Last month I took an impromptu trip to see family out of state. It was fantastic: a lovely time with my brother’s family, and exactly what I needed after a tough time at work. I showed up at the airport, sad to go, but happy to have had the chance to catch up with some of the people who mean most to me.
When I got on the plane, things took a sharp turn. The flight was oversold, and I was assigned at the last minute to a middle seat. As soon as I sat down, one of the people sitting next to me seemed to get agitated. He got up four, maybe five times to talk to flight attendants. He checked over his shoulder at least a dozen times. Finally, a flight attendant crouched down next to him and whispered something I couldn’t hear. The passenger got up and moved to a seat one row up. Before he sat down, he turned to me and said, “this is so you’ll have more room.”
The flight attendant looked at him, puzzled, then looked at me and said, “this won’t be a vacant seat. Someone will still be sitting here.” The passenger looked away, then sat down.
Throughout the flight, attendants offered free beer, wine and extra snacks to the people sitting on either side of me. They didn’t say much to me. I folded my arms, locked my legs together, and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. This was the moment I’d come to dread as a fat traveler. I had been singled out—and so publicly—as a nuisance, a burden, a blight. All of this, for having the body I’ve always had, nothing more.
No matter how good I was, no matter how small I tried to make my body, I couldn’t even take a fucking two hour flight. I spent the rest of my time on the plane replaying the interaction in my mind to see if I was wrong, if I’d misread cues, or if there was something I could have said or done differently. The landing couldn’t come soon enough.
As travelers filtered into the aisle to get their bags, the passenger who moved looked at me. He said, “you know, I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker.”
“I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker, or a pregnant woman.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s what makes this terrible.”
And there it was: a perfect stranger, telling me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t even want to be near me. All because I’m fat. All the doubt drained out of me and I felt the sting of humiliation—the same feeling I felt in grade school, when my parents sent me to fat camp. The same feeling from middle school, when a fellow swim team member told me no one would want to see me compete. The same feeling I felt at the doctor’s office last year, when another patient told me that “a woman your size shouldn’t wear belts.” It’s the same feeling every time. After this flight, it took days to feel like I’d even partly let go of it. I still haven’t shaken it all the way. Because of that cumulative effect, I’m not sure that I ever will.
So often, when I think of my experience as a fat person, these are the moments I think of: the rejection, humiliation, shame, frustration and struggle. But my while my life is shaped by these moments, it’s not defined by them. In that moment, on that plane, despite having a whole job centered around combating discrimination, and despite having spent years thinking and talking and writing about dismantling oppression, I completely lost my sense of self. And that is, in part, because I didn’t have an affirming script to fall back on. Or, at least, not one that I’d internalized as deeply as I internalized the hurt, frustration and anger.
I’ve been waiting to hear someone tell me what, as a fat person, I ought to be able to rely on, and what’s reaching too far, taking too much. When am I reasonable? When am I greedy, angry, insatiable? I kept expecting to see some kind of fatty bill of rights that someone else would make, so it would feel official—more real than anything I could create. But in a world where those affirmations don’t exist, we must create them for ourselves and one another.
So I’m starting that list here. This is what I’ve needed to hear, but it’s not everything. I hope you’ll add more in the comments.
We have the right to our bodies. We have the right to weigh 90 pounds (or less), 400 pounds (or more), and every number in between. We have a right to the bodies we have, the bodies we need, the bodies we were born with, and the bodies that reflect our gender identities. We have the right to spaces that respect and accommodate our bodies, not bodies that shrink and change fit the spaces that exist. We have the right to health care that provides the services that our minds and bodies need – not what others’ bias, prejudice and ignorance tells us we need. We have the right to transition-related health care and non-medical transitions; to birth control, reproductive health, and whatever health care our bodies, minds and identities need to be our whole selves.
We have the right to eat. We have the right to eat salad and potato chips and lentils and pork ribs. We have the right to eat anything and everything: foods that reflect our families, histories and culture; foods that affirm our values and identities; foods that give us the nutrition we need, and foods that don’t. We have the right to access safe, healthy, affordable food, regardless of income level. And we have the right to eat all of it in whatever amounts we choose and are able.
We have the right to travel, regardless of whether we are the size, shape or ability designers and engineers expected. We have the right to pass through airport security without every detailed inch of our bodies being projected to security agents. We have the right to sit in any airplane, stand on any bus, ride any bike or drive any car to get us where we need to go.
We have the right to work without fear of discrimination. We have the right to new jobs, to promotions, to bad days and big accomplishments. We have the right to bring all of our talents, skills and passions to bear, and we have the right to whatever work supports ourselves, our families, and our communities. And we, like all workers, have the right to respect, and to policies that keep us safe and our jobs secure.
We have the right to family, love, sex, all of the above, or none of it. We have the right to sleep with and partner with the people we want, for as long as we want to, in whatever formation reflects and affirms us. We have the right to date people we’re attracted to and who are attracted to us, without being criticized for having partners who are too fat, too thin, too plain or “out of our league.” We have the right to be seen publicly with our partners, whatever their size, shape, gender or ability.
We have the right to raise children—fat children, thin children, and everything in between—without our fitness as parents coming under attack. We also have the right not to raise children without being portrayed as lonely, tragic or defective.
We have the right to walk down the street without being met with glares, stares, verbal harassment or physical assault. And we retain those same rights in restaurants, gyms, job interviews, and our day-to-day lives. We have the right to the anxiety and hurt that results from this treatment, and we have the right to let it go.
We have the right to be wallflowers or social butterflies, awesome or awkward, without our personalities being attributed to our body size, shape, or ability. We have the right to be our own people or tell our own stories. We have the right to be romantic leads, action heroes, or just real people with real challenges and successes, without being relegated to the role of the fat best friend. We also have the right to be fat best friends.
We have the right to health care that doesn’t reduce all of our health problems to our weight, or balk at healthy fat people. We have the right to respectful, precise, accessible health care, with treatments and services that reflect our needs, our beliefs and our histories.
We have the right to be good people, bad people, people with our own sets of morals and ethics that are not defined by our weight, our diet, our exercise regiment, or our blood pressure. These are indicators of what’s happening in our bodies, not telltale signs about our morality, our fitness to serve as role models, or our impact on our children, neighbors or communities. We have the right to go to the doctor’s office, even just once, even just for a fever or a broken arm, without being lectured about losing weight. We have the right to health care that helps us, not health care that shames us.
We have the right to safe and inclusive community free from racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and oppression on the basis of our race, ethnicity, nationality or immigration status. We have the right to live safe, free lives without being scapegoated for social, economic, political or public health problems that are too often wrongly attributed to us.
We have the right not to be policed for the food we eat, for exercise, body size, or body shape. We have the right to live free from body policing, wherever it comes from, be that the media, the world at large, our friends, our families, or even one another.
We have the right to resist fatphobia as a tool of colonialism, that seeks to dismantle our very bodies and senses of self by imposing white, Western beauty standards worldwide. These are constructs of power, not constructs of our communities. And like any tools of imperialism or colonialism, we will resist it. We have the right to understand and describe our bodies in a way that reflects our cultures and histories, and resists them as we see fit. We have the right to know that fat is beautiful, powerful, worthy and good. We have the right to friends, family and communities who know that, too.
We have the right to state our needs, then get those needs met respectfully, without reductive dialogue or petty pushback on those needs. We have the right to our lives, our families, our identities, our histories and our communities. We have the right to be who we are–all of who we are.