22 April 2011

Fat accessibility on São Paulo's Metro

My friend Jenni has been visiting Brazil and told me about fat seats on the São Paulo Metro. I'd never heard of this until now. A quick search has revealed that the seats were installed in 2009 as a means of encouraging more fat people to use public transport. There are bigger bucket-style seats on the train platforms, and a wider armless seat in the first carriage of each train. Both are accompanied by a sign that says 'Priority seating for obese people' where 'obese' is defined as having a BMI of 40+.

Jenni has generously allowed me to use some of the commentary she gave on her LiveJournal. She says:
I was interested that the São Paulo Metro is so inclusive in ways that the London Underground mostly isn't – we've benefited from the enhanced accessibility ourselves, as the 'special needs' I meant include people with babies, people with luggage, older folks, pregnant women, and a range of others as well as wheelchair users. I'm not entirely sure whether the seats in question are intended as part of this accessibility (which might mean that the authorities are problematically treating fatness as a disability) or as part of some other initiative which might be being done in a more pro-different sizes way, but I was interested to see it precisely because of your fat activism writing, which makes me think about that sort of question. Brazil is in some ways a very body-fascist place – the breakfast in the hotel included calorie counts for all the foodstuffs, and the women are supposed to look chic and be skinny, to the extent that I once failed to buy some beach shorts because I couldn't get the supposedly large size any higher than my knees. At the same time though you see an amazing variety of body shapes on the street, on the telly, and on the beach, so I don't know how those pressures actually work out in everyday life, and I wonder about it.
Jenni goes on to say:
The seats are weird and interesting. The state law in question is specifically to combat obesity and is part of 'Lighter São Paulo' (São Paulo Mais Leve) but I don't see how the seats work out as any sort of countermeasure. They fit into the same category as seats for elderly or pregnant people or those carrying children, in that the seat is not supposed to be used by people who aren't in that situation unless there is no-one around whom has a better right to it. There are fewer specific seats for fat folks than for old folks but otherwise it's supposed to work in the same sort of way as for categories of people who no-one would deny a right to preferential treatment, so arguably preferential treatment is here being given where it is normally withheld. There is a seat on the platform and a matching seat in the carriage that stops at that bit of platform – that's a carriage that also has space for bicycles, wheelchair users, and pregnant/old/baby-carrying folk (though the latter have lots of specific seats and not just in this carriage).

On our various Metro trips in SP far, we have seen one fattish chap sat in one of the seats on the train – clearly he didn't mind sitting there whether or not he would officially 'count,' I mean he mustn't have been embarrassed by it or anything. On the seats on the platform we only saw a canoodling couple using it as a love seat (neither of them were skinny but they weren't fatties either – again they didn't seem embarrassed to be sat there so I suppose they weren't sensitive about their weight or anything) and a mother and young son, aged maybe 10 or so, just using it as an extra-wide seat.
Jenni posted some pictures on her Flickr and also pointed out this article São Paulo um cidade Chubby friendly*?. Here, too, is a news report in Portuguese 'Banco dos gordinhos' do metrô agrada também os magros.

I really love the contradiction that Jenni points out between anti-obesity initiatives, which tend to be about eradicating fat people, and these seats, which support the lives of fat people as we are. Installing seats across a large transport network is a public investment in fatness and suggests that fat people aren't going away any time soon. Where the seats are framed as some kind of response to 'obesogenic environments', ie getting fat people out and about and doing things, the rationale may be fatphobic but the outcome is about creating inclusive space.

Newspaper reports typically state that fat people are too stigmatised to use the seats, but the seats make me feel excited at the idea of confident fat people using them, which must surely happen. It would be amazing to see that.

I also like the way that the seats ally fatness, disability and accessibility. Firstly it shows that accessibility is more than disability, and secondly, although the relationship between fat and disability can be filled with tension (see my paper from 1997 Can A Fat Woman Call Herself Disabled?) I see them as very much intertwined.

These seats have blown my mind in all kinds of ways, which means I have questions that may not have answers: why have seating that delineates a body size at all? Why not go for bench-style seating in public space? Are thinner people required to relinquish a fat seat for someone fatter? What if there's more than one fat person, how is who uses the seat negotiated? What if fat seats are still too small for you? Have you used one of these seats?

Thanks Jenni!


Kerri said...

I use the arms of a chair as a point of leverage when standing. At 54, fat, with back and minor knee problems, bench seating places too much strain on the knees when attempting to stand. I can stand from armless seating but many fat, heavily pregnant and older folk cannot. A struggle to stand in a public space is not my idea of fun.

While in theory bench seating seems fine, in practice it is not suitable for all.

I want to sit in the fat blue seat.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for piping up.