The oversized community has been all abuzz since last week’s announcement from no-frills Southwest Airlines: When a flight is fully booked, anyone possessing a rear end wider than a single seat will have to pay for two. Though the company has had that policy for 20 years, it now plans to be more consistent about enforcing it.
Sounds fair to me: Take up extra space, pay more. And like many things that are strictly “fair,” it’s also a bit insensitive. But to hear it from some fat activists, such a policy isn’t fair at all. It’s downright discriminatory. In fact, being fat in America today has been compared to being a black in America in the 1960s.
Here’s the executive director of the American Obesity Association, talking about Southwest’s policy with the Guardian: “It’s a return to the worst kind of discrimination. It’s like putting African-Americans at the back of the bus.” She also mentioned that her group would look to the feds for relief from such policies.
The civil rights movement comparison also pops up on the website of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, on a page intended to convince the overweight not to diet. Dieters, we find out, are not only foolhardy but craven, too: “You probably will receive better treatment if you get thinner, but this is an individual personal solution to a general societal problem. Where would the civil rights movement be today if African Americans were still searching for the perfect skin lightening cream or hair straightener?” Rather than change yourself, says NAAFA, “why not change other people’s attitudes or challenge a few laws?”
People, please: If kinky hair were all black Americans had to worry about, there might never have been a civil rights movement. But beyond that, there’s a second problem with the comparison: a major wing of the fat activism movement wants obesity classified as a disease, suggesting that the fat are powerless to control their expanding bellies. In fact, it’s in the AOA’s mission statement: to “move society to re-conceptualize obesity as a disease” and “to fashion appropriate strategies to deal with the epidemic.” (NAAFA meanwhile seeks to end fat discrimination by getting the fat and everyone else to embrace their rolls — both kinds — as natural and good.) Rhetorically, it seems a little irresponsible to classify obesity as a disease — i.e., something nasty to be eradicated — and then compare it to the historical plight of black Americans.
The old cliché “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” is especially apropos here. Demanding that society share the burden of girth isn’t going to kick the discrimination problem — it’s going to exacerbate it. First, it invites the professional nags to interfere with people’s eating habits and health care decisions. But almost worse, it hastens the humiliating scorn of the cramped, irritable airline passenger who either has to share some of his seat or watch while a fat customer sprawls out over two chairs for the price of one.
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