Fitting in at the theater

Whose body is welcome at Philly venues?

5 minute read
How do you get a beach body? Read on for the secret. (Image courtesy of the author.)
How do you get a beach body? Read on for the secret. (Image courtesy of the author.)

I walked into Fountain Porter (South Philly’s best spot for a cheap burger and a craft beer) with my friend this week, and immediately realized we had a problem.

Picnic-table style seating in the back features squat, round stools with low, narrow tabletops a few feet off the ground. OK for me (just under five feet, four inches tall), but a challenge for my friend, who’s well over six feet. He folded himself in somehow, but it made me think of all the times our world is welcoming to some bodies but not others.

The disappearing chair

It’s obvious that our physically visible identities impact us in different spaces (or even determine whether we can access the space at all). From gender to skin color to disability, moving around in the bodies we call home can pose plenty of inconveniences and dangers. But even in spaces that ostensibly welcome all sorts of people, some remain uncomfortable or excluded.

At a recent show I reviewed, most of the seating was positively tiny chairs, packed in tight rows. On my right side, my friend was folding their long legs into the seat at the far end of the row. On my left side, a broad-shouldered man looked anxiously around, wondering how other patrons would fit beside him. And me? The plastic seat had disappeared under my size-16 tush.

When it comes to physically fitting into the world, a fat body might be one of the toughest ones to navigate. Sure, tall people (for example) have it hard in many ways—tall runs in my family, and cousins who practically have to bend double to give me a hug tell vivid stories of hardship involving Tupperware stored in floor-level cabinets or stooping to hear the voices of shorter people in noisy bars.

Down with diet culture

But being tall, while often inconvenient, isn’t stigmatized like being fat is.

Because of that stigma, you might feel a bit uncomfortable, whatever your size, when I talk so directly about fat people moving through the world or describe myself as fat. But it’s OK. We’re starting to get the picture: Statistically, the worship of long-term weight loss is an almost entirely fruitless business—for the dieters, anyway. The people selling the diets have been raking in billions for decades.

Journalist Matthew Hobbes, in his excellent 2018 feature for HuffPost’s Highline, “Everything you know about obesity is wrong,” sums it up pretty well: “For decades, the medical community has ignored mountains of evidence to wage a cruel and futile war on fat people, poisoning public perception and ruining millions of lives.”

Combine that reading with authors like Megan Jayne Crabbe (Body Positive Power), Virgie Tovar (You Have the Right to Remain Fat), and Sonya Renee Taylor (The Body Is Not an Apology), and you can start undoing some of the damage (rooted in the same white supremacist, patriarchal matrix that denigrates many other people) that made you believe the bodies of fat folks are a shameful choice, while the bodies of tall, short, slender, petite, or hourglass-curvy folks are just neutral, natural variations on humanity.

For most of my life, I dreaded springtime, deluged by “beach body” ads and campaigns. But now I’m learning how to get one. Want the secret? Have a body. Go to the beach.

Small fat

In fat activist circles (i.e., folks who are fighting a world that actively discriminates against fat people), I’m what’s known as a “small fat” (meaning I can find clothes that fit in most stores by grabbing a large or an XL). The “small fat” distinction isn’t a gospel for life—like most ways of categorizing our existence. But it is a useful way to think about how I’m affected by a world that’s pretty darn hateful toward fatness, while also recognizing that people who are fatter than I am experience even greater difficulties.

For example, I can board a plane without attracting grimaces from other passengers. I might feel a little squished in economy, but my body fits between the armrests and the seatbelt reaches over me.

On the other hand, I’ve had people exclaim “You look great!” simply because I was thinner, due to unintentional weight loss during a personal crisis. I’ve heard that I have “a great face,” versus the rest of me. And when I would wear black because I liked it, my ex used to smirk, “I see you’re trying today”—i.e., trying to look thinner than I was, and failing.

Fat at the theater

I notice my body when I’m out on the job, too, attending performances. The riser seats at FringeArts barely fit me, and I try to nab one of the few larger chairs in front on the floor. My hips are squished at the Academy of Music or the Merriam, and I dread the deep, narrow seats in their rickety old rows at the Adrienne. Folding chairs, probably uncomfortable for everyone, are my nemesis (and it has to be worse for folks bigger than I am).

But venues like St. Stephen’s (the Lantern) or Theatre Exile’s new space opt for wider, sturdy movable chairs that don’t box your body in with armrests. And at Kimmel campus venues, you can order loose upholstered chairs rather than the regular seating.

Particularly in a city of historic venues crammed with rows of tiny old folding seats, the problems of folks my size (and larger) aren’t going away anytime soon. But for now, when we walk in the door, at least we can begin to realize that, contrary to popular belief, the problem isn’t us. It’s a world built for only one type of person, when we actually come in all shapes and sizes.

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