Yesterday I spent half the day at a high school in Marin, an area in Northern California that’s just across the Golden Gate Bridge from where I live. I was there for an event called Youth Forum. It’s organized primarily by students, and they invite individuals and organizations from around the Bay Area who are focused on social justice issues - from homelessness to prison reform to weight stigma - to talk with the campus about how to create change.
I received the email asking me to come to the event about a month ago, and not long after that I was on the phone with Olive, one of the members of the Plus Size Affinity Group on campus.
“An affinity group… is a collection of individuals who share a common identity characteristic, which can be a wide range of things. The unifying characteristic is usually something that’s traditionally underrepresented and can make the people in that group feel isolated. Some examples include:
Physical or mental ability”
When I learned that Olive and some friends had created an affinity group of plus-size students I was impressed - and more than a little surprised. I’ve actually worked with plus-size affinity groups before, but they’re typically at companies (for example, Square has one), and they’re comprised of… well, grownups. It’s vulnerable enough to gather around an issue like fatphobia, which is still socially acceptable, as an adult with resources and tools in an environment where professionalism is expected. It’s another thing entirely to be taking a stand against weight discrimination as a teenager in an environment that’s structured by societal norms of beauty and bullying.
Can you imagine being in high school and telling everyone that you not only identify as plus-size but that you’re trying to change the way the school operates to accommodate your larger body? I can’t!
Talking with Olive felt a little bit like talking to a younger (but way more empowered) version of myself. She and her friends were dealing with the same things I dealt with in high school: uniforms and costumes for the school play or dance recital that don’t fit, mandatory physical activities that left them winded and embarrassed, and adults/faculty who promoted weight-loss and had no idea how to deal with fat-shaming.
I asked Olive what she wanted the school to know. She said, “I want them to know that plus-size students exist.”
I met Olive in-person yesterday. She is adorable and tall, wearing barrettes, glasses, and a pastel purple sweatshirt that carries the name of the college she’ll be attending after she graduates. We ate lunch together, and she conveyed the tragedy that the snack shack had recently closed (she suspected it was due to the sophomore boys’ inability to pick up after themselves).
Her friend (also in the affinity group) joined us and I listened to them as we ate the meal of the day: butternut squash ravioli. They talked about how much plus-size fashion either sucks or is too expensive, how toxic the TikTok body checking trend is, how frustrating it is that none of the campus merchandise fits properly and how they can't buy anything with the school’s name on it for their family members because everything is too small. They talked about how they didn’t feel comfortable wearing dresses or skirts without leggings. They talked about how uncomfortable it was to sit in tiny seats in the school’s auditorium, and how they’d adopted manspreading in order to deal with it. Again, these girls could have been me and my friends when we were in high school or, frankly, me and my friends at our current age, right now.
Spending time with them filled me completely with hope and affection. They created a doc with their biggest concerns and I synthesized what they shared and added in solutions. I was eager to pass along what they’d shared with me to the school, and I’m excited to share it with you too:
Challenge #1: The junior retreat was to go on a hike, which was not optional. This can bring up shame about not being able to keep up and doesn't take into account the spectrum of ability.
Potential Solution: Choose an activity that isn't physically oriented, don't make it mandatory, have activity options, adopt accessible hiking practices (for example from Fat Girls Hiking, like the leader leads from the rear, there's an accessibility check beforehand).
Challenge #2: Normalization of calorie counting is triggering to people with disordered eating and normalizes weight stigma.
Potential Solution: Posted signs or policy, bias training for faculty and students, eating disorder support
Challenge #3: There are a lot of small spaces on campus. In some rooms there are couches and a lot of people - we feel like we’re taking up too much space. Some chairs can be really small, especially the regular classroom chairs.
Potential Solution: Offer more seating options, especially seating without armrests and with weight restriction above 250 lb.
Challenge #4: Clothing/costumes does not come in extended sizing - senior girl’s jersey, barely any size choice, the shop only goes up to XL and the pants run very small, costumes for dance and theater can run really small/they have to make concessions for costumes. I don't feel included in the campus community. I can't buy campus apparel for my family.
Potential Solution: Extend the size run of offerings. Make sure there's price parity. Potentially have a different distributor/manufacturer.
Challenge #5: A lot of casual fatphobia is excused due to a general lack of knowledge about what fatphobia is; the coaches can be fatphobic in some of the things that they say, equating health with thinness.
Potential Solution: Adopt weight neutral language campus wide. Offer trainings in weight discrimination and implicit bias training to all faculty and staff.
Challenge #6: The campus is not very accessible: lot of stairs, hills, and there’s no way to get around that. You can only get a ride if you’re injured.
Potential Solution: Add more time to get between classes, more rides for not only injured students.
These are challenges that exist everywhere, and these are solutions that can be applied to those challenges. I hope this small group of youth encourages you to imagine what’s possible for self-advocacy in the spaces you navigate.