Essay: Obese people are people too

Originally published online here.

Canada has ruled that people who require two airline seats can have them without paying extra.

The high court declined to hear an appeal by Canadian airlines of a decision by the Canadian Transportation Agency that people who are “functionally disabled by obesity” deserve to have two seats for one fare.

A friend of mine posted to Twitter, “This is kind of ridiculous. If you’re wide enough for a second seat, you ought to pay for it.”

He doesn’t believe he’s being unfair, because he’s one of the people who might be affected by this sort of ruling. However, there is a fundamental fallacy in his argument, and that is

Obese people don’t have the same rights as people at lower weights.

If you think of each airline seat as a commodity, it seems unfair for one person to get two while others only get one for the same price. But that’s not really what’s going on here. The obese person isn’t enjoying a luxurious extra seat, with room to lounge or lie down or spread out. The obese person is simply getting enough room to actually sit down. To say that a person must pay extra for a seat because they require more room is nothing more than prejudice. Should a person in a wheelchair pay extra for the room her chair takes up?

This brings me to another fundamental fallacy. This fallacy is what breathes life into the first.

Obese people choose to be obese.

How many obese people do you know who say, “I love being obese! I wouldn’t change a thing about myself!” I doubt you know anyone who says that. No, what an obese person is more likely to say is, “I’m obese because I’m lazy and don’t eat right.”

That argument may or may not be true. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of personal responsibility for one’s health. But the fact of the matter is, our society makes it ridiculously difficult to escape obesity.

We are less active

We hardly have to walk anywhere. We drive our cars straight up to the buildings we want to enter, even if they’re right next door. There’s a negative connotation associated with walking. When you see a person walking down the street, do you think, “Oh, how healthy!” or do you think, “What a vagrant! Get a job!” Yes, there is laziness involved here. But our country’s transportation fundamentals–the way we organize how we get from place to place–are heavily skewed against healthy options.

We have evolved into car-addicts. We zone our towns so that it’s often impossible to commute by any way other than car. While large cities may have subways or buses, these seem to have a negative connotation. Smaller cities may or may not have public transportation, and certainly not enough to make switching a viable choice for most people. The “ideal” is to have your own car and drive it everywhere.

We also have an obsession with “convenience” and “efficiency”. Americans have always been about innovating in order to save time and money. It somehow seems more efficient to us to drive everywhere than use other methods of transportation. It’s certainly more convenient. We can carry more things in a car, and we can stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. We can drive right up to wherever we’re going and be inside in a flash.

Our transportation issue has evolved into a self-feeding cycle. We drive everywhere because city planners zone commercial and residential far away from each other, because we like the convenience of driving and the “safety” of neighborhoods secluded from commerce. We can’t stop driving everywhere easily, even if we want to. It takes too long to get to places by foot or bike. It’s less safe. And we don’t have any other options, except perhaps a bus that doesn’t quite go where we need it to.

We don’t eat right

This point hardly needs to be made. Everyone knows by now that human beings are not supposed to eat as much as we eat here in America, and certainly not the types of food we eat. The majority of us are built to store fat to keep us from starving when times are rough. As many have noted, though, our cheapest food items nowadays are the ones that are the worst for us. It’s harder to eat fresh vegetables because we often don’t have time to cook, so we pick up something quick (and loaded with fat and salt) and the veggies go bad in the fridge.

Why don’t we have time to cook, if everything is supposedly so convenient? Because we don’t actually save any time doing things the way we do them. We sit in the car driving to work on the other side of town. We sit around for 8 to 12 hours trying to make more money. Instead of setting convenience as a means to an end–a healthy, joyful life–we’ve made convenience our goal.

Our relationships, just like our health, suffer because it’s inefficient to spend time working on them.

“I deserve it”

The sheer amount of time, energy, and money it would take for an obese person to work themselves down to a healthy size are the reasons more of them (us) aren’t doing it. We basically have to fight basic precepts of our society. We have to teach ourselves that convenience is not good. We have to teach ourselves that it’s okay to spend more money. We have to teach ourselves to spend less time on things we enjoy so we have more time to exercise. And all of these things run completely counter to the “pursuit of happiness” we are indoctrinated into growing up.

We’re told we can do whatever we want, whenever we want. That this is our privilege as Americans. We believe that we have a right to convenience. We have a culture of entitlement, and if things don’t go our way we feel it’s perfectly acceptable to pitch a fit. These underlying assumptions feed our quest for more, more, more, now, now, now, whether that be a faster route to school than walking or the bus, or as much food as we can scarf for the least amount of money.

We are, essentially, training ourselves to be lazy in all things–making it appealing to be selfish and miserable.

The inverse

Many of us recognize this sense of entitlement in ourselves and others and find it repulsive. We don’t want a handout, we’ll say. We don’t want special treatment. We want to be treated like everyone else.

The problem is, sometimes we go too far. We’ll state that it’s only fair that obese people pay for as many seats as they need, for example, because they shouldn’t get more of anything than anyone else. We’ll buy into a logical fallacy because we don’t want to be identified with our gluttonous society.

Obesity is not something we can turn off like a light switch. It is a fundamental problem in our society that everyone–individuals, businesses, and government–needs to work together to eliminate. But while we’re working on it, the fact of the matter is, people are going to be obese.

Obese people are people too

Giving a person a chair that is the right size is not special treatment. It is not saying, “You are entitled to be obese.” It is saying, “I want you to be just as comfortable as everyone else.”

Marginalizing people due to their size ignores the fact that obesity, for many people, is not a choice. Poor education, societal pressures, convenience and “efficiency”, genes, the slow death of the community, and factors we may not even be aware of yet have all combined to thrust Americans into an unhappy, unhealthy world. We can no longer simply blame the fat guy for being fat. We have to take a hard look at everything we do as a society.

We need to educate. We need to reform our transportation system. We need to offer more healthy options. We need to put an emphasis back on communities, on taking care of each other. We need to do all of these things and more to get ourselves back on track.

And in the meantime, we need to treat the ones who are affected most with the same dignity and respect we give everyone else. No more…and no less.