I was not always fat.
Growing up, I had been a little overweight, but I had never been ‘fat’. At fifteen, I began the process of losing weight – working out and eating little brought me closer to the size that promised everything my fuller figure denied me. Despite my obsessive relationship with food, I believed that my body looked ‘healthier’ than ever. For once in my tumultuous teenage years, I felt good in it.
When my mother suddenly passed away from a heart attack later that year, the struggles I had been having with food my entire life were reflected in how I grieved. Instead of reaching the ‘ideal weight’ I set for myself, I gained the seemingly impossible sum of 60kg. As a result, I became what everyone is warned about, what most people spend their entire lives trying desperately to avoid: I was, and remain, fat.
In the six years since, I have discovered just how small the world is. Once, I could never have imagined what it means to not fit into spaces where it is taken for granted that one should fit – but now, from aeroplanes to theatres, I am constantly confronted with the problem of space and the realities of my body. I have learned to anticipate the feeling of being clasped between the cold metal handles that separate the seats in auditoriums and lecture halls. I have suffered debilitating back pain after the agonising hours wedged between armrests. Before deciding whether to attend an event, I try to decipher from Google images of a venue if the seats look wide enough for my body.
There are, of course, aspects to being fat that are not merely dehumanising, but dangerous. Everyone knows – and has no issue expressing their opinion on – how obesity poses a plethora of risks to one’s health, but they seem remarkably less concerned with the fact that, say, seatbelts don’t fit people that exceed a certain size. It is as if we do not exist (or perhaps that we should not exist); as if there is no need to make seats or seatbelts large enough to accommodate our big bodies. As if it’s of little importance what happens to us in the event of a crash.
In the extremely rare occasions shops even carry my size, the garments themselves are designed to complement the bodies of thin people.
Flying has its own set of humiliations. Every time I am on a plane, attendants will come over to me and ask me to put the handle down for take-off and landing. Each time, I respond that I am physically unable to, gesturing towards my side, visibly flattened against my neighbour. Cruising at 38,000ft, I depend on the willingness of my neighbour to lift the handle that separates our seats – and to abstain from humiliating me in the process. If they decide to claim the space that they paid for (a right I relinquished the moment I became fat) I instead face pain for the duration of my flight.
As with other simple everyday things like chairs and seatbelts, we don’t really think about the physical necessity of being clothed until we are unable to find clothes that fit. In the extremely rare occasions shops even carry my size, the garments themselves are designed to complement the bodies of thin people. But of course, brands don’t want fat people to go about parading their apparel. Who would want to buy a pair of jeans after they saw them wrapped around a person twice their size? Instead, deterring fat people seems like a reasonable solution. Bras that cut into my skin and trousers that fold me in half serve as reminders that I should not feel empowered by my reality.
All this means I live in fear of someone deciding to communicate their frustration at the sacrifice that they are forced to make on my behalf. I know that, in that moment, their annoyance betrays something more profound than mere irritation. In looking at me, they are not only seeing that I do not fit in the seat: they see that I have brought this reality upon myself, and I am therefore not worthy of their sympathy.
What they don’t know is that I am already hyper-aware of these things as I sit spilling out of my seat. They do not know how uncomfortable it can be to navigate the world in a body this big. They judge me, unaware that my thyroid disorder means my affected metabolism makes it difficult to lose weight. They certainly don’t know how I nourish my body, or the reason I gained the weight in the first place.
This pandemic means we have all collectively experienced what it means to be kept away from our favourite places, having to stay at home in order to keep ourselves and others safe
Obesity is a very private issue of the body that somehow became ‘fair game’ for public discourse. People feel entitled to stare and comment on our bodies, without a moment’s consideration of how humiliating it is to have your body publicly scrutinised. I cannot express how difficult it is to live your life freely when you know everyone you come in contact with is always thinking about your size.
This pandemic means we have all collectively experienced what it means to be kept away from our favourite places, having to stay at home in order to keep ourselves and others safe. As we begin to re-evaluate how we re-occupy public places, it’s vital we create more spaces in which fat people feel welcome. As long as we continue to perceive fat as failure, and deny people with bigger bodies the right to space and safety, few places in the world will ever truly be accessible.
We must begin by recognising that leading a dignified existence should not depend on the size of your body – even if it is as big as mine.
Melina Spanoudi is a writer, editor and translator. Follow her on Twitter at @MSpanoudi
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.