When You Don’t Fit In to the World Around You
When I went to college in Reno, I dreaded going to my Intro to Secondary Education class. Not because I didn’t like the subject or the professor, but because of the desks.
They were these tiny little things, the seats attached to the tables. Every other student fit into them just fine, but me, at the beginning of every lesson, I’d heave my bulk into the chair and sit, the table cutting uncomfortably into the bulk of my stomach during the entire 90 minute lesson. Finally, at the end of the lecture, I’d wait for the classroom to clear — an idea I picked up, after the disparaging looks from classmates during the first week or two — before trying to get myself out of the contraption.
It was never easy; I’d have to brace myself against other tables and pull myself out, afraid the whole while afraid that I’d fall over. In the scuffle, I’d usually knock the chairs in front or behind me out of their place, which I’d hastily have to rearrange once I was up. All of this was done under the study gaze of my steel-haired professor. She never offered help, never suggested that maybe I should sit at the perpetually-open ADA desk, never said a word, never let a hint of emotion cross her face. She simply watched me struggle.
Though this happened a couple of years ago now, it’s been on my mind a lot lately, a kind of worst-case scenario for being fat and in public. And it was the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw this post from Your Fat Friend on Twitter:
The first word that crossed my mind was microaggressions. These are usually the small things that other people do, the small, paper-cut offenses that people casually throw up, that can end up wounding you to the core. But that wasn’t exactly right. Microaggressions are what other people do to you, and, while those are bad, damning, in fact, it was something more basic than that. It’s as though the very design of the world is against you.
The West Wing is one of my favorite tv shows. But during an episode, one of the characters makes an off-handed comment to a friend of his mentee, a heavy-built adolescent, that he shouldn’t sit in any old-looking chairs in The White House without written permission from the Army Corps of Engineers.
It’s clearly a one-off joke, and one that I’ve always taken in stride, but there’s an element of truth to that. Whenever I’m out in public, I often have to judge, on the fly, whether or not I can sit in a chair. When I’m at a diner, do the chairs look like they can hold me up, or should I try to squeeze into a bench? Squeezing into a bench can be embarrassing, but it’s not as bad as demolishing a chair with your ass.
I remember back in high school, during events in the auditorium — or even my graduation — the flimsy folding chairs that were set up. These plastic contraptions looked like they’d fall apart during a stiff breeze, and I was afraid every time that they came out, every time that they were the only seating option. And that fear wasn’t unfounded; during my four years, I sent at least 2–3 of those chairs to their demise. But it wasn’t just the embarrassment of those individual incidents, the humiliation of falling through. It was the fear. During plays, choir recitals, talent shows, even my own graduation: am I going to break the chair again?
There are some times where I just won’t risk it. My mom recently bought a new dining room set, a nice table and four chairs. They look pretty sturdy, but I still won’t risk sitting in them. I don’t trust myself. I don’t trust my ass. I don’t want to ruin her pretty new set. And, so, I sit on the floor.
I also have a nice desk that I can’t use. Not because it’s a perpetual mess and forever unorganized, but that I’ve yet to find the office chair that I feel comfortable in, one that I don’t have to be afraid of breaking after 6 months-1 year of 16 hour days in the chair. Normal wear and tear is one thing, but going through two office chairs a year is not only embarrassing, but expensive. So, again, I sit on the floor.
For most of my late teens and early 20s, I was afraid of driving. On top of that, it would be even more expensive to find a car that I could fit comfortably into. So I took the bus everywhere. And that was its own sort of embarrassment.
First, even before you got on the bus, you had to go through a depot with a turnstile. You wait in the line with a sense of dread, because you know it’s coming up. Sometimes, the attendant is nice enough to, without prompting, open up the side-gate and let you through. And sometimes, they don’t say anything, and you’re too embarrassed to say anything. There’s nothing to do but go through. And so, you turn sideways, and pray to the Gods above and Devils below that today is not the day that you get stuck.
And, usually, you don’t. But, again, it’s not just the actual event that has the potential to be embarrassing, but the anxiety and the fear that lead up to the event. Playing out the hypotheticals, imagining the fire department having to bring the jaws of life to get you out. Maybe it never happens, but you live through the fear of it each time you stand in that line.
And then you actually get onto the bus. When I was in the LA area, the buses were usually packed. If you haven’t been on one, the plastic in the seats is usually molded into depressions, where each depression is a seat for one standard-sized person. This sucks when you are significantly larger than one standard-sized person, namely because, now, you have ridge of plastic that you’re sitting on, a hard, uncomfortable bit that’s either riding directly up your asscrack, or pressing uncomfortably into your fleshiness.
And this discomfort is to say nothing of the dirty looks you get when the bus is full, and people either have to make the decision to cram in to the seat with you, and you’re mortified knowing that you’re really only giving them 1/2 of the normal sitting area; or they give you a dirty look, because you’re taking up the space that, rightfully, should belong to them and one other normal-sized person.
But that goes more into the interpersonal experience of being fat, which sucks. A lot of great writers like Your Fat Friend and Kiva Bay have amazing conversations about that, and it’s true and relevant, and it helps to know that other people suffer through this. But this is something more fundamental. It’s one thing to know that other people are discriminating against you, based on your size. It’s another thing to realize that the very design of the world around you discriminates against you, as well.
And that, dear friends, is what I want the skinny people to know.