Designing Out Fatness

Illustration by uliu

Malaysia has seen a rise in scaremongering around what has been termed ‘the obesity crisis’. News articles tout the dangers of the Malaysian lifestyle — supposedly marked by ‘unhealthy’ food and sedentary living — in producing ‘Asia’s fattest country’. Coverage of this issue is inevitably reductive, offering the decades-old ‘calories in < calories out’ prescription for weight loss, while failing to consider the various factors that affect body size.

‘Obesity’ is based on the calculation of a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI). A weight-to-height index developed in the 1800s to measure the mathematical mean of a white European population, BMI’s present-day use to moralise individual health globally has racist and classist overtones. It presumes an identical baseline of good health for everyone, disregarding genetics, ethnicity, gender, cultural practices, economic status, and access to resources; and reduces individual well-being to a matter of personal habits and discipline.

How design can exclude fat people

Using BMI as a yardstick for health has led to a society-wide inability to divest fatness from both wellness and moral worth. This  results in public policies that purport to improve people’s lives but are instead detrimental. A 2017 report suggests that a strong national healthcare system acts as a deterrent against personal responsibility. It also recommends searching for links between obesity and (lack of) academic prowess to encourage parents to monitor their children’s weight. Among the report’s long-term goals: framing obesity reduction as an integral part of the national development agenda, and identifying ‘town planning’ as one element in ‘tackling obesity’.

This phrasing in the context of urban design is telling. Creating accessible opportunities for health-focused habits is a distinctly different goal from what University of Georgia geographer Jerry Shannon describes as ‘curing the obesogenic environment’ – in short, designing out fatness. The public health interpretation of good design as facilitating physical activity for weight loss rather than providing spaces for joyful movement means that fat people existing in these spaces are subject to unceasing surveillance.

This hardline stance towards bodies that deviate from restrictive size norms has resulted in cities built not only to exclusionary but eradicative purposes. Writing on body size and the built environment, Erin Pritchard notes that ‘Bodies which are not of a specific size experience spaces differently, affecting their use of spaces as they are disabling.’ Misunderstanding the causal links between fatness and health frames an approach to the built environment where disabling is not a by-product, but a function of design, removing fat bodies from public life.

Public bench design that excludes larger bodies and people who need to lie down

In practice, it looks like this: Fixed chairs or armrests in places like restaurants, theatres, lecture halls, and public transportation stations that cannot be adjusted to accommodate larger bodies. Public bathrooms or fitting rooms with miniscule dimensions that prevent use by fat people. The lack of benches at regular intervals on city pavements that discourage people from walking in those spaces. The absence of functioning elevators or escalators in buildings with multiple floors, which requires that fat people expend more energy to go about their lives. Public health signage that promotes health-focused habits by throwing fat people — as well as people with disabilities — under the bus.

Navigating the world when fat

The social and emotional implications of drawing attention to such imbalances are notable: Fat people risk being mocked as lazy, entitled, or drains on society for daring to ask that their experiences be taken into account when designing the world that they too must navigate daily. The invisibilising of fat bodies is thus a self-perpetuating cycle: When fat people are denied the agency to assert their presence in public spaces, it removes them from the public imaginary and absences their voices from the creation of a community.

Academic José Francisco Vergara Perucich proposes in his thesis the concept of urban design under neoliberalism, observing that contemporary urban design has neglected its original purpose of ‘designing good cities’ and has now ‘aligned its ethos with a set of profit-oriented modes of production aiming to maximise the efficiency of land markets and facilitate the transaction of spaces in the city’. A city designed to work on the basis of profit maximisation necessarily categorises its inhabitants as either fiscally valuable or not, and discards those it deems inessential.

Fat people must grapple with neoliberal impositions of productivity and self-improvement that demand they cede space to those who better conform aesthetically to these ideals. They are seen as inherently at odds with the ideal neoliberal subject who is in constant pursuit of self-perfection. Fat people contend with assumptions divorced from lived experiences that read sloth and gluttony onto their presentations regardless of behaviour. When these bodies venture into increasingly commodified spaces, they are seen as excessive, transgressive, and incorrectly performing consumerism.

The physical-spatial cues of what Brewis et al (2016) identify as ‘misfitting’ serve to bolster and reify public disgust with bodies that fail at self-restraint. Drawing parallels between John Sommer’s ‘fat city’, a term initially used to describe the problem of urban sprawl, and the perceived concern of cities with too many fat bodies, Daniel Z. Sui of Texas A&M University writes that, “So long as we continue to build more parking lots instead of parks, neither obesity nor urban sprawl can be mitigated significantly.” Sommer’s ‘fat city’ was plagued and defined by ego-satisfaction and consumption, attributes that, like Sui, many people are more than ready to read onto fat bodies.

Malaysia’s class divide in ‘health’

Bubble tea drinks not affected by sugar tax  (© Eyjan | Shutterstock)

In Malaysia’s urban areas, the mushrooming of gyms, exercise studios, and leisure centres are gestured towards as evidence of choice, ignoring the implications of corporate monopoly on spaces for movement. Commenting on the sugar tax introduced in July 2019, Customs Department assistant director-general (internal tax division) Datuk Ahmad Maher Abd Jalil made a point to declare that, “The 3-in-1 beverages and bubble tea drinks do not fall under the tax. Your cappuccino is not affected. Your Starbucks beverages are not included.” The exclusion of these class-indicative drinks from culpability in ‘the war on obesity’ makes fiscal sense given the profitable proliferation of their franchises in urban neighbourhoods.

The conscious decisions made to provide and privatise access to food and play for only certain segments of the population gives lie to the notion that this is a straightforward matter of health. This concerted effort to cultivate a similar-sized citizenry is an interplay of profiteering and elitism. It neglects the safety and comfort of those who are not thin, and places them in a position to have their needs and desires dismissed or deemed irrational.

The concession of public spaces to the features of neoliberalism are contributing to the ostracisation of fat bodies from public space and alienating large sections of the populace from their immediate environment. When fat people are regularly reminded that they do not belong and are not welcome, the negative impact that has on their desire and inclination towards placemaking is undeniable. Awareness and acknowledgment of the influence that design has on anti-fat bias is a crucial and unmissable step in developing cities and communities that are truly inclusive.


Nadia Mohd Rasidi is a Kuala Lumpur-based fat activist and researcher/writer. She holds a PhD in English Literature from King’s College London and can be found on Twitter at @nrasidi.