The Environment

Things that are taken for granted and don't affect unfat people at all are often problematic for those of us who are fat.


The City of Denton, Texas decided to charge people over 300 pounds, $25 extra to ride in an ambulance. They claim that the need for the additional fee is driven by the "increased risk to parademics."


Traveling on a modern commercial airliner can be the worst.

From the moment that I or any other fat person starts down the aisle people avoid making eye contact and you know they are praying that you won't end up sitting next to them. And when you do sit down next to someone, most all but the thinnest get a look on their faces that says "oh, no."

The attitudes of many airline passengers toward fat people are reflected in a couple of news articles.

From Newsweek magazine: "So, You think it's Hell to Fly? You've got a lot of company. Next time, you're stuck way back in coach, chin tucked under your knees, breathing in as the fat guy next to you breathes out. Remember this. Things could be worse."

In the Wall Street Journal, a passenger on a plane stuck on the tarmac in Detroit, Michigan, for hours during a January 1999 snow storm says he thought to himself, " I've wasted almost two days of my vacation on an airplane with a bunch of crying-ass kids and big fat people I don't know."

It is all about the size of airline seats.

Anyone who has flown in the coach section of a commercial airline knows that economy class seats are small. In most single aisle aircraft produced in the United States, over the last couple of decades, economy class seats are about 17" or 17.2" wide. In a burst of concern about passenger comfort, the manufacturer of wide-body 767 and 777 aircraft, have included economy class seats that are 18" and 18.5" inches respectively.

I am never quite sure which is worse when I am flying coach. The physical discomfort that I feel or what I know or believe my seat mates are feeling or thinking about me and the physical discomfort I am imposing on them.

In 1999 Air France tried to require a 375-lb man to buy two seats to accomodate his bulk. The several articles that I found on this incident varied but the basic story was the same. The passenger claims to have told the airline of his size when he booked the reservation and was told to buy a second seat. The passenger notified the airport police and the French human rights federation.

An airline official was quoted as saying "The passenger is paying for a second seat because he is occupying it ... It's a security problem and we can't take any risks."

One article suggested that the airline had a special fare for such circumstances and only charged half price for the 2nd seat. Actually, the airline has a companion fare, buy one and get the 2nd one for half price. So in this case pay full fare for the 1st 200 pounds and the airline will only charge half fare for the other 175 pounds.

There is obviously additional comfort and seat width in 1st class or in business class of three class aircraft. Business class in new U.S. built planes now runs 20-21" while in first class it is usually 22-23" wide. But strangely enough the first class seats now have so much control equipment built into the arm rests that the 1st class seat on a 757, while more comfortable than economy class, is pretty confining to a person of my size.

And then there are the tray tables provided for each passenger to eat or to work. Whether the tray table drops down from the seat in front of you or comes out of the arm rest the problem is likely to be the same. My belly stops the tray from fully extending.

Another issue is the location of the buttons and plugs that control the movement of your seat and audio/video offerings. When they are located on the inside of the arm of the seat, my body presses against the inside of the arm in a way that makes it extremely difficult to use these controls.


A while back one of my friends came by to pick me up in his new, two seater, sports car. It quickly became clear that I was not going to be able to leverage my body into the car. We decided to try it with the top up and given the additional height I was able to get in but felt like I was in a half cocoon. I have never tried that again.

For me to get into a compact car, let alone a sub-compact, is more aptly described as putting the car on rather than getting in. I can get by in some mid-size cars but usually I require a full size car. There are times when the steering wheel in the car I am driving turns freely without body contact other than my hands. More often it is in continuing contact with my stomach. Of course the answer is that when I am thinner the steering wheel has plenty of clearance but when I am fatter it runs against my stomach.

The last time I set out to buy a car, I went shopping for a sport utility vehicle. The distance between the wheel and my belly was problematic. The manufacturer has a program to make modifications on cars to accommodate various disabilities. I inquired whether the seat could be moved back a few inches or alternatively whether the steering column could be shortened. I was told that that kind of change was not covered by the program because they would require recertification of the car by the federal government. I was also told that there were auto body shops that could make the adjustment to the seat once I purchased the car.

I tried an SUV with a fully electrified seat and found that I was able to position the elements of the seat in such a way as to obtain the comfort I was seeking. Different manufacturers provide more or less room for the front seat so you can shop on this element.

New York cabs, like London cabs are known the world around. But there is at least one big difference. New York cabs are cramped for most people and a real struggle for those of us who are fat (or tall). On the other hand, London cabs are as if made for those of us with special girth or longer legs. They are easy to step into and there is plenty of room to stretch out or spread out.


Unfortunately, some of the companies that make transportation vehicles weren't paying sufficient attention to the general expansion of U.S. bottoms.

The seats in New York subway cars were 16.5 inches wide in the early 1900s and by 1927 they had expanded nearly a full inch. There wasn't much improvement between then and the early '70s by which time new seats were still only 17.6 inches wide.

In the mid 1980s new subway cars were ordered that were made in Japan. 17.5 inches were alloted to each passenger with a series of ridges in the bench like seating accomodations marking the "territory" of each passenger. Those who needed a little more room, as much as a "seat" and a half simply straddled the ridges. Subway officials got the message and in ordering new cars got rid of the ridges.

Trains (When you can, go by Train)

I have found trains to be a far more comfortable mode of travel than airplanes. Unfortunately, trains take longer, to get from point A to point B and don't go to or between as many locations as airplanes. Seats in train coach class are only 20 inches wide but there is no center post or arm rest between the two abreast seats. The seats in the Club or First Class Amtrak cars are wider and are more accomodating.


When I enter a room, whether it be an office, a theater, a home or some other location, the seats or chairs in that room "talk to me." I have learned to hear the "voices" of the furniture.

Some times the furniture says "don't sit on me," it says "I am too small or I am not strong enough." When I see a chair with arms my first instinct is to wonder whether it is wide enough. When I see a booth my instinct is to wonder whether I can fit between the bench back and the table. If the furniture is of questionable sturdiness, I wonder whether I will break it.

I have had people nicely move me away from furniture in their home. Usually, it is with a line like "I think you will be more comfortable over there." But often, their suggestion is preceeded by a look of horror as I move toward an antique piece or other fragile item. They do not leap into action when a smaller person heads toward the chair.

They needn't worry. I am no more interested in sitting in a chair and have the public embarrassment of breaking it then they are in having me break it. I have felt chairs breaking as I sat in them. It is a feeling like none other and not because I might end up on the floor. And I no longer seek to entertain as a chair sticks to me when I stand up.

The other uncomfortable type of seating is that variety of overstuffed chairs and couches into which I sink so far that my knee caps begin to approach shoulder height as I sit down.

Our home

The chairs in our kitchen, where we eat most of our meals, are 20.5" at the seat level and 19" at the waist. Not perfect but comfortable enough.

The chairs in our dining room are mostly armless and the arm chairs at either end of the table are 21.5" at seat level and 20" inches at the waist.

An article in the Washington Post was dedicated to extra chairs that one can have at home to handle extra people that may come for dinner or other. There were 8 chairs described and thankfully they included some reference to those of us who are on the heavy side. Among the "cons" used to describe 3 of the chairs were "too small for heavyweight guests," "not for ample-bottomed" and "curved back is somewhat awkward for beefy guests." As to the latter the chair as a whole was described as "most comfortable chair overall."

Office furniture

My office desk chair has arms but it is 22" wide at the seat and at the top of the arms. The guest chairs on the other side of my desk are 21" wide at the seat and 20.25" at the top of the arms. They are both comfortable for me. I sat in all of them before I ordered them.

Unfortunately, I didn't pay much attention when we ordered the chairs for our conference room. They are only 18.5" at the seat and the waist and I do not enjoy sitting in them. Fortunately, they are well padded so there is a little give in the arms.

At our clients' offices the chairs range from 17.5" to 22" at seat level.

The chair I originally purchased for my home office was only 20.5" inches at the seat level and 19.5" at the waist and it is not as comfortable as it might be. After many years I replaced it with a chair that is 23" at seat level and 21" at the waist, a great improvement.

A large woman (5'10"/440 pounds) went to the furniture department of an office super store to buy furnishings for her home office. She was told by a sales person that the chairs they stocked, more than 100 kinds, would not hold a person of her size.

The sales person said that the "abuse" her size would put on any chair was more than it could handle. It was suggested that she look for a store that catered "to you people." As if it made it better she was also told that a big guy had been in the previous week and been told the same thing. (Obviously he didn't want to be seen as sexist but had no concerns about being a sizeist.)

She left the store angry and embarrassed. When she reached the stores managers were apologetic and responsive.

In Restaurants

The talk about restaurants is usually about the kind and quality of the food and in some circles the wine list. I am interested in the food but I am at least as interested in the seating arrangements in the restaurant.

Does the restaurant have armed or armless chairs? Are there booths? Arm chairs and booths are warning signals.

If you want to start an eating experience off on the wrong foot think about literally stuffing yourself into an arm chair. You won't be comfortable throughout the meal.

When it comes to booths, the big question is whether the table portion of the booth and or the benches can be moved. Usually the benches are fixed and sometimes the table is fixed to the floor or a wall. Booths that have enough distance between the bench backs or a table that can be moved away from or toward one party or the other provide comfortable seating.

All of my favorite restaurants in Washington either have armchairs of sufficient width, booths with tables that can be pushed back and form, armless chairs or some combination of the above.

One of my favorites, the Seasons Restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel in Washington D.C. has armchairs and booths.

I noticed over time that some of the arm chairs were quite uncomfortable and others were quite comfortable. It turned out that the restaurant had three chair sizes. I quickly learned to ask for a table with large chairs or if that was not available I asked the waiter to switch chairs for me. Over time the changes were made without my asking.

There is no reason that most restaurants could not have some armless chairs available that could be requested by diners who are just too large for the furniture and are willing to request change for comfort.

In the end I am prepared to give up a certain amount of quality in food in order to have physical comfort while I am eating.

In Banquet halls

Another eating situation that can be quite disconcerting is an over filled banquet room. Sometimes the tables are placed so close together to accomodate a crowd that even average sized people have a hard time getting through once people are seated.

I recall one event at which I arrived after most of the crowd was seated. I literally could not get to my table without getting several people to stand up. Accordingly, I make it a point to get into tabled ballrooms early. Usually, I stop at the men's room whether or not I really have to go to avoid the possibility of having to make that trip during the evening.

The other uncomfortable banquet situation is too many people are seated at a single round table. There have been occasions when I literally could not get my chair up to the table because my body was too wide.

In Theaters

Theaters are usually a problem. There is no easy substitute for a theater seat, movie or live performance. Many theaters now have space established for those with wheel chairs and large people could use those areas as well except there are no chairs.

When the Disney Company renovated the Amersterdam Theater in New York City, it did a great job in renovating the theater but they seem to have kept or replicated the original seating. The seats are small and the distance between rows is modest.

When Carol and I went to see "The Lion King" I was more uncomfortable than I have ever been in a theater. It really did cost me the pleasure of the performance, which is something quite special. My constant thought was "when will this be over?"

When you are cramped you are not only physically uncomfortable you have some concern about how you look to others and how you are affecting those sitting next to you. In this case it was Carol so that was not a problem. I always try to get an aisle seat so that I can lean out to some extent. As likely as not if I cannot get an aisle seat I will skip seeing a performance.

One of the largest theaters in Washington, the Uptown, was refurbished in the last few years. Many things were improved but even the otherwise comfortable new seats are 19.5" at seat level and there is open space between seats so that isn't bad. But at waist level it is 18.5" and the cup at the end of the arm rest intrudes on that dimension.

Once I squeeze myself into the seat it takes a real contortion to get out. There are some indications that newer movie theaters do have larger seats.

The seats in legitimate theaters in London are among the worst. Most of them are about 17" at the arms and close to 18.5" at the seat. Generally when I go to a show at these theaters I hope that the theater is not full so that I can move to an area where there is at least one seat next to me that is not being used. While it doesn't help at the bottom, it does allow for more comfort in the arms and shoulders. Otherwise you are likely to have to sit with your arms crossed throughout the performance. One theater chain installed seats with retractable arms between them so two people could sit more closely together. This makes for a comfortable seat for a person who needs a fair amount of extra room.

When the Central City, Colorado Opera House replaced 100-year-old 17" wooden chairs with chairs that were 20-22" wide, regular attendees were so excited about the change that an open house was held just so folks could try out the new chairs.

In Stadiums and arenas

A few years ago a new arena opened in downtown Washington. I have tried it twice, for a basketball game and a concert. It is not likely that I will go again unless someone with a box invites me to an event or I get floor seats for a concert.

The seats, in the regular section and on the club level are just too small. And the distance between the rows of seats, modest indeed, makes the seating even more uncomfortable.

Many of the new stadiums being built do have larger seats. The Staples Center in Los Angeles comes to mind. The basic seats are comfortable and the premium seats are even more accomodating. This change is being driven by the generally widening bottoms of Americans and their desire for roominess.

The new Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, home of the Indiana Pacers, has seats the smallest of which are 21" wide, 3" larger than the smallest seats in the team's previous venue in that city.

Confined spaces

Lavatories in general seem to be afterthoughts in many older buildings. In one vary famous building there is a lavatory off the reception room that requires absolute contortions, even for not-so-fat people, in order to access the accomodation. At one point I simply couldn't squeeze in and close the door. I simply abandoned my effort to use it.

Using the lavatory on most airplanes is to be avoided if at all possible. Because the doors open into the aisle it is easy enough to make entry. The hard part is moving around once you are in there. In certain circumstances you are better off backing into the tiny space. There is some relief for this problem in new aircraft but it is still quite awkward.

The downside of train travel are the regular lavatories. The doors open inward. With the door pushed inside the lavatory you then have to squeeze through between the door and the wash basin and then close the door. You then need to repeat the process on the way out. It is a daunting task for a person of size. Once you accomplish that task the lavatories are reasonably accomodating.

If you are lucky you will have a lavatory on your car that is designed to accomodate persons who are physically handicapped. The doorways to those lavatories are larger, making entrance and egress perfectly comfortable.

The Eurostar that travels between London and Paris has lavatories that are laid out in a fashion as to make entrance and exit and movement within quite comfortable.

The size and placement of commodes is another one of my pet peeves. Some of the seats are unfortably small. Others are placed so close to a wall that you have to scrunch yourself in order to sit squarely on the seat. In still others the toilet paper holder is positioned on the wall at such a height and position as to make it impossible for a person to get their leg to fit under it in any sort of natural position.

Telephone booths on land or on a train are another challenge. Once you get in, closing the door can be problematic. And the seats, in those that have seats, certainly weren't designed with people like me in mind.

Revolving doors and turnstiles can also be discomforting. This is particularly true of turnstiles. I particularly recall a seven-foot-high turnstile at a zoo. Once I got in the apparatus I was certain the only way that I would get out was for someone to disassemble it.

The next time you are in an elevator look upward. Think about the prospects of a fat person being able able to get out through the escape hatch in the ceiling.


For ever so long it has been difficult if not useless to browse in most department stores for clothes that are designed for fat people. Finding a suit or sport coat over size 40 or 50 was an impossibility.

Clothes for fat men were produced by manufacturers that most of us had never heard of before or after we looked at the label. The few stores that catered to fat men were not very fancy, seemed to be stuffed with products and location-wise were usually a bit off the beaten track of mainstream men's clothing retailers.

Hangers designed to handle men's suits, included those ordered from a big man's catalogue are too small. My suit coats hang over the edges and the width of the trouser portion simply doesn't allow for trousers to be hung evenly.

In addition, many closets aren't deep enough to handle the width of oversize clothes and hangers. In our own home the architect failed to leave room for my hanger size and we had to accomodate my suits with rods that come from the back wall forward.

Happily the wholly inadequate "one-size-fits-all" gowns provided in many hospitals and doctors' offices have been improved. Gowns are usally now available in multiple sizes or a "one size that fits all" that really does that.

Then there are the "one size fits all" bathrobes that you find in hotel rooms. They don't fit all, they just fit some. One hotel manager to whom I complained had a special robe made for me that is large enough to enclose two of me. Thinking of hotels, have you ever seen a scale in a hotel room that goes beyond 280 or 300 pounds?

A few years ago I attended a large luncheon event sponsored by a well known national advocacy group. Part of the post lunch program included a short concert by a youth choir. It was a mixed female, male group. The youngsters were dressed in white T shirts, which carried the logo of the organization.

But there was one exception. A young man who was very fat was wearing a black T shirt. He would have stood out in the group because of his size had he been dressed like the others but wearing black while the others wore white was striking.

I assume that the special white T shirts that had been obtained did not include a size large enough for him. And I don't know how he felt about being dressed differently than the others. But unless he is one of the lucky few fat people who are not self-conscious about his size, I can imagine how he felt.

The headline in a Fortune magazine article read "Levi's tries to Make Fat-Man pants jiggy, Dockers' Relaxed-Fit Cool"

In its' second paragraph appears this sentence: "'The image of Dockers isn't all that great,' sighs Mo, who used the term of art -- 'fat-man pants'--in less guarded moments."

I happen to own 8 or 10 pair of Dockers. They are among the most comfortable trousers that I own. I had never heard the term "fat-man" pants. Was this a way of promoting their pants to those of us who need lots of room or was it something else?

I asked my assistant to call the company and see what she could find out. Her contacts with the public relations department did not produce an answer. In fact what she got was a denial of any knowledge of the term.

I then called the author of the article at Fortune. She was quite forthcoming and explained that the term "fat-man pants" is used in the apparel trade as a derogatory way of describing something that is not fashionable. When I told her about contacting the company, she asked where we made contact because the term is used by many people at the company.