Customers ask for more room to maneuver, but hurdles are complex
By Alexandria Bursiek Kloehn and Daphne Lemke
August 28, 2023
As part of Justin Fermenich’s bachelor party, his friends took him to a Go-Kart track — only he didn’t fit in the karts.
Instead, Fermenich, a Waukesha resident who is 360 pounds, spent his bachelor party watching his friends drive around the track for 45 minutes, while he sat alone at a table.
“That’s embarrassing, there’s no way around it,” Fermenich said.
His experience is not unique. An estimated 34 million Americans faced weight discrimination in 2019 alone, according to Dove’s “Real Cost of Beauty Ideals Report.”
This discrimination can look like verbal stigma, denied access to medical treatment, financial inequality and struggles to use local resources like public buses or clothing stores.
When consumers of varied body types walk into shops, restaurants and entertainment venues across Wisconsin, many will face barriers fitting into the space, the seats or the products themselves.
Whether or not business owners mean to exclude people, this contributes to a larger problem of size stigma that affects how Wisconsin’s people navigate their communities.
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin surveyed readers and talked to consumers and business owners about their experiences and struggles in addressing size inclusivity. Local and national experts also shared insights about the issue and what can be done to address it.
‘Missfitting’ in Wisconsin businesses compromises comfort, accessibility
The Go-Kart track was not the first nor last time Fermenich was unable to fit into a seat. He has had trouble finding seats at restaurants, especially if the space is mostly booth seating, at event spaces and even when he goes to his job.
Fermenich mostly works from home in the IT field, but when he goes into the office, the chairs are not designed to hold his weight.
“I’m raising the chair back up every 20 minutes or so because it just sinks down the hydraulics on it and the arms are not very wide,” he said. “It definitely makes a difference in my day-to-day comfort in the office.”
A 2017 study published in Medical Anthropology Quarterly surveyed 296 people prior to and up to 24 months following bariatric surgery. The study explored the ways people in larger bodies experience “stigmatizing cues” or “missfitting,” which is defined as “the need to plan and scan constantly while navigating too-small public spaces.”
The study called the “failure to fit into a physical space” because of body size a “theme” because of how many participants described narrow seating, crowded spaces and tightly spaced restaurants. Participants with a BMI above 30 (when a person is considered medically “obese”) who had not yet received bariatric surgery reported “not being able to fit comfortably into seats on airplanes or in public spaces” at a frequency of 77% and “not being able to find clothes that fit” at a frequency of 84%.
In the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin survey, which received about 50 responses from consumers and one business owner, respondents also referenced small spaces, including seating, and an inability to find clothing that fits.
A little more than 56% self-identified as larger than what society deems as an average body size.
However, 58% of respondents felt local businesses — including shops, restaurants and offices — were not designed to fit them, citing booths that don’t move, high-top tables and chairs being too high, small restroom stalls and too-narrow aisles.
Additionally, respondents noted a lack of high-quality plus-size clothing and age-appropriate petite clothing, especially in Wisconsin’s smaller communities. Almost 84% said shopping was easier or more accessible at major retailers rather than small businesses.
Some survey respondents suggested a wider variety of seating and clothing options. Others would like to see consideration given to height.
“Everything seems to be geared more for the petite-sized person,” one person, who did not disclose where in Wisconsin they’re from, wrote. “Most clothing stores do not carry clothing long enough for a tall person. If you are a tall person with extra weight, you might as well forget about shopping locally.”
Fermenich said availability of clothing sizes can have a lasting impact. He recalled a time when everybody in the office received matching light-blue T-shirts to celebrate completing a project. However, the matching shirt didn’t come in his size, a 4X, and he instead received a significantly darker blue shirt.
“Everybody was in these light blue colors except for the fat guy in the photo we took,” he said. “They just didn’t consider how that would affect the person wearing the shirt that was a different color than everybody else.”
Weight stigmatization adds to the problem and has impacts regardless of body size
One person answered the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin survey as a business owner, identifying their business as a restaurant in the Fox Valley, and said they didn’t consider consumer sizes when opening the business.
“If a person is so big they can’t use normal accommodations, then they’re on their own, they can lose some weight,” the business owner wrote.
While this was the only business that responded to the survey, they were not the only person to respond with judgment.
“Everyone I see is wearing clothes and if you’re larger, obviously have no problem finding something to eat,” one person, who defined themselves as “taller than average,” wrote.
Size-based stigma affects more than just people in larger bodies.
According to the American Psychological Association, roughly 40% of U.S. adults reported weight stigma, which increases risk for mental health problems, suicide, disordered eating, health care avoidance and weight gain.
Losing weight isn’t as easy as it sounds. Christy Greenleaf is a kinesiology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has done extensive research on disordered eating and the psychological and social aspects of weight. Greenleaf said bodies are “not closed systems” and eating less and exercising more to lose weight doesn’t always work.
“This kind of energy balance really doesn’t hold up scientifically, because our bodies are adaptive and so our physiology adapts to energy expenditure and caloric intake,” she said.
Greenleaf said when people try to lose weight, often their bodies will actively work to make it harder by increasing hunger and burning fewer calories with exercise.
“It is unrealistic to expect most people to lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off,” she said. “It has nothing to do with willpower or self-control or discipline or work ethic.”
Instead, she said, weight often has more to do with a person’s physiology, genetics and environment. She added shaming people in larger bodies often works counter productively. A common response to facing tough love at a doctor’s office is to stop going to the doctor. They are also less likely to go to the gym.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we had a world in which people could live happy lives in the bodies that they have and move through the world in a way where they are respected, treated humanely, and where they have opportunity for employment and education?” she asked. “And if they want to engage in physical activity, that there are spaces where they’re welcomed?”