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Never too much: Reflections on accessibility and fatness

by Gabrielle Hruska

In the summer of 2017, I woke up one Wednesday morning, unable to walk. The pain was so intense in my right hip and ankle, and my left knee. Unbearable pain, with absolutely no recognizable reason. I went to Urgent Care, the doctor there thought maybe I had Lyme Disease, she advised me to take antibiotics, and to see my regular doctor BEFORE THE WEEKEND. By the next morning, I was unable to take the pain and went to the Emergency Room. In Radiology, they thought I had been in a car accident. After 4 days in the hospital, it was determined that I had Reactive Arthritis. Reactive Arthritis is really rare, and was described to me, as precipitated by a “perfect storm” in the body. Some kind of infection combined with food poisoning, and after the food poisoning passes, your body can go into Reactive Arthritis. I did not test positive for any kind of infection, nor did I have food poisoning… I have no idea why this happened. It takes anywhere from 6 months to a year to recover from Reactive Arthritis, and my Rheumatologist says I will always be susceptible to a flare up. I spent the entire summer using a walker. I fought desperately against the supposition that “Of course this happened, you are fat.”

My eyes were opened to my own biases, and to others’ biases. I was ashamed. I thought, if I were thin, people’s reactions would be so different. To fight against that awful and false narrative, I became very performative. “The Good Fatty” trope was my life. I joked about my walker, I joked at work about making a music video with the beginning sounds just being the “shhhhhhhh” of my walker gliding on carpet. My work thought that was hilarious, and they made a commercial with me and my walker. Shooting that commercial left me in bed for days. I had overdone it, in order to avoid being seen as “lazy”. I had been willing to sacrifice my own health and well-being, for what? To avoid being seen as fat and lazy. The truly awful part of this is, no one had to SAY anything. This was all internalized shame, and fear of rejection that was handed to me by a society that places so much value on thinness, that our ACTUAL HEALTH does not really matter, as long as you are thin.

Eight months after that, my mom was diagnosed with cancer in February and went immediately to home hospice. While in hospice, my mom, who had pancreatic cancer, had an appointment at her doctor. At this point, my mom was in a wheelchair, she looked small and so ill. Her pain levels were unbearable. When getting on the scale, my mom made a big deal of not saying her weight out loud. My mom was so weak, she could barely hold her head up, but she was adamant about not having her weight said out loud. When she saw her weight, my mom, did a fist pump and said “Yes! I’m down 10 pounds.”

I had to leave the room, because I was about to explode with grief and anger. My mom was celebrating losing 10 pounds, because CANCER WAS EATING HER BODY. I was not angry with my mom. My mom is a victim of society. A society that tells us that we are worthless unless we are thin. And I say, “FUCK THAT”.

As a result of losing my health, over-performing in order to hide how sick I was, because, no way could I be FAT and UNHEALTHY, and my mom struggling with her weight even in her last days, I decided, I was no longer going to subscribe to this bullshit.

I quit my job, I decided to create a completely accessible space to ALL bodies, fat, thin, differently abled, ALL BODIES. I’m in the process of opening a coffee shop and yoga studio that focuses on accommodating bodies of all kinds.
At first, I worried that I was excluding folks by really focusing on larger bodies. That maybe thin folks would not even want to be identified with a place that talks about the importance and beauty of fat bodies. And then this happened:

Rain had just started to sprinkle on the windshield as I parked my car. I was just arriving to a half-day meditation retreat at a local University. Parking was not at all near the venue. Instantly, I thought, this is not accessible at all. How do students navigate this? I felt my defenses rise, my heart beat picked up a little, and a small knot formed in my tummy. “Will it be too far for me to walk comfortably? Will I fit in the seats provided?” Defensiveness of my body size and abilities roared up in me.

Should I bring my bolster, just in case there isn’t a chair I fit in? But, it was raining and a couple blocks away. Inner dialogue: “You are being silly. No one cares about your body size, this is a meditation retreat, this should be accessible. It’s fine. Leave your bolster, otherwise it will get all wet and I really do not want to deal with a wet bolster.”

I should have brought my bolster.

Upon arriving, I see all the chairs have arms. Trying to squeeze myself into the chair, the arms cutting into my thighs, I thought, “There is NO WAY, I am going to get anything out of this, if I have to sit in this chair. I am on par for bruises on my thighs.” I waited through introductions, and when the facilitator came around to pass out name tags, I asked, “Is there alternative seating, I don’t fit in this chair.” The facilitator’s face fell, she apologized and said there were prayer benches to use. I got one, and I literally did not fit in the bench. The name “Prayer Bench” is misleading. It is not a bench at all. It is a seat base, that you then have to bend your knees into, and lean your shins on padded boards to hold you up. No back, no arms, and it rocks. Yes, it rocks. I was forced to sit with one leg between the shin pads, one leg on the outside of the shin pads, and then hold myself steady. I was so pre-occupied with balancing and trying to be comfortable-ish, that meditating was not possible.

I was SO ANGRY. Why is my body so hard to accommodate? It isn’t. Chairs with no arms, pretty simple. Unfortunately, fat bodies are RARELY considered when designing spaces. Not to mention, differently abled bodies. If I had still been using my walker, my body would not have been ok to walk the blocks to the venue.

A light bulb went off over my head. There will NEVER be TOO MUCH accommodation. There will never be TOO MUCH conversation around body and fat acceptance. There will never be TOO MANY spaces that love on all bodies. Radically loving all bodies is my mission, and I hope it can become yours as well. You do not need to quit your job and create a public space. You COULD make your own spaces accessible, you could be aware of your self talk, and love on YOU. That is the first step, loving on yourself, just exactly as you are.

Gabbi Hruska, Fat Activist and Owner of Real Life Coffee &Yoga in Saint Paul, MN. Gabbi lives in Saint Paul with her son, a daughter in college, two doggos and a saucy kitty named Billy. Her favorite place to be is sitting on her front stoop with a hot coffee and a good book.

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