Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Size on the subway

Over at Miss Conduct, the following question is asked:

Frequently I’ve seen overweight and obese people insist on squeezing themselves into subway and bus seats that are too small for them. This results in their arms and legs landing on top of the people sitting on either side of them. This is very uncomfortable for the riders being squished, who often just get up out of their seat because it's too awkward to say anything to the person with the weight issue. Nobody seems to know how to handle this. What do you suggest?

I ride the bus out here in Buffalo regularly, though the ones around here aren't usually crowded the way a Boston subway car can be. I've also been a regular user of public transit when I lived in New York City and Honolulu, so I think I've got some idea what I'm talking about.

  • It's not just fat people. I'm not particularly fat; I fit just fine in a bus seat. However, I'm a lot wider at the chest and shoulders, which means that on the typical two-seater I have to (a) pull my shoulders in and hunch over; (b) sit sideways; or (c) get more intimate with my seatmate than I typically care to.
  • Unless Boston is significantly different from other cities (including NYC), this example of the fat person shoving the already seated person out of his or her seat isn't something that happens regularly enough to warrant much consideration. More often, what happens is that someone sits down, and if the bus is crowded they'll be touching. If that someone is fat, people react differently - they're more grossed out by the contact, or they think that "if this person weren't fat, then I'd have more space." To which the only valid response is: get over it. You're not going to catch the fat off of them, and you'll be off the bus in a while anyway. The idea that "nobody seems to know how to handle this" is bunk - what the questioner assumes is that everyone else is as uncomfortable as he/she is, and just won't say anything. The question isn't how to handle it - plenty of people handle it fine - it's how do we change social expectations so that my discomfort is more important than their right to a seat?
  • One of the main reasons this happens on non-packed buses is a phenomenon I call "checkerboarding." People sit with one seat's worth of space between them and the next person over, in an attempt to maximize the cushion of space around them. (It's also annoying when you want to sit with a friend.) In situations like this, I again can't be too sympathetic with the person who complains that their space is being invaded, when they've relied on others' reluctance to do so to deprive them of room.
  • One of the other major evictors of people on a bus are wheelchair users. The way buses are set up, a bench that normally seats 2-3 must be folded away to accommodate 1 wheelchair. But we feel (rightly) that this is okay, because the alternative is to say that wheelchair users can't ride the bus if it's crowded, and that's not an acceptable alternative. (No, it doesn't matter if someone's fat because of genetics or through some fault of their own, just as it doesn't matter why someone's in a wheelchair.)

Basically, it comes down to whether it's okay to make fat people second-class citizens, and once it's put that way I sure as hell hope the answer's obvious (but fear that, for many people, it's not).

Kate Harding over at Shapely Prose also has a post up about this.

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