body image, books

Chairs & Stairs: On Making Spaces Welcoming for Larger Bodies

Tuesday evening I had the great fortune of attending an author event and book signing for Jes Baker and her latest memoir, Landwhale. I fucking love Jes Baker, y’all. Her previous book, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls was just incredible and I cannot wait to read my (signed!) copy of Landwhale. Having followed her on social media for years, I can confirm that she’s just as loud and bold in person as she is on Instagram.

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As soon as her Landwhale tour was announced and I saw that she was coming to Cleveland, I immediately wrote down the date in my calendar. I was equally delighted to learn that the event was being moderated by Rachel, fashion designer and former owner of Re/Dress, this incredible store here in Cleveland (that is officially reopened omg. Buy some teggings from their online shop, y’all. You will thank me). Maria, one of Re/Dress’s models was also there and it was going to be more of a conversation about body image and diet culture bullshit and I was here for it.

At the same time, however, I remember seeing the venue and thinking “Hmmmmm. That’s an . . . interesting location for this.”

Before I continue, let me be clear that it was a great event. The conversation was as thought provoking and self-affirming as I had hoped and Jes stayed and signed all of the books and was just as engaging with the people at the end as she was with the people in the beginning (I know: I was the second to last person). And the bookstore where it was held is one of my favorites in the city. I had my own author event there a few months ago.

I just don’t think it was the right space for this event and, in particular, this audience.

Now, granted, I don’t know how book tours and events get planned. I mean, I did all of my own bookings but I’m local and mine were all here in Ohio. Jes is touring nationally. She also has a huge following, which I think was the first challenge in all of this because I suspect the bookstore vastly underestimated just how many people were going to show up for this event.

Which, I mean. 134K Facebook followers. 11K Twitter followers. 92K Instagram followers.

And you put out, like, 20 chairs?

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Hell, on my own book tour I did events where I had far more fucking chairs than that.

Then there were the actual chairs.

Actually, let me back up for a second.

So, at this particular bookstore, the author events are held in the lower level. The non-air conditioned lower level. This means there are stairs to climb down. Narrow, steep stairs.

Accessibility is a real issue just out in the wider world, not just the body positive community, that I don’t think many people think about. As far as I know, there’s no other way to get down there so if someone had accessibility issues and didn’t know, in advance, that this was the situation, they may have gotten to the venue and realized they had no fucking way of getting downstairs. Not all disabilities are visible, either. You can’t know who is and is not able-bodied just by looking at them (and if you think you can, you’re wrong).

I heard more than one comment related to the stairs and while it might not seem like a big deal — it’s just stairs, right? — it was one of those things where it seemed like this particular audience was not taken into account.

Right, so, back to the chairs. These were the two offerings:

I mean, you have a fat activist coming to speak. It’s safe to assume that her readers and followers are going to be, y’know. Fat. (Don’t @ me. I have another post coming out in the future about my use of that word.) Those of us squeezed into the room were of various sizes and shapes, but people only sat on those rickety wooden chairs out of sheer desperation.

There were people who had driven over four hours to come hear Jes speak. Just imagine, driving that distance and then getting here and maneuvering your body down narrow, steep steps and then you see one of those god awful wooden chairs and all you can do is sit on it and pray to whatever deity you want that it doesn’t snap beneath you and you end up mortified and possibly injured on the concrete floor in front of everyone.

For this particular audience, it didn’t feel like a very welcoming space. It went beyond just not being a space made for us, it wasn’t a safe space for us. Well, aside from the company and people of course. And it’s tiny and narrow and NO AIR CONDITIONING and we’re in there, crowded like sardines and it’s 80 degrees out and just.

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That said, the one benefit that these chairs have is no fucking arms. For those of us with hips, chairs that lock us in with arms are another issue.

But, again, there were only about 20.

So then it become standing and sitting room only. Which can be tricky for able-bodied people to do for an extended period of time, let alone people with mobility issues.

Which made me wonder why the audience level was underestimated. Like, was there just this belief that Jes wouldn’t draw a large crowd? But if so, why? Her follower numbers speak for themselves. They also almost ran out of books because they hadn’t ordered enough. I had hoped to buy more than one copy, hell, I wanted to support a local, independent bookstore by giving them money, but we were allowed only one because there was a concern there weren’t enough in stock.

So again . . . why?

And the thing of it is, I know there are other options available because I know that this bookstore hosts events at other locations, including the library and small concert venues, in the past. Spaces that are more accessible and more welcoming for this audience.

I don’t think there was anything, like, malicious happening here. But I do think thin, able-bodied privilege may have gotten in the way of event planning. Oh, of course the stairs will be fine. Oh, of course the chairs will be fine.

When it comes to event planning, you have to take the audience into account and I don’t think that was really done for this event. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a wonderful (if slightly hot) time and got to meet fucking Jes Baker and spent a few hours with incredible body positive women in my community, but the venue itself just sort of reminded me of why we need body and fat advocacy, because there are still spaces in the world where I feel like my body is not welcome.

Love from the ashes,
Lady Lazarus

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