Access to the Sky
Airplane Seats and Fat Bodies as Contested Spaces
Joyce L. Huff
As Michel Foucault (1979) has pointed out, since the eighteenth century Euro-American cultures have conceived of the body as adaptable, able to achieve and maintain socially prescribed standards. In the twenty-first-century United States, this body has come increasingly to be seen as capable of adapting itself to spaces constructed to meet the needs of corporations rather than those of individuals. For example, mass production, a process that accommodates manufacturers' desires to maintain high profit margins by producing goods quickly and cheaply, assumes that the consumer's body is mutable and will alter to fit into preconstructed spaces, such as off-the-rack, rather than tailor-made, clothing. In Enforcing Normalcy, Lennard J. Davis (1995) notes how easily the notion of the adaptable body, with its supposed ability to conform to norms, comes to serve as the basis for a social imperative that compels individuals to strive for normalcy. Although Davis articulates his critique of coercive social norms in relation to disability, his insights could just as easily apply to anyone whose body falls outside the parameters of today's narrowly defined notion of the “normal.” In fact, the very notion that individual bodies are adaptable endorses a fiction of absolute corporeal control, when, in fact, our bodies resist our control in numerous ways.
Although it is frequently argued that niche markets are currently replacing mass markets, and that consequently products are now tailored to meet the needs of specific targeted groups rather than those of a hypothetical average individual, the notion of an adaptable body remains central to the manufacturer's vision of the consumer. Clothes marketed specifically to larger women, for instance, still come in standard sizes with fixed proportions to which individual bodies must adapt. In fact, such clothing is usually marketed along with products such as “foundation garments,” which are designed to facilitate this adaptation.
The recent debate over Southwest Airlines's decision to enforce a long-standing policy requiring large passengers to pay higher fares highlights the ways in which the imperative to normalize may serve corporate interests at the expense of those of individuals. In June 2002, Southwest Airlines announced its intention to make passengers with hips spanning over seventeen inches pay for two airline seats. Southwest