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Pain Chronicles: Being Fat Isn’t a Disability, but Society’s Attitude to it Can be

Pain Chronicles is a monthly(-ish) column from Caroline McDonagh-Darwin about coming to terms with living with a chronic illness. It will include funny stories and brutal honesty, with some thrown in chats with her mum Shaz, and other friends too, along the way. 

For her 50th birthday, I took my mum to see Matilda in the Palace Theatre in Manchester. We were all the way up in the heavens – having to pay £2 for the tiny binoculars fancy women have on sticks in films set in the early 20th Century. But we didn’t let that stop us having the time of our lives.

Before booking, I’d scoured the access information on their website (which was, and still is, limited). I knew the lift went to the rear circle and there would be almost no steps for our back row seats. I knew they had a disabled toilet.

What I didn’t have is much information on the seats themselves.

They had warned when booking about limited legroom, but we’re both only a shade over five foot, so I figured that would be okay. I could have looked on a seat review website about the view (and therefore had my pound coins ready for the binoculars). But another thing didn’t enter my mind.

It was fat legend Sofie Hagen who pointed out that the width of the seats is one of the things it’s near impossible to find out. I immediately recalled the bruised thighs and back pain I’d not even connected to my theatre trip. As someone who exists at the intersection of fat and disabled, Sofie’s words really struck a chord.

In her thread, Sofie is clear that she’s not asking for changes or discounts, just information. It really would be, as she says, “less than the bare minimum.” It would probably take longer to actually find a tape measure than to provide the measurements once you do.

I managed to sit through Matilda given the stretch I could do in the interval, and I know my privilege as a small/medium fat allows me to get by in many of these situations. I’ve always managed to squeeze in, and I’ve never had to leave pre- or mid-show because of the chair.

But it does happen everywhere.

I’ve previously rearranged chairs in restaurants because my bum wouldn’t fit between the arms of the one chair they’ve given to me and nobody else, and the fold-up garden chairs in my local pub are bloody awful. Incidentally, one of them collapsed underneath me last month – leading to me just looking confused as I slowly sank to the side, looking like I was in a sitcom.

I don’t expect seat measurements here, but then here I have alternatives – but Sofie is dead right about theatres being an excellent place to start.

Being fat isn’t a disability – I don’t want to hear anything about the “obesity epidemic”, kindly f*ck off – but too small chairs are potentially hazardous to the health of fat people which makes this an access issue. As well as the aforementioned bruises and back pain, there’s also the mental effects of stress and anxiety that you won’t fit, or depression of losing your planned evening if you have to leave.

In the UK, the Equality Act (2010) requires “reasonable adjustments” to be made for access. However many theatres aren’t step free or don’t have adequate disabled toilets because of allowances made for the age of the building – a bullsh*t loophole if you ask me – if the Houses of Parliament can do it, so can you. 

Sofie mentions one venue which – although flailing and failing at first – returned her email to inform her that there were no armrests in the box; a nice, simple solution and information which could be available. More seating without armrests, ideally at no extra cost and next to ones our thinner friends can sit beside us in, would be a step in the right direction.

Taryn added another thing that I didn’t think of as well – toilets. The amount of time I spend trying to maneuver myself in tiny cubicles with most of my thigh space taken up by the sanitary bin is just another aspect of fat life I never thought about. And theatres and cinemas are the worst for it! 

She also mentions turnstiles, another bane of the fat person’s life. The ones my gym installed where there’s three poles at hip level are bad enough – how ironic of my gym to bar entry to fat people. But others I’ve experienced at theatres and football stadia where you have to squeeze your entire body in are the worst.

A system of doors that just open and close instead of rotating or just employing a person to check tickets would be a simple solution here.

In response to Sofie’s thread, Delfont Mackintosh and Monkey Barrel Comedy committed to seat measurements being available, and I had a tweet from the founder of Travel for All about including the same with the information on their site. In a DM, another person thanked me for bringing it to her attention for her partner’s venue.

What Sofie is asking for our fellow fats is certainly reasonable, and not even an adjustment. I personally think we should be asking for more.

Seat measurements are very much “less than the bare minimum”, but it would still be very helpful for a lot of fat people who just want to enjoy the theatre the same as our thin pals.

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3 replies on “Pain Chronicles: Being Fat Isn’t a Disability, but Society’s Attitude to it Can be”

My husband has booked to go here this year and as a larger lady I’m worried and it’s triggering my anxiety. I’m a size 20 and he’s booked stall seats. Is this going to be an issue and should I just cancel

Hi Lynne, I’m a size 20 (roughly) as well and it wasn’t the most comfortable but it was doable – in fact the lack of legroom was a bigger issue for me on the day. I don’t want it to cause you anxiety, I guess you could contact them and see if you can go and check out the seats, or if they can get someone to measure them for you?

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