My most memorable flight was one in which I was pinioned between two obese men for twelve hours. Because of their mammoth-like proportions, both immediately lifted the arm rests after take off, oozed further onto my seat, and promptly fell asleep. I was trapped for the duration of the flight, unable to clamber over their dormant, supine, orca-like carcasses to reach the bathroom without having to clamber over various body parts (not mine). Restroom trips were confined to the times when these creatures themselves would stir and take it upon themselves to heave their mass over to the toilet to complete ablutions.
This may sound harsh, but you for the duration of this trip I hated these two fat men. I despised them. I wanted to siphon off their flab and feed it to an African village. I wanted to harpoon their beached bodies. I wanted to harvest my own 110 pounds into 300, just so I could squash them back. I wanted them, simply, to fit into their own damned seat so I could get some sleep on a long, uncomfortable, economy class flight to Asia.
Only those who have suffered at the hands of other people's weight on economy class can truly understand that Southwest's controversial ejection of director Kevin Smith on the grounds that he was too fat to fly, wasn't really that mean at all.
It's a difficult one though, isn't it? The old fat argument. When it comes down to practicalities such as airplane seats, no one wants to sit next to a fatty. Not because we don't believe they have a gland problem and exercise all the time and it's just their genetics and they hardly eat at all, but because from our own purely selfish point of view, it's fucking uncomfortable and unfair that we should donate much needed, highly valuable space to someone else who is larger than the average sized person because they consume more. Yet to eject someone from a flight on the ground of their weight is deemed fattist, politically incorrect and opens up a whole can of worms on the fat debate -- as Southwest airlines continues to discover.
Back in 2008 I wrote a highly controversial, heavily ironic article objecting to the championing of obesity. I looked at such episodes as the need for new ambulance equipment for the USFD to cope with the increase in calls from obese patients, rising levels of childhood obesity, and the emphasis upon surgery as a solution to the fat problem as evidence that our attempts to counteract society's obsession with magazine and runway skinnies has unfortunately led to the opposite, equally unhealthy message, that fat is fine. I suggested that society is expanding to accommodate fat, rather than the individual taking responsibility for his or her own size.
The resulting furor surrounding my 'ignorant, hate-filled screed' was intense, and it resulted in my swift ejection from blogging for The Guardian. Now the article of mine that 'Feministing' described as "obscene" and "hateful" was certainly rude, obnoxious and insulting. It was a rant, it was an attack, and I deliberately employed insulting language as I wanted to take an extreme stance on what I perceive to be this recent new drive to 'normalize' obesity -- one of the largest causes of health problems in the Western world.
It was, however, not a 'hate-filled screed' on all 'overweight' people as many of the original commentators and Feministing contributors insist. It was a frustrated attack on the absurdity of tackling a growing obesity problem in the Western world by 'accepting' and 'normalizing' fat, sending out a message to new generations that it's OK to be grossly obese.
My point was made in offensive and cruelly humorous language, but there was a point. We don't promote heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure and immobility problems as desirable attributes in life, so why should we laud obesity over a healthy attitude towards weight and exercise? I feel strongly about this as the child of parents who are now suffering from life-threatening health problems precisely because of their weight, as are many of my (predominantly fat) family.
A close family member of mine suffered arthritis for years, accentuated by the fact that she was obese. She received two knee replacements and yet never managed to lose the weight afterward and is now practically immobile because she did not exercise after her surgery. She is the first to admit that her attitude towards food and exercise has now compounded health problems that, in turn, were the result of her weight issues, and have consequently made these health problems much worse. Her weight is not the symptom of disease, but the cause of much of her suffering. Now, at the time she desperately needs to lose weight, she cannot because she is immobile. Another close family member was recently diagnosed with weight-related diabetes, on top of high blood pressure and angina. His weight has yo-yo-ed for years, but he is the first to admit he is fat because he likes to eat too much and he does not exercise, predominantly because he now also suffers from gout. His weight has ballooned since the gout worsened.
Once one has compounded health problems to the point where immobility and pain set in, it's practically impossible to lose the excess fat a person is carrying, even by cutting down on calories. If one can't move, one can't expend the extra energy needed to burn excess fat. A sedentary life is a nightmare for overweight people. Once someone hits this point, losing weight becomes extremely, extremely hard.
Now growing up seeing these problems around me, seeing people I care deeply about suffer because of themselves and their attitude toward food and exercise -- not just because of poor self-esteem, or confidence issues, or childhood sexual abuse, or work-related stress, but because of a lack of willingness to confront their weight issues earlier in life when they had the chance -- has profoundly affected me.
It's a symptom of the complete absurdity of political correctness to send out a message to kids saying to be grossly obese is OK. It's not. It's not OK to be anorexic, it's not OK to be enormously obese. Both conditions are life-threatening. As is smoking crack and injecting heroin. If 66% of Americans are either overweight or obese, the message that it's OK to be fat is a particularly damaging one, and should be replaced with -- No, not an emphasis on skinnies, on surgery to solve the problem, on liposuction and gastric bypasses and slimfast diets and starvation -- but on re-educating the masses about diet and exercise, ensuring that those who don't have the money to join Equinox or shop at Wholefoods know how to make tasty, nutritious food on a budget.
I'm not referring here to anyone who carries a few extra pounds, who has a large butt, who doesn't weigh the same as Kate Moss, who agonizes over cellulite and wishes that they could get from a size 14 to a 12. I'm talking people whose weight is posing a serious health risk. Yet the hysteria and vitriol surrounding the issue seems to imply that anyone who objects to obesity, is secretly planning to round up anyone over a size 14 and send them to Belsen.
I find life pretty absurd, ridiculous and funny, which is why I couched a serious point in flippant and cruel language which was intended to offend by deliberately confronting head-on the kinds of politically correct BS we feed people in order to assuage delicate sensibilities and pretend we're all tolerant liberals. Obesity is a 20th century condition become a 21st century epidemic that has emerged from the availability of shit to eat, the Western world's inability to say no when confronted with plenty, and the ease with which we can offload our own faults onto our emotional stress or our past.
How is an addiction to over-eating and sedentary living any different to drinking too much alcohol, taking too many drugs, smoking too much? The first thing you learn in a twelve step program dealing with any of these issues is that you can't blame anyone or anything else for your problems. I feel confident enough to say that very few of the clinically obese or very overweight people in the world are this way because of a pre-existing medical condition or their personal genetics. Genes dictate body shape, hereditary diseases, hair color, eye color, whether your boobs are DD's or teensy A-cups, your ass is non-existent or, like mine, very much in existence. Genes do not dictate that you are unable to choose a salad over the pancakes, eggs, bacon and syrup option at brunch in Denny's. Weight is dictated by calorific intake versus calories burned. It's impossible for someone to have a gland problem and be 300 pounds if they're not consuming enough energy to maintain that weight.
I remember watching poor ole Jamie Oliver trying to educate schools about healthy eating and having to contend with a bunch of irate mums feeding their kiddies fries through the school railings at lunchtime. This is the fucked-up world we live in. I certainly don't want my hypothetical children to grow up in a world which accepts obesity as normal, and not preventable, where the boundaries of what is healthy and what is not changes frequently, not because of medical research but because of public opinion -- increasing percentages of fatties, parents who don't want their obese kids to feel weird, clothing companies that regularly change their sizing policies to make people feel slimmer, people who sue fast food companies for their obesity or heart disease. I want my kids to grow up in a world which takes responsibility for themselves, not offloads problems onto genes, or poverty, or childhood trauma. I want them to have a healthy attitude towards food and exercise, whatever size and shape they turn out. I want them to be mobile and enjoy exercise and sport and food, but never let their lives be dictated by consumption and weight. If they have this, you can guarantee they're not going to be one of those people lifted out of their death bed by the fire department, or thrown off an airplane because they couldn't pull down the armrests over their love handles.
Sorry Kevin Smith, you're on your own on this one. I certainly wouldn't want to sit next to you on a flight, however good your movies are. And while we're all sitting at home tutting about how unfair this situation is -- I can guarantee that when you yourself are confronted with the person who takes up your armrest, seat and comfort, political correctness, tolerance and sympathy will fall by the wayside.