Sunday, July 17, 2016

"Sizeism" flattens different struggles and #WeAreTheLeft shouldn't use that word

The #WeAreTheLeft manifesto has added a line noting that "Biphobia and sizeism are consistently written out of the list of identity-based oppressions."

This is an interesting accusation to make in an article that calls on "our fellow progressives to clean up their own house," since in the footnotes we learn that it was actually #WeAreTheLeft who erased these struggles from their own manifesto. I certainly haven't - for example, here's just one article where I delve at length into the issue of heightism, a form of oppression that I've never seen any of the signatories to #WeAreTheLeft actually address.

You'll notice I said heightism here and not sizeism. There's a reason for that. Heightism is not just some kind of subcategory of sizeism. It is not the same as weight discrimination. Each are unique and distinct forms of oppression with different causes, different manifestations, and different consequences in our society. You can't just say "sizeism" as a way of checking the boxes of weight-discrimination and heightism at the same time, anymore than you can say "bodyism" as a way of talking about racism, sexism, ableism, sizeism, and so on.

The word "sizeism" flattens distinct forms of oppression and erases the unique struggles and challenges that the very short, the very tall, the very fat and the very thin all face. It trivializes their differences, and makes it more difficult for opponents of heightism and weight discrimination to educate the public on the specific problems they're fighting.

A simple example: airplane seating. Opponents of both weight-discrimination and height-discrimination have, in recent years, launched separate campaigns to raise awareness for the struggles that the fat and the tall face when trying to sit in cramped airline seating. For instance, just a few years ago, Kenlie Tiggeman sued Southwest Airlines for weight discrimination:
"The gate agent came up to me and he asked me how much I weighed, what size clothes I wore," Tiggeman said. "He said that I was too fat to fly, that I would need an additional seat, and he was really sort of crass about the whole thing." At the time, Tiggeman said she weighed between "240 and 300 pounds."
Meanwhile, the Association for Airline Passenger Rights reports complaints of a completely different kind coming in: planes aren't providing adequate seating for the very tall.
"It doesn't take rocket science to see there are people who are not going to fit within those parameters," said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. "The passengers who do contact us who are tall, very tall, all express how they had a terrible flying experience because they simply were uncomfortable."
The lived experiences of people who face these kinds of discrimination are completely different. Tiggeman reported that the airline "chose to discriminate, humiliate and embarrass" her when she was denied seating, a predictable outcome of our culture's deeply rooted stigma against fat people. Tall people, meanwhile, face less stigma over their size, but the oppression they do face is more intractable: as Everard Strong notes, "There are many, many ways for you to change your weight, but you cannot change your height."

Of course, in the case of airline seating, there is one simple and straightforward solution to the problems of weight-discrimination and heightism: socialism. Instead of distributing seating accommodations based on who has the most money, you can simply award seats with more legroom to the tall, and wider seats to the overweight, regardless of what their ticket price is. Alternatively, you can reject the private property rights of airline companies and allow the government to mandate minimal legroom and seating width requirements regardless of what the owners want to do. These are of course the standard remedies advocated by opponents of both heightism and weight-discrimination, because they are simple and obvious and effective.

But these are also, of course, economic remedies, bearing directly upon who gets to control private property and real estate. And if a socialist advocated them, we would obviously be accused of trying to "establish 'pure,' exclusively class-based, left" that doesn't attend to all of the unique intersectional intricacies of different forms of oppression. We might, in fact, be accused of "flattening" heightism and weight-discrimination.

Apparently, this is the kind of thing we should try to avoid, and we certainly must not group together different forms of oppression under some general "ism" in a way that erases unique histories, identities, and struggles. So I hope that #WeAreTheLeft will set aside whatever interpersonal beef its signatories may have with me and quickly change its flattening sizeist language to reflect and honor the distinct struggles of everyone.