So, Robin Abrahams, who writes the Miss Conduct advice column for the The Boston Globe, has been reading Shapely Prose (and occasionally commenting — you might have seen her) for a while now. Squee! We love us some advice columnists around here. (Carolyn Hax, are you out there? Call us!)
Robin e-mailed this morning to let me know about her latest blog post, in which she addresses an issue that seems to come up in every advice column, ever: fat people having the NERVE to take a seat on public transportation, even if it means THEIR FAT TOUCHES OTHER PEOPLE!
In her e-mail, Robin says:
It was really doing the column that opened my eyes to fat hatred. Seriously. There are three groups who, whenever I dare to suggest that they might be human and have feelings, I get hate mail about it: fat people, Muslims, and smokers. How dare I give aid and sympathy to the enemy (sigh …)
I don’t even know where to start with that one. “Sigh…” is about right.
So, Robin has thrown the fatties-on-transit question out to her readers, with the following ground rules:
1. No hating on fat people. If you think people shouldn’t sit in seats that are too small for them, say so. But do so with civility. None of this “But if we treat overweight people with dignity, they will have no motivation to lose weight, and will continue to be fat at me!” idiocy that comes up every time I mention courtesy to the overweight.
2. No hating on me because I’m not fat, or because I’m only recently starting to think about the issue of prejudice against the overweight. Nobody figures all of life out overnight.
3. No saying “Subways and buses should have bigger seats.” Yes, they probably should, but they’re not going to anytime soon. (And airplanes? Fuggedaboutit. That’s the least of the airline industry’s problems.) It’s easy to behave well in a hypothetical well-engineered future. I’m interested in how people deal with the imperfect present.
1 and 3 seem incredibly wise (not to mention refreshing) to me, since those are certainly the two responses most likely to derail any real discussion of “the imperfect present.” And 2 just reminds me how delightful this here community is, because my first thought was, “Huh? You actually need to put that in writing?” And then I remembered there are plenty of fat people out there who think of thin women strictly as “skinny bitches” who need to “eat a sandwich” — they just don’t hang out here.
Anyway. Robin asks that people e-mail their responses to her (missconduct at globe dot com), but this subject is open for discussion here, too, and I can’t wait to see what Shapelings have to say.
For what it’s worth, here’s my take.
Seating on public transportation is first-come, first-served. Period. Everyone pays the same ticket price, which guarantees nothing but some physical space on some train or bus that will come along that day. It doesn’t guarantee you a seat, or a spot on the next train, and it sure doesn’t guarantee you a comfortable ride.
People come in different shapes and sizes, and some of those people are too big to fit into one of the tiny molded butt rectangles that ostensibly constitutes a single seat. Some people, you’ll note, are also too tall to keep their legs out of the way of standing passengers (or, if standing, to keep their armpits out of the faces of shorter standing passengers, ahem). Some people have groceries or packages or bookbags that take up extra space, despite all the signs exhorting people to please make such items magically disappear for the duration of the ride. Some women have big pregnant bellies. Some people have wheelchairs that take up more than a “single” seat, while the rest of us stand around using our legs like suckers. Some people fit perfectly into the butt molds in summer, but when puffer coat season comes around, take up twice as much space as usual.
All this diversity might cause problems if public transit riders were paying for a comfortable seat. But we’re not. We’re paying for the cheapest possible ride from point A to point B, which will sometimes involve having multiple seats to spread out on and plenty of breathing space, but at other times will involve being packed cheek by jowl with a squirming, stinking, ill-mannered mass of humanity — and quite possibly some barf or poop in a corner somewhere.
This is the situation. And for my money, about 95 percent of subway etiquette questions arise from people failing to accept that this is the situation. Y’all, seriously, how much did that transit ticket set you back? Be real.
Now, on to specific advice. As I said above, we’re dealing with a first-come, first-served operation. Which means, if a fat person gets on the train or bus when there is enough seating available to accommodate his or her ass? The fat person has a right to sit. Even if this means taking up two “single” seats. The butt molds are there to discourage people from selfishly spreading out and denying other people actual available space — not to serve as some sort of “You must be this thin to deserve to sit” sign. That means if you get on a train and see a fat person taking up two seats, those seats are gone, period, just as they would be if two thin people had gotten there before you, and you have no right to bitch. This is not a matter of people taking up “more space than they deserve” and certainly not “more space than they paid for.” This is a matter of human beings taking up exactly as much space as they need, because that much seating happened to be available when they got on the train. Lucky them, poor you.
If there is only one butt mold available between two other people, and you know you’re too fat to fit in it? Don’t fucking sit there. You’re not going to be comfortable, and you’re going to make two other people uncomfortable. Common sense and common courtesy demand that you stand, just like all the other poor slobs who got on when the vehicle was already full.
Note that I’m not talking about fat people with invisible disabilities, who might really need to sit. (If that’s the case, then you’re going to have to explain that to people and ask for a seat. And they might very well be hateful about it, which fucking sucks, but this is public transportation we’re talking about, not tea with the queen.) I’m talking about people — and I’ve been one of them, dozens of times — who really want to sit, and thus find the siren call of that one empty seat well nigh irresistible, even knowing that for their purposes, it might as well be a full seat. In that case? Resist it. Lucky them, poor you.
It’s that simple, people. If a fat person got there before you, a thin person? Your bad luck. And if two thin people got there before you, a fat person? Your bad luck. Welcome to mass transit.
But wait, I’m not done. Quite frankly, I have trouble believing that the scenario the letter-writer describes — in which fatties “insist on squeezing themselves into subway and bus seats that are too small for them” — is really all that common. At least if we’re talking about squeezing themselves between two already seated people, not just into any given butt mold. Like I said, I certainly know the temptation to take an empty seat, even when you know it’s not enough for you, but I’ve never done it, because I have a brain in my head. And I’ve been riding public transportation regularly for 12 years, in two different cities, and have never once had a fat person squish in next to me when it obviously wasn’t gonna work. So I have to believe one of two things is going on here:
- The letter-writer is just talking about people who have the gall to take up more than one butt mold at a time when more than one is available — which, dude, GET OVER IT. They got there first, and wishing isn’t gonna make their asses smaller.
- The letter-writer had or witnessed this experience once or twice (or maybe imagined it), and then fat-hate fueled his or her indignation about THIS WIDESPREAD, TERRIBLE PROBLEM.
I would not be at all surprised if it were the latter. Like the now-proverbial “fat person I totally saw with 5 kids and a grocery cart full of junk food” and the “fat person who made my airplane ride SOOOO uncomfortable,” this Fatty Who Takes up too Much Subway Space has achieved mythical — in every sense of the word — status in recent years. And as always, it’s almost certainly much more about stereotypes of fat people — they have no idea they’re fat and other people are grossed out by it, and since they clearly have no self-regard, you can’t expect them to show basic respect for other people! — than about the reality of getting around in a world that happens to include fat people.
As far as that reality goes? Suck it the hell up or take a cab. Seriously.