Being Fat on Public Transportation
I've lived in San Francisco for almost 9 years, and until recently used the train primarily to get around. San Francisco is one of those towns that has a vast public transportation system - MUNI - covering nearly all its 49 square miles with at least one bus or light rail train, if not both. As lucky as I feel about having access to it, the train is also a space I've come to associate with fatphobic hostility.
I began to keep track of the instances of fat shaming I experienced in my daily life, and almost all of them happened while I was waiting for the train or on the train.
I experienced explicit fatphobia on/around the train often enough that I would sometimes alter my schedule to avoid high volume times and times that coincided with the end of the school day, sometimes I would stand rather than sit so that other riders would feel like I was encroaching on "their" space less, and sometimes I would "rebel," and spread my stuff everywhere over multiple seats and put my sunglasses on - daring someone to say something to me. All of these tactics, in short, are exhausting for different reasons.
People are often surprised to hear that most of the instances of fat bashing I've experienced have been at the hands of women, most of them white and thin.
Being in or around shared public space really seems to bring out the bigotry in people. I imagine it has something to do with the anti-humanitarian, zero-sum mentality that capitalism teaches us - the more room you take up, the less room I have. I think it has to do with internalized sexism and women keeping other women down on behalf of patriarchy. I think it has to do with the "audacity" of a fat brown woman living in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. All of this is exacerbated by the entitlement that permeates the culture of The City. So I came up with a theory: anywhere where my outer thigh has the potential of touching another person's outer thigh is likely not a safe place for me.
In January of this year I got a car for the first time.
Since getting a car I have avoided taking the train even in moments when it's more convenient to leave the car at home.
I remember thinking/theorizing about 2 years ago: "if I could avoid taking the train I could reduce my experiences of fat bashing by almost 100%. And how fucked up is that?!" It made me think about privilege then. And it makes me think about privilege now that my theory has proven to be correct.
It is an incredible privilege to have access to things that help shield us from bigotry - whether that's light skin, more disposable income, a flexible schedule, or a car.
There are so many people who don't have a shield or who can't avoid taking the train between 7am-9am/4pm-7pm. There are lots of people who are scheduling their lives around other people's bigotry or who have to face it head on and deal with the stress of it. I'm thinking of you (us) and recognizing what you (we) have to survive. I hope we feel no shame for what we have to do to make it through today.
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Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.