Coney Island Cyclone
Derek K. Chan/Wikipedia

Big Questions: Why Isn’t the World Designed For Bigger People?

Get advice from Zach Miko in a future Big Questions article by sending him a message. Read past articles here.

Ian: I’ve noticed that often public spaces are not designed inclusively for fat folk, whether that be flimsy plastic chairs at the neighborhood barbecue, narrow armrest seats at the movies, or tiny roller coaster seats (and weight restrictions!) at the theme park. Any tips for navigating a world built around the petite? Specifically how to not let these little things get in your head and ruin your activity or evening out?

Dear Ian,

This is a tough one for me. Not fitting has been the perpetual thorn in my side ever since I was a kid.

I love roller coasters. When I was a kid my father delighted in taking us on the fastest, craziest roller coasters he could find. Growing up in New England, he particularly loved wooden coasters. We rode every one he could find. Boulderdash and The Wild Cat, in Lake Compounce, and Lightning Racer in Hershey Park were some of his favorites. As I became a teenager in a grown man’s body, enjoying our favorite pastime became more difficult. We started getting turned away because of my height, weight, or a combination of the two.  Then we decided to take a trip to Coney Island to ride one of the most famous roller coasters in the country, The Cyclone.

The Roller Coaster Ride of Nightmares

Built in 1927, we should have known better than to attempt getting on, but the allure of American theme park history was too strong. After waiting in line for about 30 minutes, we were charged $10 each to ride. We were immediately informed that we were both too big to sit side by side, and would have to ride in separate cars. We both got in, cramming our knees up against the 90 year old metal, and as we tried to lower our lap bars, both my father and I found ourselves unable to do so.

“The bar doesn’t go down”, I said to the operator.

“You’ll be fine”, he quipped and then slammed the button to send us clicking up the first hill. My dad and I began screaming back and forth, telling each other to hold on. With a white-knuckle grip onto the corners of the car we spent three minutes wondering if we would survive, being thrown around the car, then pinned in place with our now bleeding knees being twisted and wrenched in the flexing seats. When the ride was over, my dad and I checked out our new scars and as we were getting out the ride operator said: “You can ride again for just five bucks”.

[I]t wasn’t me that didn’t fit in the world. The world doesn’t fit ME.

This was the day I decided that it wasn’t me that didn’t fit in the world. The world doesn’t fit ME. Learning that tiny difference is essential to seeing the world around you in a different way. I don’t want to become smaller just to fit into something that does not care if I live or die.

It’s Not You, It’s Them

Most of the places you don’t fit comes down to a company deciding they could make more money without you. It’s not that you don’t fit into an airplane seat, The airlines decided to make the seats as small as possible to cram as many paying customers onto a plane as possible. The manufacturer of those dreaded plastic patio chairs are small and flimsy because it’s cheaper, not because you are too big to sit down. The seats in that theater are small because that way the owners can fit 600 seats rather than 500, and still charge the same price per ticket no matter the size of the seat. That doorway you have to duck to get under is short because it cost less to build a 6 foot door than an 8 foot door.

It’s hard not to feel like you don’t belong when you are constantly moving through a world designed for someone else.

These are goods and services, designed to maximize profits. These are not referendums on your existence. It’s hard not to feel like you don’t belong when you are constantly moving through a world designed for someone else. I live in New York City, a place where every inch of space is stacked and squeezed and monetized to make more and more profits, where every family home is demolished to be replaced by buildings advertising 300 square foot “luxury” apartments. To this day, I curse myself for not “fitting” in this city. I moved here to pursue my love of musical theater, I live fifteen minutes from Broadway, and yet I see maybe one play a year, because I know the pain I’ll be in just trying to fit into the orchestra seats. I have to remind myself almost daily that I deserve to exist.

These places do not fit me, because it makes someone else money, not because I am wrong. The good thing is, we get to decide how to spend our own money. You can buy the car that you are most comfortable in, the couch that feels the best to your body, the bed that you sleep most soundly on. Choose yourself when you spend your money. We know that there are places not built for a person of size, and we know that these places will not change, because there is not profit in it. So change it yourself by voting with your wallet.

Walk into that neighborhood barbecue with your own folding chair under your arm, find that independent theater group who preforms in a cozy bar. That roller coaster might not let you on, but it could never compare to the thrill of flying down a snow-covered hill on your skis, snowboard, or inner tube. Don’t limit your life to line someone else’s pockets.

 You deserve to exist in any size or shape. You are meant for this world. The actual world, the natural world, is built for you. The stars in skies of Montana, Arches National Park, the sprawling Appalachian Mountains, The Atlantic Ocean, Niagra Falls, The Grand Canyon, the beaches of Maui. This is the world that was built for you. A world that is vast and endless. You fit in this world.