Thursday, 14 July 2016

On fatness and chairs

Kicking off Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment, was Fat Out Loud – organised by Dr. Jenny Lee, at Palmerston North City Library. I decided to try my hand at a creative piece of writing, which is quite different from the writing I regularly engage in. But with Jenny’s support, I penned a piece about chairs that I shared at the event on 28 June, 2016.

You can watch my reading on my YouTube page here: Video


On a clear Autumn night in the Hawkes Bay, I sit in awe – I’m surrounded by the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra; their voices & laughter filling the night around me. It’s a magical kind of evening where anything seems possible. They begin to sing, and their melodies and harmonies dip & rise, & rise, & rise – and then I become very still as I realize that it’s not them who are rising – it’s me who’s falling. My chair is sinking into the soft ground, the mud like surface giving way under my girth. I surreptitiously glance around to see if anyone else has noticed my gradual decline, but luckily they are all entranced by the music. And maybe the weed. So no one is the wiser as I sink several cm; it feels like metres. Later, when we all stand to leave, I try to free my chair from the ground – but it’s of little use. The ground won’t give up its’ hard won prize. And in a way it seems a small price to pay to the chair Gods for my fat ass. At least this chair was ok. If a bit like the Titanic.


‘Cause, see, I’ve spent much of my life sitting in chairs that bruise my body.


Desk chairs. Lounge chairs. Studio chairs. Stationary chairs. Roller chairs. Chairs at school. Chairs at work. Chairs in waiting rooms. Chairs in salons. And don’t get me started on chairs that aren’t technically chairs – like airplane seats and train benches. The chairs of the world aren’t built for bodies like mine; the bruises and indentations have become common parts of the landscape of my fat body.


All of the chairs in my boss’ office have arms. And not just any arms, but old, wooden arms, on the old, wobbly chairs. Every time we meet, I have to precariously place myself into one of these chairs. And these chairs, oh, these chairs. These chairs bruise. My side fat is shoved aside; my ass fat droops off the back. For years, I would enter their office, sit in the horrible chair, and try to pay attention to the praise or consternation being offered. For years, I was quiet about my discomfort; some small part of me may have even believed I deserved it.


Even now, when I’m loud about most other things, I haven’t spoken up about the limitations of the chairs in his office. What could I say, I wonder. “These chairs suck.” “Those chairs hurt me.” “Why do you hate fat people?” None of these would necessitate the change that is needed – that the chairs in his office (all the chairs in the world) be adjusted or replaced with chairs that can serve all types of bodies. That can fit fat bodies like mine. I have, on occasion, picked up a better chair from the office of his secretary and brought that into the room with me. I’ve never explained why, and he’s never asked for an explanation. These are the days I’m feeling my strongest. Where I realise that I don’t have to be uncomfortable; that this isn’t some penance I’m serving. I’m allowed to sit and have a conversation with my boss without being bruised.


We spend our lives sitting in chairs. We sit to work; to meet; to eat; to watch; to read; to play; to live. Chairs are a primary vehicle through which we interact with the world and each other. For fat people, chairs can be a land mine. You never quite know what to expect when you walk into a public space – will you fit? Will the chair hold you? Will you wind up on your ass on the floor?


I’ve never broken a chair. It seems a shame, really – isn’t that a hallmark of a truly great fat person? To have decimated a chair? I thought I gained that achievement several years ago, when a chair I was sitting in almost seemed to melt underneath me while I spoke to a colleague across my kitchen table. At the time, I was mortified that it happened; especially in front of company. But later, when my landlord told me that the dining room chairs did that often and he kept wood glue on the ready for the fix, I found myself disappointed to have not achieved that level of fatness.


How much of your life do you think about chairs? How often do you notice the chairs in any given room? I’m aware of every chair in every environment I’m ever in. Even if the likelihood of me sitting is nill, I’m still paying close attention to the chairs. Are they sturdy? Do they have arms? Do they look like they can hold my 140 kilo body? And I doubt I’m alone in this. Ask any fat person you know how often they pay attention to chairs. Or anyone you know that isn’t abled bodied.


When I was finishing up my PhD, one of the first things I did was buy my own desk chair. It’s huge. And it swivels. It has massive arms, positioned in a way that don’t dig into my side, and don’t leave me bruised. It’s a ridiculous chair for a Professor, and it’s fancier than any other chair I’ve seen since arriving in New Zealand; oh yes, I brought it with me. In many ways, that chair represents what I’ve accomplished in my life. A life that was never supposed to amount to greatness, because, well, fatness. My executive chair tells the world to fuck off – and it allows me a more than comfortable place to sit while I engage with my scholarship and activism.


In many ways, chairs represent the larger struggle for fat people to fit into society. Finding your place in this world is a challenge for most, but that place can be especially challenging when the world isn’t designed to accommodate you. When you don’t fit into chairs, it’s hard to fit into life. Surely we can do better with the chairs on offer? We’ve put white men on the moon and driverless cars on the road! How can we not populate the world with chairs that fit all bodies? That offer a welcoming place for assess of all sizes?


In the meantime, here is my call – Fatties arise! Don’t sit in those too small chairs. Don’t bruise your lovely rolls on those arms. Be braver than me and ask those around you to provide appropriate places to put your ass!


via Friend of Marilyn