of Lippman’s essay about books one would only read standing up in a bookstore. Covering it in plain brown paper–that’s farther than I would go, although by the time I was reading it I was past adolescence.

  2. February 6, 2023 6:52 am

    Aubrey Gordon is such a terrific writer and thinker; I’ve learned a ton from her. My recollection is that you’re not a big podcast listener — is that right? If you listen to podcasts even occasionally I can’t recommend Aubrey Gordon’s podcast Maintenance Phase enough. It’s just a terrific, fun listen, and the two hosts have wonderful chemistry.

    • February 6, 2023 9:44 am

      Thanks for mentioning her podcast here; I’ve heard from multiple sources that it’s very good.
      I don’t listen to podcasts at all, ever. I’m not very good at understanding information I hear; I have problems with auditory discrimination (filtering out background noise).

  3. February 6, 2023 12:44 pm

    I also follow the Maintenance Phase podcast with Aubrey Gordon – it’s a treasure trove of good solid information and de-bunking weight loss and wellness myths. I’m heartened to see it’s popular and has gotten a lot of acclaim so I am hopeful that Gordon’s message is reaching more and more people. Sadly, it’s still a minority – fatphobia is rampant in America. The airline policies you mention are infuriating. I don’t understand how hard it apparently is to be decent to everyone regardless of size.

    • February 6, 2023 3:41 pm

      Gordon is definitely reaching more people lately, and I’m grateful to her for it.
      I think it’s Gordon who makes the point that it’s hard for some people to be “decent” to other people who they think have a choice, whether it’s about body size or who they love.

  4. February 6, 2023 12:56 pm

    I’m very interested in this misuse of the BMI index. I’ve seen all of these scenarios at play on airplanes, restaurants, and other places…

    • February 6, 2023 3:42 pm

      No surprise, but I think you’re more observant than most. I never noticed these scenarios until the first time it happened to me, at the gate for a SW flight in the airport at St. Louis.

      • February 7, 2023 10:51 am

        When we went to Disney the first time, a lady who would have been seated next to me in a ride was told she had to get out of my car and go to another one alone because of her size. I was far smaller than I am now, but I was fine with her in the ride because it was a three-person ride. I was so offended. I told them to let her be, but she said it was fine and went on her way. I felt awful.

        • February 7, 2023 11:37 am

          She was no doubt used to being treated that way. Sometimes rides have height and weight limits so people fit the specs for who can ride safely, like small planes where they sometimes ask folks to spread out to distribute weight evenly. That doesn’t feel as personal as when a thin person complains that someone who would rather not be is touching them.

          • February 7, 2023 2:00 pm

            I was just upset because I was the one next to her and didn’t complain at all. It was just assumed I wanted her to move! Ridiculous.

  5. February 6, 2023 1:24 pm

    It’s shocking that airlines get away with treating people so badly.

    • February 6, 2023 3:48 pm

      It should be shocking, but as Gordon notes in a part I didn’t quote, the airlines call it customer service when they respond to the complaints of thin people who feel their personal space has been invaded.
      I always ask for a window seat because when the seat is too small I can usually press my hips into the armrest next to the window and bend my spine to match the curve of the plane, so my shoulders don’t touch anyone else’s.

  6. February 7, 2023 6:50 pm

    I’m so glad you read this. Reading about fat activism has been a long, painful journey for me, mostly because it is not uncommon for thin woman to write fat protagonists who hate themselves, lose weight, fall in love with their BFF male friend (who has always been there!), the end. Marilyn Wann is considered one of the OG’s of this work. I also recommend Hanne Blank’s book about exercise, which is on my blog.

    • February 7, 2023 8:15 pm

      Thanks! You’re bringing me up to date on this topic, which I’d set aside for the last few years when my paying job was demanding more than its share of my attention.

      • February 9, 2023 8:10 am

        I’m so glad! And I’m always looking for an ally, so I’m happy to have you coming along with me.

  7. February 8, 2023 4:31 pm

    Very interesting post. I’m a longtime fan of Gordon’s Maintenance Phase podcast. It has really changed the way I think about many things. I’m also 6’5″ tall and big. Even if people keep their seats upright there’s not really enough room for me so Airplane rides are not fun. Even business class is out of my price range so I’m just planning road trips and train rides in retirement.

    • February 8, 2023 4:45 pm

      Are trains better, in your experience? They don’t always pack people in as much as planes, so maybe the adjacent seat is free for people with wide hips and shoulders, but my experience on the Metra train in Chicagoland is that the seats can be difficult for people with long legs.

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