Ass-essment: Canadian Airlines and Nonfunctional Fatness

By | December 5, 2008

By now, I expect it’s fairly well-traveled news that Canadian airlines are being forced to comply with a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court, that all air passengers have a right to a one-person, one-fare rule. This is topical because of the obvious controversy in how this is being applied to fat people. Essentially, the ruling is that fat folks who are too fat to fit in one seat must be accomodated with a second seat, free of charge. It sounds like a nice thing for Canadian fatties, for sure, but the particular language states that this is applied to folks who are “functionally disabled by obesity.”

Now, “disabled” is a loaded word. For some people it’s a valued identity they want respected. For others it’s an embarrassment only mentioned in the proverbial whisper. Some folks seem to be bristling at this language because hey, not every fat person is disabled. Not even every fat person over a certain size. “Functionally disabled” is a little different, though. My understanding of this idea is that it’s just a multisyllabic way of saying someone’s physicality prevents them from using an object in the way others can. In this case, the physicality in question is size, and the object is a seat on an airplane. The language makes the body the problematic piece in this equation, when it could just as easily be argued that the seat is insufficient – even for many not-at-all-fat people. Is it the body that’s functionally disabled, or the arbitrarily-sized seat it’s being asked to confine itself to?

So there’s that.

But that’s not what I find particularly interesting about all of this.

What I find interesting is the resulting challenge facing said airlines, which are now expected to become authorities on drawing a clear and defendable line between a fat person and a not-fat person. There are a few possibilities here:

Robert Jarvis, a law professor with a specialty in aviation at the Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., laid out four possible policies, and conveniently pre-graded them for difficulty:

* Easy: A traveler would simply self-declare as obese and receive an extra seat;
* Moderate: A doctor would give a traveler a note declaring the traveler to be obese;
* Difficult: A traveler would need a doctor’s note and meet an objective standard (such as the
Body-Mass Index), which would require an in-person measurement either on the day of travel or,
within 30 days before the day of travel;
* Hard: A traveler would need to take a physical exam from a doctor of the airline’s choosing.

Obviously, all of these options have individual problems and oddities. The concern with the first option is abuse – the idea that not-obese people would be turning up at airports claiming obesity in order to score some free extra room on their flight. I find this allegation hilarious and ironic, as it’s almost inconceivable that in any other context you’d have not-fat people lining up claiming to be fat (if only being fat had more obvious perks!). The remaining options all focus on the medical definition of obesity, which makes sense on the surface, but when you consider the fact that the medical definitions of obesity can have nothing to do with actual fatness – for example, do a little research and boggle at how many professional athletes are technically “obese” according to the BMI standard – it’s not a great method for measuring. Nor is it really an objective standard, as described in the quote above; you can have ten people who all weigh the same but who are shaped dramatically differently, depending on lots of factors besides height.

The experts are ahead of me on this, however:

Adam Drewnowski, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Obesity Research in Seattle, suggests that the extra seats be made available to travelers who bring a doctor’s letter and who have a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 35 or above… “A BMI of 25 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 is obese. A BMI of 35 is medically significant obesity. There can be no argument,” Drewnowski said.

But Dr. Arya M. Sharma disagrees. “You can’t bring it down to a BMI. People’s body shapes are different.”

Dr. Sharma would have airlines do what some theme parks do: stick a “sample” seat in the terminal so fat people can try to shove their asses into it pre-boarding the actual plane. Sharma sensitively suggests this could be someplace “private”, so’s not to humiliate the fatties any more than is absolutely necessary when you’re basically calculating someone’s ass-volume to determine whether they fairly warrant a second seat or not. Sharma says: “If they don’t fit in the seat, then they’re too big and they’ll need to have that extra seat. At no cost. It’s not rocket science.”

Not rocket science, no. Rocket science is mostly math and concepts that can be measured definitively. Unlike fatness. That fascinates me here is this: what counts as not fitting? Is it only if it’s physically impossible to jam one’s hindquarters into the space provided? Fat is somewhat flexible, after all, and in some cases a person may be able to squeeze into the seat in question, but at the same time wouldn’t necessarily “fit”, or their fat might squish over or under the armrest a bit. Does discomfort count for anything? What about people who are fatter above the waist, who might unwittingly crowd a seatmate with their big fat arms?

My point being: how the fuck CAN you measure this, really? You can’t. Short of weighing everyone before they board the plane and charging by the pound to fat and thin alike, there is no universal standard that can be fairly applied across the board. It will always come down to somebody’s subjective assessment. This interests me because it beautifully illustrates the fluidity of body size, and the challenge of universalizing definitions (even medical ones) of where fat begins and ends. However subtly, the Canadian ruling and the subsequent scrambling of the airlines to comply can be argued as having a deconstructive effect on the broken tools we use to measure who is fat and who is not. Unlike BMI, this cannot claim to be a question of “health”, but is instead one of physics. What does it mean, not to fit?

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