accessibility · body image · running

Barriers to entry, l’esprit de l’escalier, and the obligation to speak up

I had a really super annoying experience shopping for new running shoes. It’s mostly annoying not for what was said but for how I didn’t react. L’esprit de l’escalier!

Yesterday Nat blogged about her unhappy experience buying rollers for bike training and though my purchase was more common place, it wasn’t much fun.

I was trying on new running shoes from the half price clearance table at a local running store when I made the mistake of listening to another sales person and customer have fun with the following conversation: “Yeah, they say running hurts your knees but what about being fat? That hurts your knees more.” Insert some laughter here. “They should stop even performing knee surgeries on fat patients.”


I wasn’t buying shoes from that sales person but I didn’t bravely intervene either.  I even bought  the shoes. They were a great price.

Things I didn’t say: “What if you’re a fat runner? What then? ” “What if you’re fat and not a runner? Surely if you need knee surgery you should still get knee surgery?”


I’m never sure when I hear people say these sorts of things what’s going through their heads. Do you not see me in the store? (It’s a very small store.)

Sometimes, I cheer inwardly thinking that they mustn’t think I count as fat. Whee. Points for me.

But then what, it’s okay to express anti-fat bias so openly if there aren’t any fat people there? No.

I wonder if I’m just enough on the good side of fat, just small enough to be thought of as aspiring thin person. “Yes, fat now, but once you buy those running shoes and start running you’ll lean right out.”

Um, no.

But then I realize that they actually don’t care, that they think it’s okay to hate on fat people. And I wish I hadn’t bought running shoes there.  I try to imagine what it would be like to be me at the same weight without a history of athletic involvement. I would have felt sad and excluded rather than angry.There are so many barriers to being physically active in our culture. I’d like to imagine a warm, welcoming community happy to have new members. But clearly we’re not there.

I wish I’d said something. I was kind of ashamed. Of  them, of me? I don’t know. It was just incredibly socially awkward and I wanted to get out of there fast.

Not saying something when it needs to be said is a kind of moral failing. I wish I was a tougher, braver person. The worst instance of this in my life occurred when I was a young grad student looking for a new apartment in Chicago. The superintendent insisted on meeting my partner. Why? That puzzled me. Turns out it was an all white-building. Once our skin colour was checked out, that was explained to us in just those words. “This is an all white building.”

And it bugs me to this day that we didn’t scream, call him names, or call someone. We were both shocked and flabbergasted. We just left very quickly and abruptly and said that it wasn’t for us. We cut the meeting short and it was, I hope, clear why, but that failure to confront an actual racist right there in our faces expressing his racism so openly still haunts me. Then as now, my first reaction was awkwardness and embarrassment.

Anger, later.

I don’t mean to compare racism to anti-fat bias. Housing is  far more serious accessibility issue than running shoes. I know that.

But the phenomenology of not knowing how to respond, wanting to respond but feeling so awkward that you just want not to be there, is familiar.

How can we do better?

pile of shoes

15 thoughts on “Barriers to entry, l’esprit de l’escalier, and the obligation to speak up

  1. The failure to speak up burns forever. I still remember not confronting a guy who was being incredibly rude to a frail-looking older lady on a crowded train who didn’t speak English and was in his way (I bet she got the gist of what he was yelling at her though) and this was almost a decade ago. The fact that nobody else on the train spoke up either doesn’t make it any better. I only hope that the residual guilt I feel will at least make me more likely to speak up the next time.

  2. God yes, I still remember my first day at work fresh from uni and an older colleague used racist language. Why didn’t I speak up? Conditioned respect of my elders and a concern that I was over-reacting – no-one else seemed to bother. Plus inwardly, I was being snobby and patronising because she hadn’t had my level of education and so wasn’t as ‘enlightened’. You can imagine I’m now cringing on many levels!

  3. I’d say not to be too hard on yourself. Sometimes people’s attitudes are so surprising, infuriating and stupid that one feels flummoxed as to how to respond. Where do you start? You can almost predict the kind of defensive posturing that would result. Not to say you couldn’t have tried, but it would have been more for your own sense of integrity and fairness than any hope you’d make a dent in their fat-phobia. I understand the anguish and the pain underlying the question about why you didn’t speak up. But let me hypothesize that you were, in fact, being victimized, and that you were shamed into silence. There is no greater enemy of self-respect than shame, which is always triggered by an outside agent. Shame blames itself. It takes a lot of fortitude to be fat (even on “the good side of fat”) and proud in this culture.

    You do have recourse, however, that might make you feel a little better. You could return the shoes, and tell whoever is in the store exactly why.

  4. First, I’d just like to say that I agree with a lot of what blueish said.

    Second, I’d like to recount a similar experience I had. It was in gym class a couple of weeks ago when the media was hooked on debating whether fat and fit was good enough or we were all still doomed if we were fat. There’s a woman in our class who is, at best, a little chubby in the stomach (“Buddha belly” if you will), but otherwise fairly thin (what I would call “normal”) and quite fit. Certainly thinner then I am – my arms aren’t much thinner than her thighs. I am, by every scale/chart/theory you can find, obese (I believe BMI claims I’m morbidly obese). She brought up the much contested articles claiming that all the fitness in the world won’t save obese people from dying horrible obesity deaths. Being someone who reads a lot and digs for the truth, I was able to correct her and point her towards people who had excellent articles stating otherwise. Her response was to bounce around (yes, I really mean that) and make a big deal about how excited and relieved she was to hear that. So, a thin/fit woman was making a big deal about how she wasn’t going to die of obesity. In front of an obese woman who was part of the conversation. I’m still dumb struck by this. I get that everyone is allowed to feel fat and that being treated badly because of body weight/shape is not exclusive to people who are really fat, but I was still incredibly hurt that she would act like she was so freaking obese right in front of me. I mean, if she’s “obese” than I might as well give up and just hire a flatbed truck to drive me to and from work everyday, as I must be a freaking whale. (Please note: that last sentence was said with sarcasm; I know I’m not a whale and I will NOT give up). I really regret not saying something. Anything. Like pointing out that she likely doesn’t even count as obese. But, all I could think to say was “I’m the fat one here” and that probably would have just made me want to cry.

    It amazes me what people will say when they aren’t paying attention to how those words could be perceived by others. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they simply have no idea what being fat is really like and how hurtful comments can be. But, that doesn’t take the sting away when you hear things like that.

    For what it’s worth, regardless of whether you are fat or just feel fat, you and all the other’s on this blog have been a huge inspiration and source of comfort for me and, I’m sure, many others. I really appreciate you sharing a story like this and reminding us all that we’re all human and sometimes can’t find the words we feel like we need to say in a situation.

    Sorry for the super long comment 🙂

    1. Oh I liked your long response. I’m always surprised at how folks with a much lower BMI than I will tell me how fat they feel or that they will die of being fat.
      I just stand there. I state I can’t directly control my weight but I control how many steps I take or km I run, bike or swim. They often talk about how lazy they are “not like you Nat, you’re a machine! Have you lost weight?”
      “No. Not one of my goals. My resting heart rate is 60 though. I like that number”
      And on and on while my morbidly obese self somehow tries to sooth my thin friend. So. Very. Weird.

      1. Yes. Very odd. When people start going on about the obesity crisis that’s when I most want to mention the number on my scale. And I care. I’m physically fit and I throw lots of money and energy in that direction. I figure if it’s tough for me, it’s really tough, for people without my resources. I’ve been thinking lately about fit privilege.

  5. Microaggressions are really, really hard to deal with. I wish I was more skilled at speaking up in these situations too.

  6. Ugh Sam. Just. Ugh. That is pretty typical of my experiences too although the folks at one retailer are SUPER nice to me. I buy my gear, my partner’s and our son’s so they almost over compensate, tripping over themselves to validate my choices. Maybe there’s no pleasing me!

  7. Not sure if an intervention would have helped in changing their attitudes. What you are doing with this blog is a far more constructive use of your energy…stimulating others to think about the situation. I think the reason most of us don’t intervene in such situations is that we are so shocked that we don’t know what to say, or how to say it. Having said that, I suggest one possible way to intervene: ask the sales person to help you, then ask them, “do you think these shoes make me look fat?” Why not turn the tables and have some fun at their expense?

  8. You could give them one of our blog cards as well and send them here to do some reading. I find that it sometimes helps people see that there is another way to look at it and there are resources for educating themselves about that. It’s really hard to speak up when people are being rude and thoughtless because, as was said above, where in the heck do you start!?

  9. I think many of us (myself included) are socialized to be conflict-avoiding, and it’s our initial reaction in the moment. But what about saying something after the fact, when you’ve had time to process it–a phone call or letter to the manager? It’s possible that the sales person would learn and change his or her attitudes, or at least behavior, from an account of the effects of those comments. (ps I’ve never commented before, but I love your blog, which inspired me to start crossfit about 6 months ago–thanks so much for your work!)

    1. Hey, how are you liking CrossFit? And yes, writing later is likely the best idea. Think I will. Thanks!

      1. I’m loving it–thanks! It got me out of an exercise rut, induced by hip problems that meant I had to stop running long distances. I teach at Wash U and hence live in St. Louis, where I am often the oldest person in the CF class (I am “almost fifty”), but your blog helped give me the confidence to do it anyway.

  10. Over the holidays, my vegan animal rights activist nephew called Jennifer Lawrence a big fat stupid pig, because she would not lose more weight than she did to play Mystique in X-Men and because she likened verbal attacks on fat people to hate crimes. I’m not sure I’d liken such attacks to hate crimes myself, and I admitted this to my nephew but I did say to him that raising the question of whether such comments were hate crimes at least draws attention to what is wrong with what you call: “fat bias”, Sam. And I also argued with him for a little while longer, and tried to do so without attacking him in any way, no matter how much “trolling” he did. I learned the expression, “trolling” from him. He told me that people that outragously attack others on the internet are trolls or are trolling. Among young people, trolling is now common and cool in a subversive way. Trolling is what the disenfranchised youth of today do. And they will honour and protect their right to troll to the bitten end. It really is quite sick. I think all you can do is stay calm, express your opinions succintly and in a calm, mesaured and objective manner, and never troll back, even if they invite you to do so by attacking you (trolling against you) personally. Weapons attract weapons, and I think we need to have faith that some trolls will sometimes find it in themselves to put away their weapons (at least to some extent) if we refuse to draw any weapons in response and reassure them that we will never attack them. Remember – they’re quite horribly disenfranchised. They have faith in very little. We have to show them by personal example that there is indeed a better way. There is nothing else that can be done, and perhaps there is nothing else that we should do.

  11. Sadly, fatism (or fatophobia or whatever you want to call it) is so deeply entrenched and widely accepted in modern culture that it passes unchallenged every day. I was just watching a kids’ show with my children and it had the familiar thudding sound effect when the fat person walked into the room that is apparently meant to be amusing (imagine how unfunny it would be if we had a special sound effect just to make people who are “too thin” seem more comical). And it’s hard to challenge it because you are then invariably accused of being a typical fat lazy (insert insult) who can’t deal with The Truth and Makes Excuses. Yep, wanting to be treated like other human beings apparently constitutes a moral failing SIGH.

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