Archive for the Blog Category

On Strong4Life and the Ideology of Health

(To preface, none of this is new info. This is an undergraduate essay and its aim is largely to prove that I understand the concept of ideology and how to apply it to a media example. Also, I quote Puhl here but let it be said that I take issue with a lot of what she says in general. That said, it’s a big EFF YOU to Strong4Life, so I’m posting it.)

Introduction

In mid-2011, the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Hospital began phase 1 of its five-year, $25 million anti-obesity campaign in Atlanta, Georgia. This campaign aims to curb childhood obesity by engaging in self-proclaimed “harsh” and controversial advertisements via billboards placed all around the city—specifically in lower-income areas that, unsurprisingly, are assumed to have higher instances of obesity.  Strong4Life’s billboards[1] are a grim and veritable tableau of fat stereotypes; stark black and white photos featuring dour and unkempt fat children in too-tight, outdated clothing and slapped with bright red WARNING labels beneath which such myth-laden gems as “It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not” and “Big bones didn’t make me this way, big meals did.”

The resulting controversy is not unexpected. A fierce ideological battle is being waged—online and off, across social media platforms, in magazines, blogs and personal pocketbooks—between a surprising mix of unnatural allies (it’s not often that Fat Activist[2] groups find common ground with the National Institutes of Health (NIH)[3]) and the largely unruffled Status Quo. At the heart of this battle lay the conflicting ideologies of ‘health and good citizenship’ and those who would see an end to fat stigma and the overall problematization of fat bodies.

As the stigmatization of fat people—most specifically children—has real-world impacts on their overall health and well-being, including access to adequate medical care, equal employment opportunities and mental health (Puhl and Latner: 2007), and as, in some fashion, the focus on fat itself as the enemy shifts focus away from deeper systems of oppression, allowing the Status Quo to shift blame for society’s perceived ills on the individual rather than back on itself, this essay will examine the use of ideology in this instance per Thompson’s definition as “meaning in the service of power” (1990: 7).


THE “WAR ON OBESITY”

While the “epidemic of” and subsequent “war on” obesity has been raging for decades, things took a dramatic turn in 1998 when the NIH introduced changes to its BMI scale that would see 25 million additional Americans classified as obese or overweight overnight.[4]

The resultant moral panic (Campos, et al. 2006) has lead to a relentless flurry of media activity, countless governmental and medical initiatives, and an uprise in anti-fat bias, even from within the medical establishment (Puhl, and Brownell 2001).

I propose that the dominant discourses surrounding health as it pertains to obesity are part of a larger symbolic system through which pass the ideological requirements for active and productive citizenship. I also propose that the “problem of obesity” is a tidy package in which class, race and ability-based oppressions intersect and that, in villanizing fat individuals based on the perception of fat as a self-induced state, society avoids the problem of unpacking these oppressions and taking action to alleviate them.  Saguy and Almeling have this to say on the subject:

“Are the visibly “obese” – who are also disproportionately poor women of color  – the folk devils in the “obesity epidemic,” whose apparent lack of self-control and irresponsibility symbolize many social ills of contemporary society?  Discussion of obesity as a “preventable” disease that people bring on themselves through gluttony or sloth or on their children through lax parenting (or, more specifically, mothering) do indeed seem to suggest this reading.  According to this line of argument, fat bodies literally embody a rejection of dominant American values of hard work, self-discipline, and the dream of self-actualization.” (2009: 2)

Nowhere has this fear of and repulsion for sloth, greed, lack of intelligence, and irresponsibility been more manifest than in our mad scramblings to ‘save’ our children from the mythical horrors of obesity. And yet, studies have overwhelmingly shown that, in attempting to do so, we are both exacerbating the supposed problem of obesity and contributing to the ill-health of children, fat and thin alike.

To follow Thompson’s argument (1990) that ideological ideas become social realities, a study by Rebecca Puhl and Janet Latner says that “exposure to and internalization of stigma increases cortisol and metabolic abnormalities, which in turn further increases abdominal fat and perpetuates obesity, leading to additional stigma.” (2007: 570) While they note that this hypothesis requires further testing, it is based on an earlier study[5] of racism and stigmatization that held similar findings.

Puhl prefaces this argument by exposing the reality of the stigmatization that fat children face at the hands of peers and adults by citing twelve studies done between 1991 and 2004. These studies show that children are especially prone to the internalization of these prejudices and that, in doing so, risk their social, emotional, and academic development, as well as their overall physical and mental health (2007).


COUNTER-IDEOLOGIES

As referenced earlier, the site of Strong4Life’s battle against childhood obesity is also rich and fertile ground for the passing of counter-ideologies which seek to legitimize fat bodies as something other than merely problems awaiting solution.

In a process of appropriation, a mocking campaign called Stand4Kids was recently launched by Fat Activist, Marilyn Wann[6]. The campaign parodies Strong4Life’s advertisements by stealing their format and replacing the sour-faced children with vibrant, joyful fat people of all sizes, by changing the WARNING to “I Stand4Kids” and adding slogans such as “I stand for joyful activity for all, free from shame” and “I stand for treating all kids with health and respect. Hate does not equal Health.”

In a Gramsci-esque move, a related campaign[7] successfully raised $21k in under a week to fund a billboard in Georgia which will challenge the ideologies represented by Strong4Life’s campaign.

CONCLUSION

In the service of power rather than children, in preservation of the Status Quo, in protection of the thin veil across the many intersecting oppressions that would require more effort, more funding and more accountability to resolve than it has ever been the predilection of dominant society to offer, Strong4Life’s ad campaign harnesses fear and uses naturalized myth and blatant shaming tactics to reinforce dominant ideologies of health and productive citizenship.

And yet, as Gramsci suggests (as referenced in Harman 2007), and as the Stand4Kids organizers can attest to, ideology is not fixed, power is not absolute, and battles are waged constantly to shift balances of power, public opinion and perceptions of self. I know which side I’m rooting for.


[1] http://www.about-face.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/strong4life.jpg
[2]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat_acceptance_movement
[3]
http://fiercefatties.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/nichd-letter.pdf
[4]
http://edition.cnn.com/HEALTH/9806/17/weight.guidelines/
[5]
Butler, Tull, Chambers, & Taylor, 2002 – not cited.
[6]
http://www.fatso.com
[7]
http://www.gofundme.com/dp16w

REFERENCES

 Campos, Paul, et al . “The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?.” International Journal of Epidemiology. 2006.33 55-60. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/35/1/55.full.pdf html>.

Harman, Chris. “Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and philosophy.” International Socialism. 2007.114 n. page. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=308&issue=114Gramsci,>.

Puhl, Rebecca, and Kelly Brownell. “Bias, Discrimination, and Obesity.” Obesity Research. 2001.9 788–805. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v9/n12/pdf/oby2001108a.pdf>.

Puhl, Rebecca, and Janet Latner. “Stigma, Obesity, and the Health of the Nation’s Children.” Psychological Bulletin. 133.4 (2007): 557–580 . Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nichq.org/pdf/PsychBUL Rebecca Puhl.pdf>.

Saguy, Abigail. and Almeling, Rene. “Fat Panic! The “Obesity Epidemic” as Moral Panic” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Marriott Hotel, Loews Philadelphia Hotel, Philadelphia, PA, Aug 12, 2005 2009-05-25 <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p22928_index.html>

I Stand for a refusal to internalize the rhetoric of moral panic that surrounds my body

On Compassion and Liminality

I have a feeling that this kind of thing is going to happen a lot over the next few years — some reading I do in class will light a fire under my ass and I’ll write a bunch of sophomoric blog posts which naively incorporate (unresearched and uncited) theory I only nominally understand in hopes of making points that were probably made by ten thousand people before me, but which are new to me, and possibly new to some of you, and therein retain some small fraction of value.  And stuff.

This time I want to talk about Compassion and Liminality. For those unfamiliar (as I was up until about 3 days ago) with the word liminal and with what a liminal state is, I’ll do a quick overview.

According to Victor Turner (an anthropologist noted for his work on ritual and rites of passage) the liminal state is that which is ‘betwixt and between’ — it marks that bit of limbo between fixed states of being in which a person is no longer one thing, and not yet the other and somehow still both; neither child nor adult, neither spirit nor flesh, neither male nor female–you get the point. Turner speaks of this stage largely in relation to coming of age rituals and/or other rituals of transformation both in far-off cultures and in cultures like our own.  There’s clearly a lot more to it than a simple summary can explain but, for the sake of brevity, I’m naming only the most relevant bits.

Outside this structure of ritual transformation, there are lots of ways to be liminal (or perceived as liminal.) For example, the transgender body (whether true or not for the transgender individual) can be often be perceived by the general populace as neither fully male nor fully female and yet retaining elements of both. Likewise, the fat body is constantly conscripted to a state of liminality, whether agreed upon or not by the fat individual, in that it is seen through our culture’s hegemonic lens as an issue awaiting resolution. Anyone who’s ever stated publicly that they like their fat body exactly the way it is will know what kind of a reaction that can bring from ‘concerned’ friends and family. The idea of a fat body as a fixed state is completely counter-culture.

As Mary Douglas (another famous anthropologist) said, the tendency of humans, when confronted with things that are unclear (neither one thing nor the other) is to view them as unclean.  Clearly this is at play in thousands of ways, every day; in the extremes of politics which define a moral right or wrong, in the hallows of religion which dictate a good and an evil, in the frenzy of war which declares one friend or enemy.  These positions look on all that lies between these extremes with suspicion,  intolerance or outright loathing.  And yet, for the vast majority of us, life is lived at all points along this spectrum — in the black, in the white and mostly within the myriad shades of grey that cloud and color our sacred clarity with all the complexity and confusion inherent in navigating a human life.

Why am I talking about this?  Because I want to apply it to human relationships. More specifically, I want to apply it to the way in which human beings tend to disregard liminality and transition in their analysis and assessment of one another inside of relationships.  Because we are averse to things which confound us in their in-completion it is often our tendency to view others as being in a fixed state, e.g. – to view behaviors and characteristics as truly representative–in the present tense–of what people have been in the past and/or will be in the future.  And yet each of us know, for our own selves, that we are constantly in flux, absorbing new information, reflecting on the past, aspiring towards the future and adjusting our views accordingly.  The human experience is variable and dynamic and not one of us is the same today as we were a week, a month, a year ago.

Nowhere is this clearer, to me at least, than in the ending of relationships. Personally, in the context of finality, I have been doggedly and non-consensually told the story of myself more times than I care to think on. This has happened in all sorts of relationships – love relationships, friendships, peer/activist affiliations, etc.  I have also done this in the past as well and may again do it in the future if I forget to be mindful, so ingrained is the tendency to do so. And it is my opinion that in this inclination to define one another, to seek to tell another who they truly are or who we perceive them to be, there lies a void of true compassion. By clinging to a moment in time, or a specific behavior, and giving it all the weight of a fixed state of being, we render the person both without a past (which may influence the current moment) and without a future (in which life experience and new perspectives may lead to a new state of being.)

While it is absolutely appropriate to address behaviors and/or perspectives we may find problematic, the failing of compassion lies in the assumption that any period of liminality (and in the course of a lifetime, I propose that we are near-constantly found in the ‘betwixt and between’) could provide the basis for a fair and accurate assessment of the entirety of any being.  To presume that we can know what a behavior means, that we can view any behavior or set of behaviors objectively without our own lived experience skewing our interpretation, to assume that we can infer the intent from the surface manifestation — these beliefs cloud compassion and relegate others to ‘types’ or a ‘kinds’ of people that fit into our limited world view.

The challenge I issue, both to myself and to others, is to be mindful in conflict and in resolution of the ways in which our discomfort with transition clouds our perspectives on those we are relating to; to avoid language which defines another being (this includes simply prefacing judgments with an “I” statement (“I feel that you are…”)); to view one another as beings in transition, as neither everything they used to be nor anything they are to become and yet always a sum of both. In being nothing, we are all things and can always be viewed with the potential to be so.

(Creative Commons image courtesy http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-313116995)

Things that make me ugly-cry for no rational reason at all

I checked my email this morning to find the bi-weekly “Note from the Universe” (because I’m from Portland, Oregon and surface attempts at self-actualization are required for maintained citizenship) and read this:

An old soul is not an old soul by virtue of age, Stacy, but for their patience, self-measure, and happy tears for no apparent reason.

Hmmmmm,
The Universe

I started reading the email with my usual mix of sarcasm, cynicism, yet just enough doe-eyed belief in an anthropomorphized Universe to keep me reading anyway. Generally my reaction at reading these goes something like this:

‘Huh. I wonder if this guy actually makes money doing this? Maybe I should start an email list like ‘Things your nose is thinking.’ – but hey, that’s a good point about <insert broadly applicable feel-good-but-just-challenging-enough-to-seem-wise-topic-here>’ at which point I shrug and hit the delete key.

This time, however, was different. By the time I hit the “Hmmmm”, I was sold – hook, Line and Spiritual-Sinker. Let me explain.

My mother and I share a much-maligned tendency towards the random and spontaneous ugly-cry. Mom’s partner, after more than a decade together, finds it simultaneously hilarious and infuriating. And in my relationship, it’s still early enough to be considered adorable. (I’m expecting an exasperated sigh any day now, marking the exact moment that romance died.) Also, according to my Mom, it just gets worse with age. Looking forward to that.

SO, clearly this guy’s a genius. Forget everything I said about being a cynic. It makes perfect sense that our perpetual waterworks are not, in fact, a gross and comedic genetic flaw nor are they indicative of some deep-seated emotional trauma which there isn’t enough therapy on earth to unravel. OBVIOUSLY they’re an indication of our vast spiritual superiority over our more stoic contemporaries. To this end, I offer up evidence supporting my claims of being better than anyone who doesn’t cry at that video where the huge lion hugs that one dude.

Big Fish

Sea World. San Diego. As I sat on the cold, steel bleachers and stared at a rippling surface of the water, I began to feel the familiar stirrings. Then out came Shamu. There was nothing to be done at that point. It was all over. I pulled my shirt sleeve down and set to work slyly mopping up the evidence, face turned to the side, shoulders shaking in quiet heartbreak. My long-term girlfriend at the time turned to look at me with a mix of concern and suspicion. “You’re crying because he’s a big fish, aren’t you?” I shook my head in the affirmative, mostly ‘cuz I was too overcome to speak any actual words. She sighed, pet me on the knee and went back to watching the show. Like usual.

Are you trying to kill me?!”

Pretty much the best way to incapacitate me with emotion is to show me a flash mob video. If it has a dancing element, it’s actually possible to paralyze me with the weeping. The dancing can be professional or like a bad audition on America’s Got Talent. The music can be beautiful and inspiring, or it can be one dude with bronchitis and a kazoo. It doesn’t matter. All that DOES matter is that there are two or more people doing something vaguely synchronized to some kind of soundtrack, at which point I am undone.

Really!?

In perhaps the most convincing testimony in my case for spiritual advance, I bring you open weeping at none other than Riverdance. Yes. Riverdance. The deeply infuriating prancing of ego-maniacal man-divas and the relentless clompity-clompity-clomping of their backup babes. Clearly, given my already admitted weakness for synchronized dance, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my emotional reaction. And yet, my loathing for Riverdance is so deeply embedded in my subconscious that nothing could have prepared me for the tears as they arrived. I sat there in the free seat I had accepted as a lark, as full of rage and confusion about the tears as I was about the dancing itself. This moment, which at the time felt like the greatest injury perpetrated by my inherited weepiness can now, in the light of new information, only be explained as the moment in which I attained enlightenment.

Fat-Friendly London: Overground Trains

London Overground Logo - a white circle with a thick orange border and a blue line through it with the phrase "OVERGROUND" in capital letters.

Note: To see my physical stats, visit the Flying While Fat article. They’re listed at the top and can help you to determine if these tips are applicable to you. I can only speak for folks who are generally my size and proportion and/or those who are smaller. For those with different shapes, larger bodies or differing abilities – YMMV.

 

As part of an ongoing series of Fat-Friendly Travel posts, today we’re covering the London Overground, a network of above-ground trains that supplement the more iconic London Underground. As may seem clear from the title, the main difference between the Overground and the Underground is that the Overground trains travel (for the most part) above ground whereas the Underground is, well, exactly that.

The London Overground was originally part of standard British Rail and is still used as standard rail transport, both passenger and freight, as well as being part of general public transport. This dual use accounts for its lesser frequency and smaller number of lines (5 to the Underground’s 11) which makes it a slightly less-frequented form of transport–bearing in mind, however, that with London’s booming population, less-frequented means only that you might sometimes get a seat vs. a guarantee of being sardined ass-to-belly with a hundred strangers.

There are about an equal number of general pros and cons on the London Overground as a fat passenger.

 

PROS:

    * – Because it is used slightly less frequently, and especially at off-peak hours, it’s quite possible that you might enter a sparsely populated train. This is always nice. Choice end-seats are often available and, even if not, there can be a near guarantee of an empty seat beside you. (This is less true during early morning and late afternoon/evening transit. My experience is slightly biased by my student schedule.)

    * – Many of the trains and stations on the Overground are newer than most which means some have toilet facilities, roughly half have fully or partially accessible (step/stair-free) entrances/exits and all carriages have designated priority seating as well as wheelchair bays.

    * – Scenery is nice!

 

CONS:

    * – The biggest bummer is the arm rests. All of the newer trains have designated seats, demarcated by immovable armrests. These aren’t much bigger than airplane seats, though the armrests are not solid from top to seat, meaning that your hips can squish through a bit if need-be. There’s a full interior shot of an overground train here to see what I mean.

    * – This can be a Pro or a Con, depending on how you feel about it. In addition to the armrests, there are occasionally glass dividers between sections of seats. If you look in the interior photo linked above and view it at full resolution, you can just make one out next to the woman with the short blonde hair. There’s a bit of glass and an orange grip bar right next to her. I have a love/hate with these. I appreciate them because they mean that, if I’m on a full train, I’m leaning up against glass instead of another passenger. At the same time, they remove a bit of shoulder room. It depends on my mood that day how I feel about them. Sometimes I’m grateful for the buffer, sometimes I’d rather have the room.

    * – I can’t think of a third con, so I’m mentioning those stupid armrests again.

 

Preferred Seating Options

 

    Front/Back of Train – At the very front and the very back of the train are little compartments with three seats to either side. For whatever lovely reason, the left and right-most seats on both sides have slightly more butt-room. You can see in the second photo that there’s a gap between the seat and the armrest. That gap makes a big difference! The priority seats seem to be the most comfortable, but be watchful for those who may require them and be sure to give them up if need-be. Unfortunately, quite a few folks have figured out this trick so be sure to stand at the very end or the very beginning of the station platform. This will help give you first crack at grabbing one of the seats, providing they’re not already occupied when you board.

     

    Accessibility Seats

    When not occupied by those using a wheelchair, the accessibility bay provides a good option for those folks who may not comfortably fit within the borders of those stupid immovable armrests. If I am remembering correctly, there is only one wheelchair bay per train and it tends to be exactly in the middle. Again, as these seats both do not have armrests and also provide extra hip room, they’re often quickly occupied so chances can be slim of grabbing one on crowded trains. As well, when choosing to sit in the accessibility area of a train, extra vigilance is required at each stop to be sure that you are prepared to move out of the way quickly if required.

    These seats fold down and, as you can see from the photo, the seat furthest to the right has the most hip room.

     

    Standing Bays

    In the case that all the preferred seating is occupied and/or the train is simply full, there are places to stand that can offer a bit of comfort for a long train ride. To either side of each train entrance there are little standing bays that have grip bars and a padded, sloping inset just at or slightly below bum-level. (This is based on my 5’8″ height – I cannot speak for those significantly shorter than myself.) The benefits of these are twofold — first, offering a space to be out of the way of the main traffic throughways and, most importantly, offering a place to comfortably lean and take a bit of a load off of your feet. It’s not quite the same as sitting but it’s nicer than standing in the center of an aisle and being jostled back and forth with every stop and start. Again, on crowded trains these are quickly occupied but since there are 4 at each entrance (two to either side and two across to the sides of the alternate door) chances are one or two will be available on the train. Don’t hesitate to walk from one compartment to the next once-boarded and, if you don’t get one when you board, keep an eagle-eye at the next stop as often people will pop into these compartments if they’re only riding one or two stops so they’re commonly abandoned.

 

So there you have it – the full heft of my Overground knowledge. Hope it’s helpful! If you liked this, please share it with others on Facebook or Twitter and if you have any specific questions or companion knowledge, please ask or share in comments so others can benefit! For other guides, see Flying While Fat and the guide to Double Decker Buses!

Fat-Friendly London: Double Decker Buses

Note: To see my physical stats, visit the Flying While Fat article. They’re listed at the top and can help you to determine if these tips are applicable to you. I can only speak for folks who are generally my size and proportion and/or those who are smaller. For those with different shapes, larger bodies or differing abilities – YMMV.

Anxiety can be a big hurdle for folks who are trying to make their way in a world that isn’t necessarily built for them. I know that, in the past, I have avoided trying new restaurants for fear that I won’t find comfortable seating, have worried about hair salons, dentist chairs, doctors, clubs and performance venues/movie theaters. I have avoided certain modes of transportation (again, see my flying tips for more information on that) and in general, have come at the world from a place of fear — letting the worry of an awkward moment (for example, having to ask for a different chair or having to ask friends to move to a different restaurant entirely) stop me from exploring.

This is a really natural reaction to a genuinely unjust situation and if any of you are struggling with similar thoughts and feelings, I have no intention of telling you to just “get over it” and “get out there” anyway. There is absolutely no shame in being impacted by challenges presented to those whose bodies fall outside the (subjective and arbitrary) social norm. I want to honor how much of a reality this ongoing discomfort and general anxiety is for fat folks, for people with differing levels of mobility and/or for anyone whose body, for any reason, requires more detailed consideration and mindfulness when navigating the world. That said–though I won’t lie and say that it’s easy to take risks every day where both my emotional well-being and my physical comfort are concerned–I do feel more connected and engaged with the world around me when I venture outside the places I already know. To aid those who may have similar struggles, I want to start a series of blogs in which the purpose is twofold:

First, I intend to demystify the little bits of London I travel in my daily life and to slowly create a fat-friendly guide to London that might be helpful to both folks who live here and folks who might consider traveling to visit. Second, to show, via realistic portrayal of my own experience, that often the rewards of exploration are greater than the discomfort. I’ll be making posts, with photos where possible, that combine honest, first-person accounts with any helpful tips I’m able to gather in my adventures.

To wit: London Transport!

Public transport is the great equalizer. Everyone begrudgingly grabs the same germ-laden railings, everyone wishes that kid would STOP CRYING, and nobody really wants to be there. While public transport is no one’s favorite pastime, it is especially the bugbear of the fatty. That feeling of being picked last for a grade school dodgeball team is omnipresent on a bus or train ride. When every possible seat on the entire bus fills before the one next to you, or when you see that look of resignation or annoyance on the faces of folks you opt to sit next to, it’s hard to not take that personally. I used to squish myself up against the wall, making myself as small as possible, just in hopes of avoiding that scenario. When someone chose to sit next to me (especially when there were other available seats) it felt like some little bit of normalcy that I’d so often been denied was finally granted. I craved that weird togetherness, the (literally) uncomfortable camaraderie of strangers forced to share space.

With time, I’ve gotten over wanting anything other than a seat to myself. I put my bag down in the seat next to me. I cross my legs and spread out. After spending at least 2 hours a day on public transport for several months now, I consider the general hesitance to share a seat with a fat person to be more a gift than an annoyance. And it’s been a good experiment in challenging my tendency to care what total strangers think of me. Some Pollyanna part of me will always wish for shared experience. It’s in my nature to appreciate that. But it’s now also in my nature to appreciate not having to sit next to that weird guy who won’t stop whistling.

Double Decker Buses

These are fun to ride! Well, as fun as public transport can be. First, you’re in a Double Decker Bus! Like the one on the postcards! The novelty of that doesn’t wear off for a while. Second, if you’re ok with stairs, sitting on the upper deck gives you an amazing view of the city as you travel and that’s always a bonus.

Tips & Hints:

Lower Level: This level fills up fast so you will rarely get a seat to yourself, even in off-peak hours. On some buses, there is a single seat just as you step inside the door that requires one step up and that’s a good option as it’s slightly wider than a single seat but not wide enough to share. This is listed as a Priority Seat, however, and should be offered up to anyone whose mobility may be less than yours – which means you could find yourself displaced.

If you prefer to stand, there is often open space toward the middle of the bus for those who use wheelchairs or for prams (strollers) and those with luggage. Providing there is room, this is an ideal place to stand as you can be tucked away from the major throughway. Again, however, you may be displaced if the space is needed for any of the above purposes.

Note also that there is slightly less room for your knees on the seats between the first and last row in the rear section of the bus. Avoid these if you are long-of-leg.

Upper Level: The upper level is fantastic if you are comfortable with stairs. It took me a few trips to learn how to properly navigate the stairs while the bus was in motion but I did get the hang of it eventually. It’s generally less populated than the lower level of the bus as people tend to fill seats from the bottom up. This means your chances are better of getting your own seat.

There are two areas of the bus that I prefer for seating, the first row and the row just behind the stairs.

The First Row:
A photo showing the first row of the upper deck of a double decker bus in London

On both sides of the bus there are two seats that directly face the window. Upsides: There’s a tad bit of extra leg room and you don’t have to stare at the back of anyone’s head. It’s beautiful, uninterrupted scenery and a little bit of an oasis from shared space if you’re feeling more private – especially on the right-hand side which offers no one sitting either in front of or behind you. Downsides: You do have a slightly higher likelihood of having to share seating here as folks tend to plop down in the front if they’re not feeling up for scooting down the aisle. Also, if you have a high center of gravity, this can be a bumpy ride as you’ll feel every pothole in the road being directly over the front tires.

The Seats Behind the Stairs
A photo showing two seats directly behind the stairs on the upper level of a double decker bus in London

These are my favorite seats on the bus. Extra leg room and slightly less sway than in the front of the bus. Also, no one in front of you to eat smelly food or make you listen vicariously to craptastic pop music that’s been auto-tuned within an inch of its life. Also, in the summer when things heat up, you’re in the direct line of the air conditioning, which is a blessed, blessed thing. The only downside is having to watch people almost fall down the stairs. This could be an upside if you’re a sadist.

The Dismount:

Speaking of stairs, it’s common courtesy for the bus driver and fellow passengers to already be down (or on the way down) the stairs when the bus arrives at its stop. This means folks don’t have to wait as long at each stop. This also means moving around the bus while it’s in motion. I’ve learned that the trick to the dismount is to try to get down the stairs while the bus is in motion, but not accelerating or decelerating. Easier said than done but if you can manage it, it’s smooth sailing. If not, just hold on and do your best. It’s not graceful for anyone.

Next time – The Overground!

(Double Decker Bus exterior photo courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/discopalace/ via Creative Commons)

Flying while Fat – Superfat Tips for International Air Travel

UPDATES
– 9/14/14 – Added info on Aegean Airlines flight from London to Lesvos, Greece.
– 10/28/13 – Please take the Flying While Fat Survey!
– 10/13/12 – Please note: There is now a Facebook Group for Flying While Fat. Join for discussion, support, and resources.
– 8/20/13 – Updated to add review of Monarch model Boeing 757-200 (757).
– 8/2/13 – Updated to add reviews of United models 767-300 (International), 737-900 (Domestic), A-319 (Domestic), 777-200 (International)
– 8/26/12 – Please note, the FAA has banned Personal Seatbelt Extenders. To complain, follow the instructions here.

– 4/29/12 – added experience with United (formerly Continental) Boeing 777-200ER Flat Bed

Useful Statistics:

I can clearly only speak for fatties of my similar shape/size or smaller – so as to aid you in knowing in advance if this blog post has any relevance to your life, here is my general body situation.  I am 5’8″ (172.5cm) and my weight fluctuates between about 340 and 360. I’m sort of shaped like an oval. Round shoulders, bigger at the top than the bottom, with narrower hips and legs. My pant size varies between a UK26-28. My shirt size varies between UK28-30. I am not one for form-fitting clothing so, if you are, size that down a notch. Note that UK sizing is slightly inconsistent with US sizing. I’ve heard that US sizes are one size larger but I find the whole thing confusing. I can’t find my tape measure but my last recorded ’roundest bit’ measurement was 63″ – including the largest circumference of my belly and butt. Again, the narrower hips aid me a bit in fitting in to plane seats, though the larger upper body means contorting a bit to avoid constantly being banged on the arm by toilet-bound passengers and drink carts. Also, I am relatively able-bodied which means I’m not able to speak first-hand for those whose mobility may differ.

[Quick update: Be sure you check the comments below for additional helpful hints provided by fellow fatties! There’s some amazing stuff in there! — Stacy]

 

First, Don’t be Mislead: Flying Sucks:
There’s no way around that fact. It sucks for everyone, not just the fatties. Even First Class flying sucks. It just sucks a little less and you get a little tiny hot towel that no one actually understands. This blog post does not promise to make flying not suck. There are no secrets you don’t know that open magical doorways to private airplane compartments with overstuffed couches and big screen TVs replaying episodes of Roseanne. But I am hoping that sharing my personal experiences and the resultant tips & hints will help give a realistic portrayal of flying that both acknowledges the whole sucking part while still presenting it as possible, tolerable and, I hope, worth it for the ways in which it opens up myriad possibilities for new life experiences.

My Story:
I’m not exactly sure (year-wise) when I stopped flying. I just know that, at some point, the anticipatory anxiety of air travel began to eclipse any/all perceived benefits of pushing through it.  Being a quadruple leo does me a lot of good as an activist but, personally, it means I tend to care far too much about what other people think. Getting over that will probably be a lifetime endeavor for me and it certainly played a large role in keeping me grounded.  The fear of people staring, saying cruel things, sighing or making a fuss when I sat next to them or, worse, being asked to leave a flight or purchase two seats — all of this felt insurmountable to me.  My world became only as large as my free time and car travel allowed.

Then, A few years ago, I decided to try again. I was working hard and had a little extra money — enough to buy a first class, domestic ticket. I flew from Portland, OR to New York for the annual NOLOSE conference.  It sucked, but I made it. Encouraged, I tried again the next year, this time with a coach ticket on Jet Blue, which I’d heard good things about from fellow fatties.  I lived!  Then, two years ago, I fell in love with my best friend who had, of course, up and moved back to London. Imagine my fatty chagrin. International air travel?!? ME?!? But I steeled myself, determined to not let fear dictate the terms of my love-life.  Fueled by lust and giddy with romance, I closed my eyes and jumped. I did the fatty unthinkable – I booked a single, standard coach seat on an International flight. It was all I could afford. I decided to just get to the airport and let the cards fall where they may.

Imagine my surprise when I actually fit in the seat. And no one said a thing.  Granted, the guy next to me was a bit of a jerk. He actually took up more room than I did in an effort to “put me in my place”. Luckily I was so doe-eyed about my first trip to England and seeing that Girl o’mine that I didn’t have it in me to give a crap. I just rolled my eyes, popped a Tylenol-PM and went to sleep. When I woke up, I was in England! And my whole life changed. I’ve clocked more fatty air miles in the last 2 years than in the rest of my entire life combined. And while it’s never what I’d call enjoyable, it’s possible. Doable. and Tolerable. (for me.)

General Stuff:

Booking: I’ve not yet had to book two seats so I’m afraid I can’t offer any insight on this, though I do know that it’s becoming more common for airlines to have official ‘passenger of size’ policies which you can find either on their various websites or by calling customer service. Bear in mind as most of these policies are new, they may be inconsistently enforced so it’s very important for you to know your rights yourself rather than assuming the staff you come into contact with will. Self-advocacy is paramount.

Some tips: If you’re traveling with a partner, book the aisle and the window seat and leave the middle seat empty. The middle seat is the last choice for *everyone* who travels so if the flight isn’t full, chances are it will remain empty. And if someone does book it, they’ll be grateful to switch to one of the outside seats rather than the middle so you and your travel partner can sit next to one another. It doesn’t always work but it’s nice when it does! Same deal if you’re booking solo — choose a seat where the window or aisle seat where the opposite seat is already taken rather than hoping for an entire row to yourself. Leaving two seats available pretty much guarantees that travel partners will book them.

ALSO: Before you book, clear your browser cookies (not just the cache, the actual *cookies*), close the browser, and then open it again. This is unrelated to fat flying, except I realize how many of us repeatedly visit our favored travel sites to check and double-check information before actually booking. Every time you visit a travel site and view the same flights, the price inches up a bit. This isn’t true everywhere but I’ve experienced it myself so I know it happens. Clearing the browser cookies deletes the information related to your repeated visits and drops you back to the original pricepoint for that flight. Doing this saved me about $50 last time I traveled.

Boarding: If you’re at the back of the plane, opt for the pre-boarding. They don’t really argue at the gate and the boarding call is general: “For our passengers with children or those who require extra time boarding the plane.” Opting for early boarding will save you unintentionally hip-checking a hundred people as you pass down the aisle and will also give you time to ask the Stewards for a seatbelt extension without holding up the line. Granted, asking at the onset may mean they forget with all the hustle. If that happens, don’t fret. Just catch their eye and raise a finger and they’ll likely remember.

Pre-boarding will also allow you to raise the armrest next to you and get settled before your fellow passengers arrive. You can negotiate with them when they arrive about how they feel about leaving the armrest up and, if they are kind, that might afford you another inch or so of hip room.

If you’re toward the front of the plane and in an aisle seat, consider boarding later. This will mean you’re not tucking in your arms while others are lumbering through with their luggage.

Check at the Gate:
You never know who has cancelled last-minute or if people have shifted around on the plane. Explain your situation and ask if there are any seats available next to an empty seat. If they can accommodate you, they will.  And if you somehow end up in a middle seat, ask them to check with any passenger traveling alone in an aisle or window seat to see if they will change places with you. It’s a long-shot, but it never hurts to ask. While you’re at it, ask if there are any empty seats in business or first class. The worst you’ll hear is no.

If you do end up with a middle seat and no alternatives, wait until you are on the plane and ask the passenger next to you to switch. Explain that everyone will be happier if you can lean into the aisle or against the window. Most folks will be too polite to say no.

Windows Vs. Aisles
There’s good and bad to both and what you choose is really up to your personal preference.  Window seats are great if you’ve got a camel bladder like I do. I can hold it with the best of ’em.  The only risk to window seats is that, depending on the placement of the window, you may have more or less shoulder room. This is just a 50/50 risk, plain n’ simple. The curve of a well-placed window is great for leaning, but the hard wall between the curves can make for awkward sleeping. Still, it’s nice to not have to jump up every time someone has to use the bathroom. I got stuck on a plane once with an increasingly manic rugby coach who kept jumping up to snort cocaine in the bathroom. I finally just made him switch seats with me and we were both much happier.

Aisle seats are great for folks who want the option to lean into the aisle. It does make for some arm-bumping if you’re bigger in the upper body like me, but it’s a reasonable trade-off if you don’t mind interrupted snoozing.

Tips while seated: I keep my arms crossed most of the time if I’m flying alone, but eventually this hurts my shoulders and my hands/wrists. It’s also problematic if I fall asleep as my muscles relax. What I’ve done in the past is fashioned a bit of a ‘sling’ out of the blankets they provide. I place the blanket over me as I would normally, and then I grab the corner edges with the opposing hands and pull them in until it’s comfortably tight, then tie them. This helps me relax my arms and shoulders, keep warm, and fall asleep without worrying about accidentally flopping an arm across my neighbor’s lap.

Also, while I’ve not tried this myself, someone mentioned once that, if you’re prone to lower back pain during a flight from holding your legs tightly together, bringing a belt from home and closing it loosely around your upper thighs might allow you to relax those muscles without crowding your neighbor. Just be sure you remove it regularly and move your legs around to maintain proper circulation.

Airplane Bathrooms:
Totally not fun. I’m bendy, thankfully, so I can manage with some acrobatic maneuvering but I avoid drinking water for a couple of hours before any flight and I only drink soda while traveling. Not the healthiest option for hydration’s sake so be careful of you are prone to dehydration and be sure to drink a LOT of water after any flight. Some International flights have accessible bathrooms which tend to be marginally larger. Ask the stewards as you are boarding if there are any on the plane. Best advice: PEE BEFORE YOU GET ON THE PLANE.

Fly with a Lover or Friend:
If you can wrangle it, traveling with a lover or a friend is SO MUCH NICER. My partner happens to be smaller than I am and that has some benefits when traveling. She also likes it when I squish up next to her and that’s awful nice, too.  Traveling with other rad fatties is nice as well. You don’t have to argue about the armrest going up. It’s just a given! The distraction and comfort of traveling with someone you like is really wonderful and a huge stress-reliever. Also, as mentioned above, when traveling with a companion, always book the aisle and the window seat, leaving the middle seat empty. This helps increase your odds of that seat remaining empty unless the flight is full.

Move Around:
Feel free to stand up when the fasten seatbelt signs are off. There’s generally a bit of standing room at the back and/or front of the plane near the restrooms, especially on International flights.  Being wedged into an airplane seat sucks and it’s terrible for your circulation. Standing for even just a few minutes at a time, even just stretching in the aisle next to your seat, offers some welcome relief and helps thwart the potential for flight-induced thrombosis. If standing isn’t an option, be sure you stretch your legs out where possible.

Let’s start small — Puddle Jumpers:
In 2006 a fellow fatty and I hopped a plane from Portland to Vegas.  It was one of those tiny little propeller planes with two seats to either side of the aisle.  Whooboy, that sucked.  We liked each other a whole lot and that, combined with the merciful brevity of the flight, was really the only saving grace. We basically just wedged together, took turns being each other’s armrests, and cracked sardine jokes for the duration. But we got there. And that’s the important thing.

Tips & Hints for Small Planes
I avoid these like hipsters avoid self-actualization. If I can drive, take a train, bus or ferry, I will opt for that instead. If I can fly with a smaller friend, I will. But pretty much it’s an emphatic NO wherever possible. If you find yourself with no other options, buy two seats if you’re my size or larger.

Also, bear in mind that, for even smaller planes such as those which fly folks across to the Aran Islands from the Irish mainland, you may be required to physically step on a scale in order to aid in load balancing. For the most part, they weigh everyone. They also weigh luggage/cargo.  Do not take this personally. You’re just part of the equation. You weigh what you weigh and there’s no right or wrong to it.

Domestic Coach:
Yep. Still sucks.  I’ve flown to NYC and back at least twice a year for the last several and I have to profess my undying adoration of Jet Blue. If they fly the route you’re booking, USE THEM. I have to admit that I’ve not flown domestic coach by myself on any airline other than Jet Blue in the last several years, so this post will be a little biased, as it were. That said, my anxiety about domestic air travel (at least on Jet Blue) has dropped to about a 3 on the 1-10 scale. And it *was* a 10. So that’s saying something.

I have recently flown United from Houston (IAH) to Portland (PDX) and back on United. The plane was United Airlines Boeing 737-900 (739) (Originally Continental). It was not the most comfortable nor the least comfortable flight I’ve been on. I did fit. The armrests did go down. The tray tables did not work for me. One one leg of this trip, the seatbelts actually worked for me without an extender, but I was a bit overstimulated-slash-exhausted on this journey so I’m afraid I can’t remember whether it was the International or the Domestic flight. If I fly this route again, I’ll update with the information. I tried to gauge my comfort level on this flight to see if I would be fine with doing it alone and my leaning would still be to go with Jet Blue if possible, but United would be my second choice. Scroll down for the International leg of this journey.

Added 9/14/2014: Just back from Lesvos, Greece (again! couldn’t stay away!) and wanted to report in. We flew Aegean Airlines across two legs with two different planes (AIRBUS INDUSTRIE A321 from London to Athens and reverse, and AIRBUS INDUSTRIE A320-100/200 from Athens to Mytilene and reverse). They were short flights so I didn’t check out the toilets on either plane. Seats worked for my 5’8″, 360lb frame (I’ve added 20lbs this year as I quit smoking and spent a lot of sedentary time writing a dissertation). As mentioned, I’m bigger across the shoulders and narrower at the hips. The tray tables didn’t work for me on any of the planes, but I was *just* able to get the seatbelt buckled on the flight from Mytilene to Athens (though on no others). I traveled with my partner and most of the flights weren’t crowded so we were lucky enough to have a seat between us (due to booking the aisle and window in advance) on all flights but the one from Athens to London. Traveling *with* my partner, I was totally fine. Even kept the armrest down for one of the legs because I forgot about it. That said, I’d be a little nervous about overspill were I traveling alone. Then again, they’re such short flights (3.5 hours from london to athens, and 35 minutes from athens to mytilene) that I likely wouldn’t worry about it *too* much.

Added 8/1/2013: I flew United again this year from London to Portland via Chicago. I have to say I was less impressed this time than I was last year. Got a 767-300 from London to Chicao, 737-900 (again) from Chicago to PDX, A-319 from PDX to Chicago and a 777-200 from Chicago to London. I can report a similar experience for all of them. The version of 777-200 I got this time was different from last year’s more luxurious model where the tray tables worked. Must have been an older plane. I can say, due to the variability of the aircraft and the tight fit, I’d be unlikely to choose United as a solo flight (without a travel companion) and would likely either try to spring for Economy Plus or Business Class if they were my only option. The lack of tray table is problematic on longer flights. We did fly back to London on a Tuesday and the flight from Chicago to London was very undersold — there were several empty rows (that stayed empty, meaning people spread out and there were still empty rows) so Tuesday seems a good day to travel! I believe the first leg of the journey (on the 767-300) I did not require a seatbelt extender. The rest did require it. I brought my own and was never questioned. There was an accessible bathroom on the 767-300 (though I balk a bit at what they consider accessible as it was only marginally wider than the standard) which allowed for slightly more room. I didn’t see another accessible restroom on any other flights but I was heavily dosed on dramamine for motion sickness the last two legs so I’ll admit I wasn’t careful about looking.

Added 8/20/2013: I flew from London to Mytilene, Greece last week on a Monarch flight (chartered by Thomas Cook). I traveled with my partner, which is good as the leg room on these flights was pretty terrible. The good news was that, on the first leg, we were able to upgrade to extra leg room for only £25 — a fairly unheard of price! That made a difference. I did need a seatbelt extender (I have my own and it worked just fine) and the tray tables didn’t work for me even in the extra leg room but I felt relatively comfortable and fell asleep for most of the flight. I did put the armrest down to see how it would be. It was OK. Not super comfortable, but tolerable. It did ride up a bit, though as my leg slipped under it which might be annoying to a seatmate that isn’t my partner.

On the flight back, we arrived quite late to the airport and were among the last to check in. This meant we weren’t seated together. I was tossed into the bulkhead at the front of the plane and my partner was seated in row 31 — also the emergency exit row. The armrests in these rows don’t go up and I was pretty nervous that I wouldn’t fit. I did, in fact, fit. And it would have been OK, but thankfully my partner worked some magic with other folks who weren’t seated next to their travel companions and we both ended up seated together in a standard row. This row wasn’t extra leg room and I have to say that my knees were pressed into the seat in front of me for the duration. It wasn’t awesome, but it was doable for a short (3.5 hr) trip.

Tips & Hints:
If you can afford it, and if the airline you’re traveling with offers it, bump up to the Extra Leg Room option. Last check, it was between $30 and $60/leg. The benefits of this are both a relief from the claustrophobia of having your face 2 inches from the seat in front of you and the fact that it offers a much higher likelihood of the tray table coming all the way down. It’s little things like that that make all the difference in a flight.

My best friend for air travel in general is SeatGuru.Com. If you can’t take Jet Blue, you can use this to research the dimensions of the plane you’ll be flying on and choose a seat that might be better for you than others. They have a constantly updated listing of all models of airplane flown by most airlines.  If you’re not sure what airplane model you’ll be taking, you can always call the airline to ask.

Sometimes you can bump up to Extra Leg Room as you’re checking in for a flight at a discounted rate. Don’t wait if you can afford to book it up front, but it never hurts to ask.

Domestic First Class
If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford this, do it. I’ve only managed it once, but it was the most relaxed flight of my life. It’s not entirely without its drawbacks but the extra room (especially upper body room) is wonderful.

Tips & Hints:
The first downside of domestic first class is the immovable armrests. They are wider than those in coach because they contain the tray tables and also serve as a drink holder between seats. They don’t lift up and that can cut into the available inches in the seat.  Also, because the tray tables are in the armrests themselves rather than on the backs of the seats in front of you, it’s iffy as to whether or not they will extend enough to be usable. Check SeatGuru thoroughly to be sure you’ll have enough butt room.

The other downside to first class is the level of entitlement held by your fellow passengers. These folks are the most likely to be huffy, largely owing to the ridiculous amount of money they paid for their tickets and the resulting smugness. (Or, more likely, the smugness was what caused them to fork out the dough for the nicer seat in the first place.)  Don’t take it personally. You paid the same amount to be there and, even if you didn’t, they aren’t entitled to any more pleasant a flight than anyone else on that plane. Take up the space you paid for and drink in their huffiness like the sweet nectar of long-overdue justice.

International Coach:
I’ve only flown International coach alone twice. I won’t lie. It sucked. The first time more than the last. I referenced the jerk I sat next to earlier in the article so I won’t waste time with him again. The second flight was better. I sat next to a nice woman. She let me raise the armrest and I popped another Tylenol PM and zonked out for the majority of the trip.  I flew Virgin Atlantic at the suggestion of fellow fat travelers and was pleased for the most part.  In coach, the tray tables on some planes come folded in half. This meant that, while I couldn’t extend it entirely, I did have half of a tray table to work with which allowed me to precariously balance my dinner tray and to have a drink without being forced to hold it.

Tips & Hints – Virgin Atlantic:
As referenced earlier, try to board early and lift up the armrest. Because I was flying to an english-speaking country, I didn’t have a language barrier to contend with. This may prove more complex for those traveling to places with different languages or customs regarding personal space. Perhaps others will share related experiences in the comments?

On Virgin Atlantic flights, the controller for the TV screen is inside the arm rest, resting against your outer thigh.  This is annoying. I generally remove the controller and balance it across my lap for the duration to avoid having to shift in my seat.  The plug-in for headphones is also on the inside of the arm rest, which is equally annoying as it pokes into your leg. Seek out headphones with the flattest possible plug and bring your own. The ones provided by the airlines are pointy and inflexible.

Virgin Atlantic also offers an Extra Leg Room option, but you cannot book it online. You have to book it at the time of check-in. I cannot recommend this enough if you can splurge for it. It’s generally around £50/leg. I actually like the economy with Extra Leg Room better than Premium Economy (which is the equivalent of domestic Business Class.) It’s the most like the Jet Blue experience I’ve found. You don’t have the extra upper body room but the thinner and movable arm rests mean more butt room and the extra space means you can use your tray table. Get to the airport EARLY to book this.

Tips & Hints: United International:
My most recent trip (April of 2012) was from London to Portland and I traveled with my Partner on United Airlines (formerly Continental.) The first leg was from London (LHR) to Houston (IAH). The plane we traveled on Internationally was the Boeing 777-200ER Flat Bed and I have to say that I was pretty surprised by how comfortable it was. There was quite a lot of legroom, on par or just below par with the Extra Leg Room seats on Jet Blue domestic. Not only this, but the tray table had a bit of curvature to it (belly-shaped indent at the front of the tray) which actually allowed the full tray to come down. The armrests did come down fine for me, though thankfully I was traveling with my partner and didn’t require them. I had the window seat on this journey and may choose the aisle instead since it’s a 3-person row rather than two and so I stayed in my seat more than I might have were someone not required to move for me every time I wanted to stand. The bathrooms were standard for International flights, a bit larger than on the domestic but still requiring some acrobatics. Scroll up for my experience of the domestic leg on United.

Domestic Premium Economy
This represents the bulk of my International flying experience. I flew enough to have a lot of extra miles which made upgrading much more feasible for me.  The benefits of Premium Economy are a slightly more attentive staff, a higher likelihood of an empty seat next to you (because of the higher price), and more upper body room.

Tips & Hints:
Like domestic First Class, the armrests are immovable.  This was deeply frustrating when I happened to have an entire row to myself but couldn’t raise the armrests to enjoy it.  There’s slightly more hip room but it’s not quite enough to justify the cost. I will opt for it (if I can afford it) over coach if there is nothing available in Extra Leg Room – but it’s not my favorite.  Because the tray tables are in the armrests, they’re not ideal. They work for me, but just barely.

Again, talk to the folks at the gate, or even the stewards once you’re on the plane, if you find yourself situated uncomfortably. I’ve found the staff of Virgin Atlantic to be helpful. They’ve never actually bumped me up to first class but they did once shift me to a two-seat row with no one next to me–and that was heaven (comparatively).

International First Class
HA! I wish.

Inter-European Coach
Much like domestic Coach. Sardined into a plane. I’ve only flown this with a partner but the same rules apply here as those for domestic coach. There are a lot of ‘economy’ airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir. These airlines will nickel and dime you to death and I’ve heard rumblings of similar treatment of fatties as the infamous Southwest Airlines. I haven’t had any personal experience with them yet but will report in should I chance it.  I flew British Airways with my partner and it was quite comfortable. Again, a short-haul and no usable tray table – but doable!

TRAIN TRAVEL: EuroStar
Love it. Even coach is fantastically roomy (comparatively) and the bathrooms are really reasonable. I’ve heard wonderful things about First Class but haven’t seen it yet.  Definitely a wonderful way to travel if you have the time.

So that’s that.  I feel certain I’ve left out a hundred little details and I am completely willing to answer any questions I can. Just leave them in the comments.  Please also feel free to share your own experiences with airlines not listed here or simply regarding travel in general.

So listen — I know airline travel is hard.  But I want to encourage those of you whose lived experience is similar enough to mine for this to resonate to consider taking the risk. In the last 2 years I have been to San Francisco/Oakland, New York (several times), Italy (Rome, Naples, Florence and Pisa), England (London, Brighton, Avebury, etc,), Ireland and Belgium.  I have clattered down railways in the shadow of Vesuvius on the way to explore Pompeii.  I have eaten Gelato beneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa with live opera streaming through the night air.  I have climbed to the top of the Tower of London and seen the final resting place of Anne Boleyn.  I have watched a beautiful light show projected on the glorious buildings of the Grand Platz in Brussels, Belgium.  I’ve hiked the hill to the Long Barrow and rested my head against the ancient stones of the Avebury Henge.  I have, weary and sunburned, taken in the landscape from the top of the Roman Colosseum. I even flipped the bird at the Vatican! Last, but not least, I up and moved to London, England.

AND – I did all of this at 375lbs. I’m a little smaller now than I was when I started (not intentional, just happened) but I still clock in 300+. I never thought travel like this was an option for me. Turns out I was wrong.

I realize that travel is expensive and that not everyone has the option to do this. I totally don’t want to come off as all bootstrappy.  I chose this a priority for myself and it required a ridiculous and completely unsustainable amount of working to pull it off – often at the expense of maintaining friendships and having a more generally well-rounded life. I realize it may not be as enticing or accessible for everyone.  Still – there may be a happy middle ground. A series of small adventures, or one really big one. And I want to remind you that, wherever you go, however often, however far from home –You are fierce and deserving. You are strong and worthy. And what other people think doesn’t matter.  What matters is your life and what you want to do with it.  Put on your blinders, drug yourself with Tylenol-PM if you have to, save up and buy two seats if it makes you more comfortable, and to hell with anyone who has an opinion about any of it.  If you want to — Go.  Do.  Be in the world.  And then come tell me all about it!

The Obesity Action Coalition: Busting the Bias of “Bias Busters”

the bias busters logo with a rubber stamp-effect font over the top which says BUSTED.The essay below was written for my Representation & Textual Analysis course at Goldsmiths, University. The main purpose of the essay is to show my understanding of myth-based semiotic analysis – thus it’s not really written in the conversational style I’d normally use for a blog post. I waited a couple of weeks to publish it here because I didn’t want to be accused of plagiarizing myself. ;) But now that the coursework is all done and dusted, I’m sharing it because I hate the OAC and the stupid, smug, capitalizing horse it rode in on.

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In the legitimizing form of a press release, the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) recently announced its intention to form an initiative to “combat weight bias and stigma.” (Zervios, 2011) The release highlights the OAC’s commitment to engaging the public in an awareness-raising dialogue regarding weight bias and stigma by presenting news and media examples each month and inviting the public to respond. While it is difficult to argue with the mission of eradicating prejudice, the OAC’s approach undermines its own stated purpose by omitting relevant truths and by further naturalizing harmful myths regarding its supposed underdogs, the obese.  As well, through positioning itself as a champion against stigmatization, the OAC attempts to create an alibi of trustworthiness for its unspoken agenda, the legitimization of its bariatric (weight-loss) surgery advocacy. In this essay I will shed light on the OAC’s appropriation and introduction of myth to further its cause.

As stated by Roland Barthes (1984: 26), “myth is a type of speech defined by its intention … much more than by its literal sense.” By peppering the text of their press release with phrases such as “individuals affected by obesity”, by painting fat individuals as “bullied” and “targets”, and by choosing an authoritative tone that speaks for rather than with fat individuals, the OAC’s underlying intention is to ally these significations with the signifier of the fat individual, thus creating a larger connotation of passivity; the fat individual as a member of a downtrodden subculture, incapacitated by “disease” and helpless in the daily fight against their own oppression.  Once these associations are created, the myth of the ineffectual fat individual gives the OAC the perfect platform from which to position itself (as signifier) the trustworthy defender (the signified).

The OAC further naturalizes the already virulent myth of fat people as unquestionably unhealthy by stating as-if fact “the debilitating effects of obesity” and, thus, capitalizes on that assumption of poor health to add credibility to its portrayal of defenselessness. A recent study (Kuk, 2011) shows that fat individuals who are otherwise healthy have no higher risk of mortality than those who are thin. Omitting this as a possibility and casting all fat individuals in the same sallow light of sickliness empties the fat-individual-as-signifier not only of power but also of a right to a personal history of health.

As stated by Barthes, “When it becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains.” (1984: 5) If, then, the tactic of myth is to empty the signifier of history in order to fill it with its own meaning, the OAC employs this technique as the prevailing function of this press release to rob the fat individual of her agency. Fat groups and individuals have been advocating for themselves with their own powerful movement called Fat Liberation since the 1960s. With organizations like the Fat Underground, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), and the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) as well as publishing academics (Rothblum and Solovay, 2009), individuals campaigning for equal access to health insurance in the United States, for non-discrimination in the workplace (Solovay, 2000), and for social equality and empowerment (Wann, 1998), fat culture is not without a radical political history nor is it without its own league of champions and advocates. What the OAC’s press release omits by positioning itself as the heroic rescuer of a passive and defenseless community is a rich history of self-advocacy and determination.  The OAC’s approach appropriates and renders invisible four decades of language, research, and socio-political progress.

The OAC further omits the contribution of the weight loss industry (of which it is a participant) in the creation of the very stigma that it claims to seek to eradicate. A recent study indicates a growing concern about the ethics of a weight focused paradigm as “not only ineffective at producing thinner, healthier bodies, but also damaging, contributing to food and body preoccupation, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, distraction from other personal health goals and wider health determinants, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, other health decrement, and weight stigmatization and discrimination.” (Bacon, 2011: 1) Joe Nadglowski, OAC President and CEO, is also the Executive Director of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS), the stated purpose of which is to “improve public health and well-being by lessening the burden of the disease of obesity.” Further, all additional members of the board of the OAC are also bariatric doctors, nurses or related professionals with titles such as “Is Weight Loss Surgery Right for You?” (Goldberg, 2006), “Weight Loss Surgery: Finding the Thin Person Hiding Inside You!” (Thompson, 2003) and “Weight Loss Surgery for Dummies” (Kurian, 2005) under their belts.

If these are the myths—the fat individual as passive/weak/helpless, the fat individual as debilitated and in poor health, the fat individual as requiring outside intervention to achieve health and happiness, the fat individual as without agency or history, the fat individual as all of the above and singularly representative of the whole—then a simple examination of the authors of this press release clearly reveals their motivation. The intention, it would seem, is not to eradicate weight bias and stigma but to eradicate the status of obesity from the individuals themselves. The method by which the OAC seeks to achieve this is through the recommendation of expensive, controversial bariatric surgeries that the members of its board perform for profit without regard to the fact that they have not been proven to create any long-term reduction in mortality (JAMA, 2011). The purpose of the outlined mythemes then becomes to first disempower their fat constituents and then to gain their trust in order to more convincingly recommend bariatric surgery, as stated in another OAC publication, as the “only treatment for morbid obesity proven to be consistently effective.” (Rogula et al, 2011)

The use of myth-based semiotic analysis to critically examine the OAC press release reveals their effective though unethical use of myth in attempts to naturalize the connotations of fat individuals as a signifiers of weakness, debilitation, constant victimization, passivity and ill-health. The OAC’s further use of myth to signify itself as heroic interventionist serves to both protect the otherwise obvious agendas of its board members from further scrutiny and to solicit the trust of its target audience and in turn legitimize its advice regarding bariatric surgery.

 

References:

 Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L.,Weight science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition journal, 10(1), (2011): 9. BioMed Central Ltd. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-10-9

 

Barthes, R., Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. 1-26.

 

Brolin, R., Bariatric surgery and long-term control of morbid obesity. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association, 288(22), (2002): 2793-6. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12472304

 

Obesity Action Coalition., Educating and Advocating For All Those Affected by Obesity, Morbid Obesity and Childhood Obesity: 2006 Annual Report, Obesity Action Coalition. Surgery. November 7, 2011, <http://www.obesityaction.org/aboutus/annualreports/2006 Annual Report.pdf>

 

Goldberg, G., Is Weight Loss Surgery Right For You?, Eight Stories To Help You Decide. iUniverse, 2006. Print.

 

Kuk, J., Ardern, C. I., Church, T. S., Sharma, A. M., Padwal, R., Sui, X., & Blair, S. N., Edmonton Obesity Staging System : association with weight history and mortality risk. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 36(4), (2011): 570-576. doi:10.1139/H11-058

 

Kurian, M. S., Thompson, B., Davidson, B.K., Weight Loss Surgery For Dummies. For Dummies, 2006. Print.

 

Maciejewski, M. L., Livingston, E. H, Smith, V.A., Kavee, A.l., Kahwati, L.C., Henderson, W.G., Arterburn, D.E., Survival Among High Risk Patients After Bariatric Surgery, JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association, Published online June 12, 2011. doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.817

 

Rogula, T., Brethauer, .S, Chand, B., Schauer,P.,Bariatric Surgery as a Treatment for Type 2 Diabetes”, Obesity Action Coalition, November 7, 2011 <http://www.obesityaction.org/magazine/oacnews11/diabetesandsurgery.php>.

 

Rothblum, E., Solovay, S., Fat Studies Reader. 1st ed. New York: NYU Press, 2009. Print.

 

Solovay, S., Tipping The Scales Of Justice, Fighting Weight-based Discrimination. 2000. Print.

 

Thompson, B., Weight Loss Surgery, Finding The Thin Person Hiding Inside You!. Word Assn Pub, 2003. Print.

 

Wann, M., Fat! So?, Because You Don’t Have To Apologize For Your Size!. Ten Speed Pr, 1999. Print.

 

Zervios , J., “Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) Unveils “Bias Busters” to Combat Weight Bias and Stigma”, Obesity Action Coalition, November 7, 2011 <http://www.obesityaction.org/news/2011/biasbusters.php>.

 

 

FatGirl Speaks – Fictional Monologue – The Ballerina

Back in 2006, I took a road trip to interview 42 women in 16 states about their experiences of being fat – from childhood to present day.  I had intended this to be stage 1 of a multi-phase plan to interview women all over the planet and then to amalgamate and fictionalize their experiences into a book of monologues for stage performance, not unlike the Vagina Monologues.  I was thrown off my path by both a lack of funds to continue and a series of deaths/losses in my social circle.  I also lost my aim for a bit because I noticed that the major undercurrent in all the conversations wasn’t necessarily fatness, but shame. I wanted to explore this further, to separate it out, to explore the intersections of shame among all oppressed communities.  This, however, is a lifetime task. And in the meantime, there is still the boundless and constantly deepening pressure of Fat Shame.

I woke up this morning remembering how many people talked about being kicked out of ballet class as a kid for being too fat.  I was amazed how often it came up. So I decided to try my hand at writing one of those monologues to see how it felt – and to see if I could at least use the information I have to make a start on this project, even if I don’t have at hand what I need to complete it.

I won’t be sharing all of these publicly.  But this is the first and it is very clearly a draft.  I would love your feedback. Imagine it performed aloud as you are reading it.

– Stacy

——

The Ballerina

Ballet class. 2nd grade. Mama arrives to pick me up and I light up as she enters the room. I want her to see what I’ve been learning. I wave my arms to catch her attention and start dancing on tippy-toes around the room. I’m mostly making it up but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know that.

Mama pulls a smile that doesn’t make it all the way up to her eyes and turns her back as the teacher catches her elbow.  They’re talking with heads bent toward one another. The teacher has an open stance and she keeps pointing at me. Mama has her arms crossed across her body, curled in and frowning. That’s her angry look. I’ve seen it enough to know. I stop dancing.

I wonder if I’ve done something wrong. The teacher keeps waving her hands and Mama won’t look at me.  I drop my gaze and turn my little pink shoes in towards one another. I wait.

In a habit that, even at my young age, is already too familiar – I leave myself.  I tuck up from my skin and climb into my head. I’m listening to the music and, in my mind, I am twirling and twirling, my arms are curved into perfect shapes and my legs leave trails of glittering light behind me. I am in pink lace with a crown of diamonds in my hair. It’s the court of a beautiful queen and she rapt with delight as I dance for her.

“Let’s go.” Mama says. I drop into the room again as she roughly grabs my hand and pulls me toward the door. “My shoes!” I say “I can’t wear them outside!”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.” she snaps. “You don’t belong here.”

A hot flush of humiliation burns into my cheeks. I pass a group of girls, clustered together near the door.  They whisper and giggle and stare, except one. She looks at me with pity. That feels even worse.

I don’t know why it happened yet.  As Mama buckles me into the car, I start to cry.  She’s storming but she’s not saying anything.  I know better than to ask but I can’t help myself. I’m crying too hard to make sense. These are new feelings and I don’t have enough words for them yet. All I manage is a plaintive “Why?” and “What did I do?”

“I told you you were getting fat.” she said “And now you can’t dance. You’re too fat to do ballet. The teacher says you’ll damage your feet and you’re holding the other girls back because you can’t go en pointe like them. GODDAMNIT!” she shouts. She pummels the steering wheel. “All that money, for classes and costumes and driving you here every week.  Do you know how much this costs? This was supposed to HELP you lose weight. Do you know how embarrassing it is to have your parenting questioned because your kid won’t stop sneaking cookies in the middle of the night?”

I am horrified. I’ve never seen Mama like this. I look down at my little belly. It pooches out a bit. It’s round. Soft. I know I don’t look like the other girls in class but no one seems to really care.  Jasmine can’t go en pointe either because she fell off her bike last month. And teacher won’t even let me try. I know I can do it if she’ll just let me try. I say this to Mama.

“Didn’t you hear me? You’re TOO FAT! You’ll hurt yourself! And your teacher can’t take responsibility for that. Do you understand? She doesn’t want you in class anymore. Not unless you lose weight. And by then you’ll be too far behind and you’ll have to start all over again.  I’m not paying for this twice. You can’t dance any more. It’s over.”

The reality sinks in.  No more ballet. No tiaras. I will never dance in the court of the queen. A sick, hot feeling fills my stomach.  Shame.  I am ashamed. Not just ashamed, I am changed by it.  I have never before thought to question what my body is and is not capable of.  I have never thought of my body as a danger to itself.  I’ve never really given much thought to my body at all, except to dress it up in silly clothes and use it to climb trees.  I have always been chubby, since the day I was born–but suddenly my own soft belly seems foreign. Alien. I poke it with one finger. It bounces back defiantly. There is something on my body that shouldn’t be there and it’s my fault.  I stop crying. I wipe my face and something in me hardens. It’s my own fault. I don’t get to be sad.

These years later, I keep re-living that moment because it’s exactly then that everything changed for me and my body.  My mother apologized for yelling at me but she never took back the meaning behind what she said. It could have gone so differently. And that’s the thing that kills me.  I was never going to be a ballet star–not because I wasn’t capable but because I really wanted to be a journalist.  None of those other girls in my class ended up being Prima Ballerinas either.  In fact, there isn’t a single girl who came out of that town that ever amounted to anything on stage — I did the damn research!  But that’s not the point.

The point is, those girls, the ones that got to stay, they got to see the proud smiles on their mother’s faces at recitals.  They got to wear pink lace and tiaras. They got to be kids.  But most importantly, they got to maintain a sense of trust in their bodies. They got to form a relationship with it. They weren’t divorced from it by shame or chased out of it by the unfounded fears of careless adults.  Sure, they had pressures as they went along – all of us do – but no one ever told them that they couldn’t be anything they wanted to be with the bodies they had.

But me — my body went from being my favorite playmate to being a constant source of self-loathing.  I internalized that fear of “damaging” myself and I stopped being a daredevil, running and climbing trees.  I stopped being physical in general and curled up instead with books or music.  I loved softball but I never went out for the team both for fear of rejection and the simple belief that I was incapable of being competitive at anything.  I lost my skin.  I became a big, floating, disembodied head.

It took me until my 20s to even start questioning all those beliefs I had.  By that time, all the crash dieting had killed my metabolism and I was realizing that I might just have to deal with being this size indefinitely.  Something about the realization that it might never actually change felt freeing.  I’d been dragging myself begrudgingly to the gym for months as part of my diet plan and I hated the monotony of it. The boredom of the treadmill and the weightlifting and the stupid rubber ball squats was making me feel homicidal.  I liked feeling strong and I liked moving, but this all felt like punishment – over and over and over again – I’d been punishing myself for years and had gotten nothing from it but fatter and less joyful.

Suddenly, I had a thought.  I called my best friend and told her to meet me at the fabric store on her lunch break. No questions, I told her. Just be there.  I met her at the door holding yards of pink crinoline and elastic.  “We are making Tutus,” I said “And then we are going to do some goddamn ballet. Pick your color.” She thought I was insane but she was used to thinking that, so she played along.  I called every fat girl I knew and did the same. I was not taking no for an answer.  Three weeks later, in the basement of a local church, six fat friends and I started Fantasia Ballet.

We were terrible, but that didn’t matter. We were full of joy. We were grounded in our bodies.  We laughed. We wore sparkly tiaras.  We recaptured ourselves and that feeling of joy in our skin. We even started performing recitals for friends and family. Every time we had a recital, the number of attendees grew. Not only were we becoming better dancers, our joy was palpable. And we still meet every Thursday.

Even now, some days I still have to remind myself to climb down that long, winding staircase from my mind into my flesh. I am angry that it took me 20 years to undo the damage done in one afternoon. I am angry that the narrow-mindedness of this ridiculous consumer culture stripped me away from my body for so long.  But I embody living proof that it is never too late to take yourself back.

Heart Attack Grill – Yay or Nay?

I read this here article today and had myself some mixed feelings about the restaurant in question.

On the one hand, while I can’t even imagine what an 8,000 calorie hamburger looks like, I’m pretty sure any self-respecting carnivore would at least want to take a whack at it. And the idea of an equivalent Yay Scale in the middle of a mainstream restaurant tickles and delights me, as does the idea of a non-queer-specific, non-political venue where people can go on reprieve from the puritanical requirements of health, productivity and good citizenship.

In addition, I can’t see any perceived failing that this restaurant has that is more pronounced than any pub/bar, smoke/cigar shop, confectionery, casino, etc. These are all consumer models based entirely on hedonism and excess. And in addition to that, if someone wants to eat/not-eat/drink/smoke/exercise/whatever-themselves to death, it’s no one’s business but their own and they’re likely to do it regardless of any venue provided to aid in their pursuit. Body autonomy is a messy business and it is one without exception.

On the other hand, I had the same reaction to reading about this restaurant as I did to Mauritanian fat camps. Whether the subjective ideal is feather light or heavy duty, it is just that. Subjective. If the goal (and it is my goal) is to truly bring that joyful sense of body autonomy to the general public then it stands to reason that the public glorification, or villainization, of any specific aspect of a human body is ultimately counterproductive.

Where the restaurant loses me is is in the celebration of those who are 350#+ whilst simultaneously upholding the sexist parlance of thin, scantily-clad, Hooters-style waitresses. Each one of those things is problematic on their own but the combination of the two is downright infuriating.

Also, I’m trying to imagine a way in which offering free meals to those above a specific weight could be done well. The closest I can think of is as an honoring rite for those who move through the world with the least amount of privilege. But given the TGIF (Thank God it’s Fatties?) ambiance, I’m guessing that making nuanced political distinctions with their messaging isn’t #1 on their priority list.

I’m not so much interested in opinions on the article itself as it’s, largely, the same old excess vs. frugality bullshit that I grew weary of years ago, but I’m wildly interested in other Rad Fatty opinions on this restaurant and/or wild imaginings on what kind of place could exist in the world that did what this restaurant is trying to do without any of the failings!

NOLOSE 2011 – The Very Fat People are Coming

Bridge to Fatlandia - NOLOSE 2011I’ll admit it. As I packed up and headed out to NOLOSE this year, I thoroughly anticipated severe social anxiety and feelings of isolation throughout the weekend. This has been my overall experience of the last few months and I saw no reason it should be different there (and in fact, I feared it may be worse.)

Imagine my surprise when, no sooner had I parked the car and dumped my suitcase, my heart just broke open. Deep in the muck and mire of me, my joy got all scrappy about it, grabbed fistfuls of hair, dug her muddy toes into the backs and shoulders of my fears, clambered up to the surface and took roost just behind my eyes, waiting for all the goodness that was coming. There was nothing for it but to be excited.

As I walked through what would soon become Fatlandia that first night, I saw in the faces of those who had arrived carrying those same fears. I saw the clumps of comfortable familiars and the shy ones skirting the edges. I saw the boundaries as false – the ones inside me, those perceived around others. We made room. We forced scootings. We added chairs. We sat. We ate. We shared bites. We talked. We invited. We laughed. I felt fearless and connected.

The feeling at NOLOSE this year, for me, was Abundance. So many people, some familiar, some not. Even those I already know and love I had precious few moments with. There were so many possible trajectories and at the end of each lay some manner of joy. It was hard to stay focused.

The workshops were each powerful in their own right. The pool was a shimmering pile of silly and sweet. Everywhere I looked, people were connecting, though I did see some who weren’t, or couldn’t. I know what that’s like, too. Abundance can be overwhelming and it can be easy to stick to what you know. Even in my joy this year, I only ventured slightly outside the familiar. For those who are brave enough to come alone or with fewer built-in connections, especially those who may be shy or in a rough emotional space, the instinct to be passive about interaction can be hard to break through. I was glad to hear that there was a NOLOSE “buddy” program this year that hooked up first-timers with old-hatters but perhaps there should be a broader buddy program for those who generally find it harder to meet folks/make connections. A Shy Caucus?

My favorite moments of the conference were…well, it would actually be easier to list the moments I didn’t like since there were so few of them but I’m feeling too happy to bother with it. The keynote was challenging in a very good way, the salon performances were heartbreaking and hilarious, the workshops were insightful and inspirational, the flirting was fun and funny, the open-hearted abundance of hugs and affection were much-needed and healing, the fashion was breathtaking, the conversation was political and mindful and also dorky and delightful. Most importantly — the conference felt different than I’d ever felt before. The board was a new kind of presence. Their connection with one another was obvious and affirming. Their unity and commitment to the direction of NOLOSE was apparent. The conference felt IMPORTANT again. It was equal parts rest and reminder of the path that still lies ahead. I felt nurtured and challenged and like I’d been given the tools I’d need to see the work through. I’ve never felt that before at NOLOSE, even though my experiences have been powerful. There was something different about this year. Something stronger, deeper, more passionate, more loving and more profound.

I’m tired and haven’t been in the world much in the 24 hours I’ve been home but the little I have has felt different. I am moving through it with less fear and a more critical and more open mind. I am feeling stronger at my core. I have been reminded of my power and I have been reminded how to use it. I couldn’t ask for anything better, especially as this may be my last NOLOSE for a while.

Thank you, Fatlandians. And to those I met this year for the first time, I am so glad to have the chance to know you.

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