The subway is hot and crowded and I mop my forehead with a cloth. A woman in her 80s is having a friendly chat with the stranger next to her. When she sees me, standing squarely on my two feet to keep my balance and dressed in a sundress with an empire waist, she assumes a concerned look and asks, “Would you like my seat?” Not one to take a seat from an elderly woman for no reason, I cheerfully say, “No thanks!”
She puts her hand on her stomach in a symbolic gesture and asks, “You don’t want to sit down?” Not this again, I think.
“Oh, okay.” The stranger next to her smiles at me sympathetically.
Just another day in the life of a large woman in a small world.
I once had a woman approach me after a theatre performance I was in to say that she and her friends had been debating whether or not I was “in the family way.” “No,” I said. “It’s just the shirt.”
My instinct may be to blame the confusion on my garb, but I know that the issue is not really the clothes I am wearing. There is so little representation in the media of women who have large stomachs, like I do, that one might not realize we exist! But we are out there.
And it’s not always just a matter of weight. Gastrointestinal or reproductive disorders such as chronic gastritis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and Hirschsprung’s disease all cause bloating of the stomach that could look like pregnancy to an outsider. So, on an individual basis, it would be wise not to jump to conclusions about women’s bodies. It’s never bad to offer someone your seat, but there’s no need to discuss why you are offering it to them. And if they don’t accept, certainly don’t try to convince them that they need it.
On a national level, we need higher representation of women of different body types in the media. A study showed that in 2003, 25% of women were overweight, but on television, only 3% were overweight. Fifty percent of women in reality were average or underweight in 2003, as compared with 87% of television women.
Gabriella is a positive body image enthusiast, an actor, and a singer. She currently works at HIAS, the Jewish non-profit for the resettlement and protection of refugees.