By Christa Rodriguez || Campus Life Editor
Award winning storyteller Kimberly Dark performed at this past Thursday’s Common Hour, opening up a discussion about perceptions of body size in our culture, and, more broadly, how our appearances and identities influence our experiences in the world. Dark is also a sociologist and writer. Her talk, titled, “Things I Learned From Fat People on a Plane” was part performance and part lecture, interweaving the storytelling throughout.
Her opening lines “Hey fat kid” and “you are so much more than your body” directly addressed anyone who has felt that their body was wrong, especially due to weight. Her use of the word “fat” she later addressed as a neutral descriptive term that has in our culture been turned into an insult. For the purposes of her talk, she would use that term in this neutral way. After the first performance, Dark spoke candidly about her own experiences of feeling disrespected on an airplane because of her size. She wore an airplane seat belt extender as a belt, and jokingly said she wears it so she doesn’t have to ask for one every time she goes on a flight. She explained her experiences of her airplane seatmates feeling like they had bad luck when they saw her in their aisle. She understands that some overweight people dehydrate themselves to avoid trying to fit into the small bathrooms on airplanes and some even forgo seatbelts because the standard belt on the plane doesn’t fit them and they are too ashamed to ask for an extender. Dark pointed out the obvious health and safety risks for these people that are trying to use their right to travel, but with a culture that produces airplanes made with only slim people in mind.
Dark also talked about learning to stay still as a heavy person. In another storytelling segment of her talk, she spoke about riding her bike at eight years old. This connects to her current state of movement, as she has always been an active person, engaging in exercise activities more than most slim people. Thin people were always telling her to lose weight, and that she was graceful and strong “for a fat woman,” which stuck with her. Even though there are famous heavy olympic athletes and she herself leads an active lifestyle, there is still this stigma that overweight people are unhealthy, instead of simply having that size naturally. Because of this stigma, Dark stated that some bigger people don’t move their bodies at all for fear of ridicule. “I don’t choose stillness,” she said.
While people of Dark’s size experience a society that has negative views of larger people, romantic relationships is yet another realm to navigate differently than others. She deemed this experience as “coming out fat.” In society, being big is usually seen as the antithesis of hot. Showing your partner your nakedness may cause them to see you differently. Regrettably, she said, “there are things about you that might make people question how lovable you are.” By “coming out,” Dark meant having a conversation about her partner’s feelings about her size, especially when the partner was a slim person with “tall pretty people privilege.” She said that when she is alone with a partner, there is no comparison to other people or the judgement of society. It is just the two of them. Fat as a problem, Dark stated, is largely social. Being stigmatized as “fat” can stigmatize one’s lover too.
The notion of thin privilege is apparent to Dark as she is oppressed because of her weight. Having a body people are socialized to hate is detrimental in terms of gaining opportunities in society. Dark said that in this world, calling a woman “fat” knocks her down a peg. When she asks for a seat belt extender in an airplane, the airline staff hand it to her like a drug deal. In this society, “an air ticket is one size fits all.” Even though Dark is active, she wonders if she would be seen as less worthy of comfort or respect as a human being if she wasn’t active. Furthermore, focusing on the heavy passenger takes the anger away from the airline, which is good for business – another way in which heavy people experience systematic oppression.
The good news, according to Dark, is that no part of human culture is not created by humans, which means humans can change themselves. She ended her Common Hour talk by having the audience practice different ways of responding to negative comments about people’s weight. The idea is that whenever you hear a comment about a heavy person or dieting in your daily life, you consciously come up with a different way of responding that does not support putting down other people.