The Right to Take Up Space

The Right to Take Up Space

CW: discussion of fatphobia and ableism

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. From long before I was fat, in fact. You might wonder why I would choose to post it now.

This is the worst time, after all, to talk about fat acceptance.

Right now, many people have returned to work following the holidays and are patting their stomachs with grimaces as they tell their co-workers that they ‘over-indulged’ and are starting new diets to compensate. Right now, our ads are full of weight-loss schemes, gym adverts, and the pressure to turn yourself into a better (or rather, thinner) you.

Those of us who have been learning to live with our bodies in a world hostile to them are suddenly under a lot of pressure to either start hating them again or to fade into the background so that thinner folk can hate our bodies (and any changes in their own) in peace. What little space we have carved for ourselves, we are expected to give up.

So I guess, in many ways, this is the perfect time to talk about fat acceptance. Because the specific thing I want to talk about is the right to take up space.

The fear of taking up space

I could no longer make myself small enough in anyone’s eyes.

The fear of taking up too much space is not only the domain of fat people, but we face greater pushback than thin people do. There’s certainly intersectional aspects to it that I do not feel qualified to talk about, so I will talk only of how my own experience.

I was not a fat child or young adult. In fact, I have only been fat since my mid-twenties. But I always, always feared to take up space. I would make myself small in the company of others. I would cram myself up against the window on the bus or train. I would cringe if I spoke too loudly, then whisper instead. I was terrified of being perceived to be ‘too much’. And I was very, very thin, so this was easy to achieve.

Then, when I was around 27 years old, I became fat. Quite quickly, in fact. I’m not going to talk today about what the was like. I’m not going to talk about the rapid shift in how people treated me.

Instead, I’m going to keep talking about the fear of taking up space.

Because you see, I was still terrified of doing it. But I could no longer make myself small enough in anyone’s eyes.

For many fat people, trying to make yourself small is a fact of life. An absolutely futile one. On the bus, I would still try to cram myself up against the window, but there was nothing I could do to stop other people’s shoulders from brushing mine. I took up half the seat whether I wanted to or not. And I felt enormous guilt over this, in spite of the fact that when I had been thin and taking up, at best, a third of the two-person seat, people still brushed shoulders with me. They would happily expand to fill the space I had left behind. But they were not thinking to themselves, ‘This person is taking up too much space.’ I was certain that they thought it now, even though I was taking up no more than my fair share of the space, and had no control over that besides.

I would feel this in many other places besides. When walking through a crowd, or passing someone in a narrow corridor. When shopping and my backpack knocked a book off a display — when I was thin, it was because I was clumsy. But when I became fat, it became because I was fat.

And before you think ‘that is all in your head’, I would like you to examine how it got there. Because I encountered an awful lot of fatphobia before I was ever fat that explicitly taught me to think this way.

There are some specific moments of thin people raging at the thought of fat people taking up space that have stuck with me.

Learning the fear

They have a right to take up space.

I remember my manager at a bookshop spitting mad, seemingly from nowhere, at the thought of mobility scooters in his shop. They knocked over too many things from the precariously stacked tables in their incredibly narrow aisles. ‘It’s an accessibility requirement,’ I remember saying. ‘They wouldn’t need them if they weren’t so fat!’ was his response. There were three people in the room. One of us (my co-worker) was fat.

I stopped going to that bookshop when I became fat. I knew I wasn’t welcome.

I remember a friend telling me about her sporty little car. ‘And the best thing is,’ she said, ‘I won’t have to give our fat friend lifts home, because they won’t fit!’

This, she said while giving me a lift home. The message was clear: thin friends were worthy of her space and time. Fat friends were not.

And among many other stories, there is one that really sticks in my memory.

I remember a friend lamenting that her sister and her sister’s wife had come to visit. ‘It was disgusting,’ she said. ‘There was no room in my house.’ I thought it odd that she found it crowded — after all, she’d regularly had much larger numbers of visitors.

‘They take up too much space,’ she said. When I asked for clarification, somewhat dreading the answer but needing to know, she explained, ‘I don’t mean they have a “big presence”. I mean they are enormously fat.’

The right to take up space

Our size does not diminish our personhood

A long time later, while I was still working through being fat myself and what that meant about how people saw me, I relayed this last story to my mother. I remember her looking stricken, and her saying to me, in tones of shock, ‘They have a right to take up space.’

And I have carried that response with me. Her hurt, her shock, and her indignance. Because when you put it like that, there is no getting past the cruelty: fat people have as much right to take up space as thin people do. Our size does not diminish our personhood, no matter how much society might make us feel like those two things are inversely correlated.

And it’s not just what people say. It’s the lack of accomodation, the expectation that fat people won’t exist in the same spaces as thin people — or are discouraged from doing so. Seats at the cinema or on planes are too narrow for us, opting instead to cram in as many thin people as possible for maximum profit. There is no room for our clothes in mainstream clothing shops, no stools that take our weight. Visibility is a huge problem for fat people — we are not even allowed to take up space on television or film, except rarely as objects of disgust. We are being pushed out of nearly every space that thin people inhabit, and then moralised to as if this is our own fault for sinning by being larger than others.

But fat people have just as much right to those spaces, to all spaces, as thin people do.

Exercising the right

I would like to live in a world where fat people are not forced to hide away

What does this mean for us, as fat folk and as thin allies to fat folk? Well, I don’t have answers, but I’ll do my best.

For fat folk, I really just want you to take away that there is no need for guilt, and that anyone who is implicitly or explictly making you feel guilty for taking up space is wrong. I want you to know that you have a right to take up space, to be accomodated for and catered to, and that if you are not provided that space, that the shame is on those who failed to provide it.

For thin folk, I want you to be aware of the ways in which you are given the space to exist and fat people are not. I want you to make an effort to provide appropriate space and accomodations for fat people, and to notice and question it when others do not. I don’t think that’s a huge ask; in fact, I think it’s asking almost nothing of you.

I would like to live in a world where fat people are not forced to hide away or made to feel guilty for existing in the same places as thin people. We have the right to take up space. And it’s about time people acknowledged that.

A few links off the top of my head:

Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong — the article I recommend to everyone to begin to grapple with fatphobia, body positivity, and what it actually means to be fat

Sergle — artist who does lots of very beautiful fat art and also just realistic thin body art

Mean Fat Girl — Fat Activist and creator

Comments are disabled because talking about fatness always brings assholes out of the woodwork, but you can find me on Mastodon and on Twitter. I am, however, not interested in debating you. If you disagree, read the article I linked you, digest it, and then if you’re still angry at me for making this post go complain about it somewhere I won’t see it. That’s just basic decency.

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