Wednesday, March 21, 2012

one seat

Like many women in downtown Chicago, I seek gynecological care in a building that houses the Playboy offices. The sight of so many pregnant women tottering back and forth beneath the shiny chrome PLAYBOY sign in the lobby always cracks me up. There is a pretty constant stream of women, usually slender women (this is a swanky part of the city) with pregnancy-related deviations from the thin woman profile--a belt tied higher than normal over a swelling belly--on their way to the banks of elevators under its benediction. It's a busy place.

I walked into a doctor's waiting room in that building recently and suddenly remembered--oh, right. This room. I am not in that waiting room very often anymore, and I had forgotten that it was one where I had lobbied for years for more accommodating seating.

The room has maybe 30 unusually narrow wooden chairs, with arms, placed closely together, the same ones there have always been. But there is also now a love seat, upholstered in some mid-90s hotel pattern, the result (I was told) of all the comment cards I filled out, over and over, full of underlinings and exclamation points, pointing out the lack of seating for people of size.

At the point in my life in which I was in that waiting room a lot I had back problems and terrible mobility. Standing was even harder than walking, and it was horrible to know that after I had struggled painfully down the hall to the office there would be more urgent distress instead of relief. None of the narrow chairs fit me. It was a frantic feeling to be in so much pain while people around me were nominally relaxed. It was humiliating. I often felt like I wouldn't make it.

I am a resourceful, wide-hipped fatty, willing to advocate for myself with regard to seating as necessary, without too much apology or defensive anger most (not all) of the time, but the message implicit in that room--unintended, but very clear--got me down sometimes. Sometimes it got me down a lot. I was not welcome. I know my doctor didn't mean to say that to me, but she did. Her waiting room did.

I would "stand" by the receptionist, sweating with pain, holding myself up by leaning gracelessly against the wall, hard, making (I'm sure) weird facial expressions to deal with the effort, feeling conspicuous and angry and embarrassed. I was in an office attending to the demands of the human body, but when you got down to it, there was nowhere for mine in it. Without being in a wheelchair, which was a line I guess I wasn't willing to cross, I had no way to make do. They had even gotten rid of the stool-like end tables that I would sometimes commandeer for myself, startled patients watching me sweep the brochures off them as I plopped down as discreetly as I could.

So I grit my teeth and sweated, and I wrote and I wrote my frustrations on comment cards and told the nurses and the doctors about the problem every time I was there. I was really mad about the big issue here. I mentioned all the other people besides me who could use better seating, talking about the demands of pregnant women and the elderly and feeling frustrated that in my ears that sometimes sounded more convincing than my own needs. Eventually the fugly love seat arrived. Eventually I regained my mobility too, after a lot of rehab and work. Eventually I wasn't in that doctor's office as much.

When I entered the waiting room this time there was a couple sitting on the love seat, their limbs tangled casually together, texting on their cellphones and looking very comfortable. They were the opposite of the image of a nervous couple waiting for the doctor. There was nobody else in the waiting room, just rows of empty chairs.

After checking in and hanging up my coat I went to stand in a somewhat out of the way spot in the waiting room. The one seat that could fit me was filled, and well-used, I thought, by this couple able to relax together on the seat a little and feel comfortable before a doctor's visit, and not by somebody who, for instance, just wanted a cushy seat for her purse, whom I might ask to give me her space. So that was that. The seat was theirs. I would be standing for the duration.

Social behaviors in a doctor's waiting room are very narrowly defined. You are a patient, companion of patient, or medical professional. That's it. You're either waiting, going in, or leaving. You are required to look like you're waiting when you are, so staff knows what to make of you while doing their constant head counts--so other patients know how to categorize you. It's a kind of nervous place.

Standing looks weird in a waiting room. I was no longer fighting the humiliation of physical pain while I did it, but it was born in upon me as I stood there that it didn't matter, that I was exactly as out of place as I had been five years ago, just a little less sweaty. The new seat--the seat I had agitated for--hadn't really changed anything. I wondered if I looked like a nerdy soldier afraid to be at ease, or maybe a neurotic afraid of chair germs. Or maybe it looked like I had to stand for a bad back. The couple glanced at me in confusion a few times but basically ignored me. I was willing to stand, but I wondered as they looked away--why did they think I would want to? The math was really clear--you look at me, you look at the wooden chairs--

I could feel the familiar anger and upset swelling in me, whether I wanted it to or not, including that deep-down frustration that nobody but me knew what was happening. Didn't I have a right to sit down? Didn't I have a right to sit down without having to make a big fuss about it and inconvenience other people? I didn't want to have to ask, I didn't want to have to bug these people. I didn't want to involve them in my needs at all. I didn't want to take anything away from them. But I would have to if I needed to sit. I could feel my adrenaline rise as I imagined interacting with them. It was all really close to the surface.

As I grew more agitated inside, I also grew increasingly aware in a very familiar way that my claim on the chair, if I got it, would be temporary. Under siege. Even though I needed the seat more than these people at the moment, there could easily be somebody else who needed the seat more than I. A nursing woman with a child. An older person unable to maneuver the wooden chairs with the sharp corners. A person with a broken leg who needed to put their leg up. Somebody bigger than I. Where were we going to all sit?  Whose seat was it? I needed that seat. What if somebody who Didn't Need It came in and sat in it before I had to chance to? What if someone determined I didn't need it and asked me for it? What if somebody yelled at me that the seat was for two people, not one? The less I wanted to obsess about the seat, the more I did. I was in a relationship with it other people couldn't see. Other patients came into the waiting room and sat in the wooden chairs, giving me quick looks as I stood there like an idiot, protecting myself nonetheless. I tried hard to not feel anger at the relaxed happiness of the couple, but that was eroding too.

After about 15-20 minutes they were called in by the nurse for their appointment, and I quickly sat on the couch in their place, wishing I could feel less desperate about it. Unlike the years when I could barely stand, it wasn't the end of physical agony, but that didn't really matter. It was still too important.

I rolled my eyes at the departing couple's backs (yes, I did this), even though they'd done nothing wrong other than maybe not wonder why a woman was standing in a room full of chairs. I was pissed by the ignominious "fight" in my head for what was in the end just a chair. It all felt dumb. And it suddenly felt odd, as it always does, to have been a big deal, once I was in a seat that fit me. A seat that fits--that's not so weird, is it?

There is unintended meaning everywhere in this man-made, physical world as a fat person. There are lines and limits drawn everywhere other people don't see, of which we are excruciatingly aware. There are limits for a lot of people in this world, to which I can speak with less (or no) personal experience. Whether differently abled, or large, or short, or deaf, or one of innumerable things that aren't taken into account--this world isn't built for all of us. ADA rules have changed some things (for fat people too), but not everything. A lot of times the world feels pretty blithely unconcerned with accessibility. Years of serious mobility issues will never let me take that for granted again. Being large won't let me either.

I am more and more interested as I get older in the ways in which spaces make decisions for us--millions of decisions, good and bad, deep in people's lives--especially for those of us whose accessibility needs are our "own fault" and therefore looked at less straight-on, by designers and by ourselves, but exist regardless. What about fat people who won't even try engaging with public spaces--won't try to fly, won't risk new environments, won't try public transportation? Spaces make decisions for people. A lot of other things do too, but we underestimate how much our relationship with the edges of the spaces we occupy affect us. That waiting room is not the only place, not by a long shot, where I have nowhere to sit.

Or, I should say--where I have just one place to sit. I am really glad there is a love seat in my doctor's office. There are a lot of people who really need that seat. But there needs to be more than one. I don't think we should should have to fight over it. The world, which is designed and built by us and for us (all of us), should fit us.


  1. Oh, Liz. Liz, Liz, Liz, Liz. I love the shit out of you for this. Everything I feel so frustrated with a thousand times a week in this one post. Oh me oh my. This--this!! Spaces make decisions for people. "A lot of other things do too, but we underestimate how much our relationship with the edges of the spaces we occupy affect us. That waiting room is not the only place, not by a long shot, where I have nowhere to sit."

    YES. A thousand times over, yes.

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