Over the weekend, a woman had the Manhattan sidewalk on which she was standing collapse underneath her, sending her falling seven feet into a restaurant basement.
This is a common fear amongst New Yorkers I’ve known, and it probably never would have occurred to me to worry about it if I hadn’t been privy to so many NYC-dwelling friends who refuse to walk on sidewalk grates for this reason.
In the case of Ulanda Williams, who found herself unexpectedly plummeting into the basement of Atomic Wings on the Upper East Side, she sought shelter from the rain under an awning and had the concrete sidewalk disintegrate a few seconds later.
The fact that she fell isn’t much news -- but apparently, the fact that she was very fat was, as her size is mentioned in virtually every headline on the story, which of course has led to lots of giggles and jokes on Twitter and in comment threads, especially since Williams had to be rescued from the hole she fell into with a “high angle rescue unit” -- in other words, an actual crane.
Even the eyewitness reports were explicit on this point:
“The woman was enormous. She had to be more than 300 pounds,” said Daniel Crumity, 44, of Queens, who watched in disbelief from a window inside the Blue Room. “The ground literally fell out from underneath her.
“It happened so fast she did not scream or anything. Everybody in the bar got up to look.”
The hilarity didn’t end when Williams was released from the hospital -- with a broken arm and a few cuts and bruises -- and mentioned to reporters that hospital staff credited her size with saving her life, saying the fall would likely have killed a thinner person. Of course, the idea that body fat could possibly have ANY beneficial effect is unthinkable to most, even though there is plenty of evidence -- both scientific and common sense -- that extra padding prevents serious injury in falls, especially in older people.
In a masterpiece of victim-blaming, the commenter response then moved to the argument that Williams’ being “saved” by her size didn’t really count because a thinner person probably wouldn’t have fallen through the sidewalk in the first place -- even though logic would dictate that any given bit of sidewalk should probably be capable of holding AT LEAST 400 pounds. I mean, for safety.
In the news coverage of the event, Williams’ weight is first estimated to be 300 pounds, then 350, then by the time of her release from the hospital, 400 pounds; she is also nearly six and a half feet tall. As was the case for the eyewitness who made the initial estimate, “300 pounds” is one of those numbers that we tend to throw out as being impossibly huge, in part because we honestly have no idea what 300 pounds looks like.
Indeed, many of us don’t even know what 200 pounds looks like, probably because women in particular are so conditioned to either refuse to share their weight or to fudge the real number. 300 has evolved as a random point at which fat-with-a-hope-of-salvation crosses over into FAT AND DOOMED FOREVER. 300 is generally the number where people start to say, well, that’s just GROSSLY OBESE and simply not okay.
(For reference, I weigh 300 pounds. 300! Pounds! I have never broken a sidewalk, at least not to my knowledge, and yes, I would blame the sidewalk if I did.)
There is an eagerness with which people have applied the blame for Williams’ fall to her size -- and not to what had to be a fragile bit of sidewalk, as a four foot by six foot expanse should be able to support a person of Williams’ weight as well as it should be able to hold three smaller people standing in the same space. But it’s much more gratifying to blame the fat lady -- the huge, way beyond the limits of what is acceptable fat lady -- for her misfortune.
Because fat people, and fat women especially, are such popular social scapegoats that we’re all but incapable of seeing them as full-fledged human beings who deserve the same dignity and respect as anyone else. Women that fat aren’t even PEOPLE anymore, culture tells us -- they’re just disgusting, gluttonous donut-eaters who suck up all the healthcare and taxes.
If this sort of thinking were exclusively a matter of just making fat women uncomfortable or socially unacceptable, it would be bad enough, but fat stigma has broader effects that are even scarier. Check out this recent study from a group of psychologists at Yale that looked at anti-fat biases in the justice system. The study assembled 471 participants to pretend to be jurors in a case of check fraud, and showed them one of four images to represent the defendant. The four images were of a slender man, a slender woman, a fat man, and a fat woman.
There was no evidence of weight bias on the part of the female participants who judged the guilt of either the images of the women, nor was there bias from either the male or female particpants when looking at the images of of either the fat or thin male defendants. However:
Not only did the male pretend jurors prove “significantly more likely” to find the obese female defendants—rather than the slim ones—guilty, but the trim male participants were worst of all, frequently labeling the fat women “repeat offenders” with “awareness” of their crimes. And because the effect disappeared when the photographs depicted a man, the hypothesis that subjects were simply layering class-based assumptions—such as “poor people are more often overweight” and “poor people commit more crime”—on top of one another falls a bit short.
The study’s conclusion is that specifically slender men are more inclined to hand a guilty verdict to a fat woman than to a fat man, or to a slender person of either of the tested genders, just because she is fat and female. There are lots of possible intersecting reasons for why this could be so, but it’s likely the primary one is our pervasive disdain and distrust of fat women, as mustn’t there be something terribly wrong with a woman who “allows” herself to get so fat as to become a social outcast -- and thereby to demonstrate a disregard, however accidental or unintentional, for the sexual attention of fit men?
I mean, if we’re not working our asses to the bone to ensure that the mens are into us, what is the POINT of living? Am I right, ladies?
The circus freakshow vibe of Ulanda Williams’ story illustrates the way we are culturally so willing to ignore the humanity of fat people, especially fat people whom we believe to be lazy or poor. In Williams’ case, racism is also an obvious factor in how so many people have responded to her accident with so little sympathy, as a woman of color who is also fat ticks all our comfortable little assumption boxes for a person who is poor, uneducated and a leech on society.
Worse yet, several comment threads have actually debated Williams’ ability to do her job -- she is employed as a social worker -- exclusively on the basis of her size; as one commenter observed, “How can she possibly advise others when she is in such a state?”
I suppose the clear solution is that women of Williams’ size should not be allowed out of the house, and should not have jobs and should not stand on sidewalks while waiting for a bus. Except, y’know, for that being utter bullshit. Williams is a person, a person with friends and family who love her, and clients who depend on her, and hopes and dreams of her own. She deserves our sympathy, not our derision, and not our blame. I don’t care how fat she is.