When the world doesn’t fit.
Scenes from being fat in a world that doesn’t want you — and the startup that’s working to change that.
Scene one: interior, shopping mall. 1997.
I am in ninth grade, at the Gap, to buy new jeans. When I try on what had been my size, they don’t fit. I return to the store’s towering wall of denim. As I look for the next size up, my pulse quickens, breath shallowing. They do not carry the size I need. I feel heavy heart beating in my throat, blocking my breath. I no longer fit in straight size clothes.
I wander the mall, trying to slow my breath, while I investigate my options. Meier and Frank offers office wear, pencil skirts and pleated trousers with oddly shiny blouses for the fortysomething clerical set. Lane Bryant is the home of grandmothers and empty nesters, selling sweatshirts with polo collars sewn in, and elastic waist jeans to top off the look. Later, in the men’s section of a regional superstore, I find reinforced carpenter’s pants, complete with a hammer loop. I am crushed at the thought of showing up to my first day of high school in any of this clothing. Still, I now have no choice.
Over time, after working my way through these options, I graduate to army surplus fatigues, band t-shirts and doc martens. At least they look intentional, rather than hopelessly, painfully out of step.
It is 1997, I am thirteen years old, and these are my options. All of them write me out of relevance, tether my self expression like a dog left tied up in its back yard.
Scene two: interior, city bus. 2007.
I am 23 years old. I have successfully spun an internship into my first career-track job, and today is my first day. I have dressed for the occasion — options have since improved enough to find clothing that isn’t embarrassing. I have baked a cake for my new coworkers, carrying it with me in a pink bakery box tied with twine. I am electric with anticipation.
I board the city bus to my downtown office building, then move down the aisle in search of a seat. As I approach, strangers quietly shift their bags into the seat next to them. One man without a bag drapes his entire body across a bench of seats. By the time I reach the end of the bus, every seat is occupied.
I wrap my hand around a suspended pole, stumbling each time the bus lurches forward or stops short. A woman hisses at me to stand still, her eyes sharp and angry. I feel my mouth fill up, and quietly gulp, turning my head away so she won’t see.
When my stop finally arrives, I try to pull myself back into my usual enthusiastic and outgoing demeanor. I feel like a cartoon character setting a trap, piling leaves on top of the gaping hole that has appeared in the forest floor.
That night, I fall in.
Scene three: interior, Boeing 747. 2010.
I am 26 years old, flying home from an emotional visit with my family. The flight is oversold, and I am reassigned at the last minute to a middle seat. When the ticket agent hands me my new boarding pass, I look at her pleadingly, feeling the full width of my size 28 body. I know, she says. I’m sorry.
I retreat from the desk, defeated.
I plan carefully, working diligently to avoid taking any more space or time than I needed. I cannot afford to give my fellow passengers more reasons to take aim at my body. I line up early, check my suitcase at the gate, take my seat quickly.
When my seat mate arrives, he doesn’t meet my eyes. He adjusts the arm rest, assertively claiming it as his own. He needn’t have — I have learned that any free space belongs to the thin. I cross my arms tight across my chest, thighs squeezed together, ankles crossed beneath my seat. My body is knotted, doing everything it can not to touch him, not to impose its soft skin. I fold in on myself, muscles aching with contraction.
Suddenly, he stands up, fighting against a stream of passengers in the narrow aisle to speak with a flight attendant, then returns to his seat, looking thwarted. Moments later, he gets up again. I cannot hear what he says, but there is an urgency in his face. I wonder what their summit is about. He returns to his seat again, mouth straight and muscles tense. He gets up a third time. That’s when I hear him say unbelievable, his voice sharp with irritation. The fourth time, I hear paying customer, angrily over enunciated, all convex consonants.
He returns to his seat, and lets out the sharp, belabored sigh of a wronged customer. He crosses his legs away from me, leaning into the aisle, chin in his hand, glowering. He checks over his shoulder repeatedly, constantly scanning the cabin.
At long last, a flight attendant approaches him and crouches in the aisle, whispering something in his ear. He gets up silently, gathers his things, and moves up one row. Before he sits down, he looks at me for the first time.
“This is so you’ll have more room,” he says. His voice is cold.
The flight attendant looks at him, puzzled. “This won’t be a vacant seat,” she corrects. “Someone will still be sitting here.” My former seat mate looks away, then takes his seat.
This is when I realize what has happened: he asked to be reseated.The nearness of my body was too much for him to bear. All that agitation, all that desperate lobbying — all to avoid two hours next to me. I have never feared it before. I didn’t think I needed to.
The next thought comes quickly, urgently: don’t cry. You can’t cry.
But it is too late. Hot tears sting my eyes, then spill onto my cheeks. I stare at my lap, eyes fixed on the width of my thighs.
I stay like that, body knotted up into its most compact shape, eyes locked low, for the rest of our trip. Flight attendants visit my row frequently, offering free wine, beer and snacks to the passengers sitting on either side of me — apologetic offerings for having to tolerate a body like mine. The flight attendants don’t speak to me. My seat mates don’t look at me. I have been erased.
When we land, passengers filter into the aisle to retrieve their bags. My former seat mate looks at me for the second time.
“You know, I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker,” he says.
“What?” I struggle to find my words. I didn’t expect to talk to him.
“I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker, or a pregnant woman,” he repeats.
“I know,” I say. “That’s what makes this terrible.”
Scene four: interior, restaurant. 2012.
I am celebrating a new, major promotion with my colleagues. We have all taken a long lunch, deciding to try a new restaurant near the office to mark the occasion.
The host greets us, leads us upstairs to the gleaming white mezzanine and its sleek tables. We happily chatter about new staff structures and what feels like endless potential for our work together.
As I begin to lower myself into a chair, the host shouts a full-throated “NO, STOP!” The room falls silent, all eyes turning to him.
Realizing the volume of his objection, he begins to laugh nervously. He loudly explains to our full table that I’d be much more comfortable in another chair before stage whispering to me that my previous chair “wasn’t built for fluffy people.” I can feel my colleagues eyes on me, their faces slack with shock. When I look around, neighboring tables are watching, too.
“I love fluffy people,” he gushes, still so loud. “You’re all so happy and funny and sweet and the best gal pals.” He loudly announces that he loves fluffy people four more times before leaving the table.
No one acknowledges the event. I never return to the restaurant.
Scene five. Present day.
As a fat person, I have become accustomed to a world that isn’t built for me. At times, it seems to reject my body like an unfit organ transplant. For years, I regularly found myself awash in hot-faced shame. My thought was always the same: if I only knew.
If I only knew the width of those airline seats. If I only knew about that restaurant chair. If I only knew where I could fit. I took so many planning measures, and they so often fell short. If I only knew.
One startup is working to ensure that people of all sizes can share more knowledge about the spaces they enter. AllGo is building a review site where fat people rate the comfort and accessibility of places so others can know what it’s like before going out. They’re going to crowdsource data that fat people really care about — like whether chairs have arms, whether tables in booths move, how much/little space is there between aisles — and put in in one place and make it easy to find. And they need our help to make this a reality.
Their cofounders, Rebecca and Michele, have been working hard on AllGo — without getting paid — for more than six months. When they’re not working to pay their bills, it’s AllGo all the time. They have taken AllGo as far as they can go on their own. Now they need to hire some help — specifically, they need to hire developers. If their Kickstarter isn’t successful, they won’t be able to build the AllGo their users want.
They’re seeking backing from our community through Kickstarter because they believe that the first review website designed with plus size people in mind should have our community’s support. They want to build the AllGo plus size people want.
Support AllGo’s kickstarter here. Make your contribution before Sunday, April 8th to make AllGo a reality. So we can all go out more, with less anxiety.
Note: this is not a sponsored post. As a fat person, information like this would be indispensable to me. I am a firm believer in this project, and I’m asking for your support to help make the world a little more welcoming for people like me. xx, Your Fat Friend.