On Sunday night, my friend Kerri and I went out for the evening to have dinner and see Bill Bailey live in his new show, Limboland. We had a great night, delicious dinner and Bill was fantastic, but for me, the night was marred just a little by other people’s behaviour.
Firstly while at the restaurant, twice the waitress tutted as she went behind my chair because the gap was narrow. Note, the gaps are narrow everywhere in this restaurant, because they’re trying to get as many customers in to a small space as possible. Makes sense right? More customers, more money spent. But I noticed that she only tutted when she had to squeeze behind MY chair, not behind the equally small gaps behind thin people’s chairs.
Then when we took our seats in the Concert Hall before the gig, the older woman in the seat beside me made it very, very clear that she was not pleased at having to sit next to me. She scowled. She huffed. She leaned away from me. At intermission when she came back to her seat (we stayed in ours – and stood up so that it was easy for people to pass us), she had swapped place with her husband. I have to wonder if she noticed that her husband spent the second half of the show gazing longingly at my breasts. All this even though the seats at the QPAC Concert Hall are very generous and I am well contained within them with space to spare at my hips. Unlike many of the men around me that I noticed were squeezing their shoulders in to fit, my butt/belly fit quite comfortably in the seats in all of the theatres in QPAC.
None of this is new for me. Let’s just get that straight. Happens all the time. At least twice a day as I commute to and from work to start with, as people REALLY hate to see a fat woman on a train. Every now and then someone cool comes along and isn’t bothered by sitting beside me, but invariably at least two or three people have huffed or scowled or tutted when they see the empty seat beside me.
I’ve been thinking about how much people with thin privilege grumble and groan at having to accommodate fat people’s needs, and how often they really fight the idea that they are privileged over fat people in any way – sometimes to the point of bullying, harassment and abuse when made aware of their own privilege. I think it derives from a resentment of feeling uncomfortable. Let’s face it, part of owning ones privilege is discomfort. It doesn’t feel good to have people angry that they are not afforded the same privileges as you and have to overcome obstacles that you don’t. It’s discomforting to realise that you often take things for granted that other people just don’t get access to. As a white, heterosexual cis-woman, I know this because it is uncomfortable to realise my own privilege. But I believe that some discomfort is a very, very small price to pay for having the privileges that I am afforded as a white, heterosexual cis-woman.
I am honestly glad that I make people with thin privilege over me uncomfortable. Good. It will do them good to have some discomfort in their lives, just as it is good for me to face discomfort as a white, heterosexual cis-woman for my privileges. But more than anything else, in the case of thin privilege, I think it’s good for thinner people to have discomfort about the space they are in.
Let’s face it, as a fat woman, I can honestly say that I’ve been uncomfortable in the world pretty much my whole life. It’s very difficult to find clothes that fit me. Furniture is not made to include me. Public spaces are set out in ways that it is uncomfortable for me to navigate. Strangers make me feel uncomfortable about being in public, whether it’s by showing their disgust/annoyance at having to see me, or sit near me, or manoeuvre past me, or by the way they stare, gawp and even photograph me, like I’m some kind of public attraction (though I must say, if I’m the weirdest thing someone has seen in their day, they live a very sheltered life!) When I turn on the television or open a magazine or paper, or go online, I’m made uncomfortable by the rhetoric around fatness, I’m labelled as a disease, broken, unhealthy, irresponsible.
However none of this discomfort actually comes from my fat body itself. My body feels fine in it’s size, it’s me, it’s the size I naturally am and if the world around me wasn’t so hostile and unaccommodating towards my body, I wouldn’t be in any discomfort at all. It is assumed by many, even by other fat people, that every fat person must be feeling discomfort in their body. This is not true. Bodies aren’t all the same, and there isn’t a cookie cutter “comfortable” size for human beings. We are diverse. I think sometimes that diversity reminds people that we are actually animals just like any other and that makes them very uncomfortable too.
It is a sign of a vast self centred sense of entitlement to believe that the world should be accommodating to you all the time over other people. This world is a big place. There is room enough for all of us to be accommodated, if only people would stop clinging to the notion that everyone has to be like “them” to be acceptable. A little discomfort to enable everyone space and representation is a good thing, and I believe that we human beings can handle it.
Those of us with privilege in any form will benefit by learning to accept discomfort from time to time in the areas that we have privilege. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is to sit with my discomfort of my privilege, and understand that I’m lucky only to deal with the little bit of discomfort that comes my way as a white, heterosexual, cis-woman. But when it comes to my fatness, I’m not willing to apologise for my body and act as though I am a burden, a problem, an inconvenience. This is my body. It serves me well. I quite like it. And it does no harm in the world. I will not be made feel inferior because it doesn’t fit the current mode that is considered “acceptable”, and I will give my body the space it needs to manoeuvre through the world while also allowing others around me to do so within reason.
Sadly, there are those who feel that by shouldering a little discomfort the same as everyone else, they are not getting their “fair share”. When the reality of privilege is, they have been getting more than their fair share all along, and aren’t willing to give up a little of the extra they’ve been enjoying to accommodate others.
So if my fatness makes you feel uncomfortable, good. If my calling out your thin privilege causes you discomfort, good. Now you have a small taste of what it is like for the rest of us.