Moving to a college campus at 18 (or any age, really!) can be an anxiety-inducing and difficult transition. Emotions are further heightened when you’re fat. From seemingly endless chairs and desks that don’t fit your body, to a lack of plus-size options at the campus bookstore, to tiny showers in the dorms, there is a gap in accessibility for fat students at every turn. Today we provide a brief overview of fat accessibility issues on college campuses because when fat students are shelling out an average of $35,000 per year for college, they deserve an equitable experience.
We will take a deeper dive on each of these topics in the coming weeks as students all over the world consider their post-secondary education options.
This series will detail common problems and offer solutions for colleges and universities to implement. If you’d like to share your story or idea with us, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Seating and desks
Inaccessible seating is the most reported problem fat people face in public spaces, and this is definitely true on college campuses. Many chairs in classrooms, lounges, study spaces, event and sporting arenas, and dormitories are unaccommodating, especially because they so frequently have arms. While selecting seating that does not have arms does not solve all of the problems, it is an easy step in the right direction. Another thing to look for is the sturdiness of the chair, paying close attention to the type of material(s) used to manufacture it and any weight limits indicated in the product description. Finally, tables or desks should be wide and long enough to accommodate both students and their study materials, no matter the size. Oh, and tables and desks should always be completely separate from chairs. Combination chair-desks are not comfortable for the vast majority of people and are especially inaccessible for fat students.
College and University Apparel
Plus-size students, staff, faculty and alumni looking to show school spirit are faced with limited options, if any at all. Most merchandise is available extra-small to large, with a few pieces (typically only “unisex” cuts) available in XL or XXL. Fans must search elsewhere for unlicensed material to wear, if they can find any at all. Sometimes students and faculty/staff are encouraged or even required to wear merchandise at certain points during the school year and struggle to explain to peers and colleagues why they are unable to do so. College merchandise stores must start offering merchandise in a variety of sizes in multiple style options if they wish to be inclusive.
Moving to a new place and living in close quarters with strangers is nerve-wracking enough without having to worry about whether or not the bed will accommodate you and if you can fit in the provided showers. Unfortunately, these are just a couple of additional worries fat students face. Many college campuses require first-year students to live on campus, as well as require them to use the provided furniture. That furniture frequently includes a bed frame, dresser, desk, and chair. What if the desk and chair are too small and uncomfortable for the student? What if the weight limit for the bed frame is too low for the student? To make matters worse, sometimes the beds are lofted to make use of the vertical space, which requires fat students to climb up and down a ladder daily that may or may not be rated for their weight, as well as worry about crashing down to the floor if the bed cannot hold them. And we’ll save the challenges of having sex in these spaces for our long-form piece. Finally, dormitories also frequently include shared shower facilities with stalls too narrow for fat people. These stalls are often quite narrow for straight-sized people, so imagine the discomfort that fat people may experience trying to use them. Much like the arguments for larger airplane seats, everyone benefits from larger shower stalls in dormitories.
Activity-related events, uniforms, etc.
Starting with Orientation, college students are often brought together to participate in group activities, which frequently challenge and inadvertently shame or discomfort fat students. No matter the group, club, or sport, there is always something meant to break the ice or bring people together that can end up leaving out fat students. One example is the “trust fall” activity that so many groups perform. And much like the merchandise issue, many uniforms, especially if rented through the university, are not made to fit plus size participants. Fat people often end up choosing between wearing something that does not quite fit right, not participating at all, or having to special order (and likely paying for) something that will fit.
Part of what most college campuses promote to students is their campus wellness program, often paired with the gym offered to students and the dining plans available. However, most of these resources are deeply entwined with diet culture. For example, many college dining halls now provide nutritional information, including calorie counts, for their offerings on large menu boards where students cannot avoid it–even if encountering such information puts them at risk for engaging in disordered eating. Some college cafeterias color code the options they provide according to how healthy the options have been deemed to be (based on what criteria and by who is unknown).
On the fitness side of the equation, many of the gyms are not friendly to fat students in their infrastructure. For example, the main, indoor pool available to students at the university I attend does not have permanent, fixed ladders or footholds in the sides of the pool, requiring students to either lift their body weight out of the pool or ask a lifeguard for assistance. This is not empowering. A quick internet search will tell you that most college fitness programs offered to students are often embedded in diet culture, as well. The programs are frequently focused on keeping off the “Freshman Fifteen” or other weight loss goals. Students may be required to take physical education credits, with those same classes teaching them to aim for specific running times, calorie counts, or even weight loss goals. Few wellness programs are centered on intuitive eating, Health at Every Size (HAES), body positivity and self-love, or joyful movement.
About the Author
Meaghan O’Riordan is the Accessioning Archivist for the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library at Emory University. She holds bachelor’s degrees in creative writing and religious studies, as well as a Masters in Library Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Theological Studies from Candler School of Theology at Emory and is writing her thesis on how the body positive movement functions as religion. Meaghan writes for AllGo because she believes it will have a big impact on people’s lived experience.