Last week on the subway I witnessed a deeply disturbing scene.
It was about 9pm, I was on my way home from a class and surprised by the number of people in the train car. I had to stand in the aisle because all of the seats were taken. Well, almost all. There was about a half a seat empty in between two people, owing to the size of one of them. My spot was just in front of this larger person. A stop or maybe two after I got on, a woman entered and pushed her way into this small space. As she approached the bench she huffed and said something like, “Excuse me but I want to sit here”. Her tone was harsh and aggressive, and her words were directed at the larger person, a woman. She knew that by sitting down she would make this woman (and likely the other person and possibly even herself) uncomfortable. Her voice acknowledged that reality and asserted her right to take the seat anyway. The way she went about claiming the spot was obnoxious and rude, but the moment would have been forgettable if she didn’t also say, “This is… oversize”.
My jaw dropped. I might have reddened. Through the whole dramatic scene, the large woman sat in silence; it took all of my self-control not to turn my head and see if there were any changes in her facial expression or posture. Thoughts and emotions flooded through me and I spent the rest of my ride wrestling with all of them. I took notes on my phone.
The rude woman was skinny, petite, white and looked to be in her early to mid 60s. She was wearing black tights with white stars on them, a black bomber jacket and pleather fingerless gloves. Her hair was a mix of grey and dull brown, wild and wispy about her face, which was shiny with sweat. Perhaps she had come from a vigorous work out, but she was wearing (ugly, incongruous) platform shoes which throws that idea into question.
The assaulted woman was black, in her late 20s or early 30s, wearing jeans and a white blouse, with lovely clear skin. Her natural hair was styled with two corn rows framing her face, the rest pulled back into a bun or pony tail. She wasn’t wearing headphones, so she definitely heard the comments made by the rude woman, and through the entire ordeal, as far as I could tell, her face and body continued to look as they did when I boarded the car – calm, and at rest.
I understood the rude woman wanting to sit down. When she first started speaking, my offence at her attitude was tempered by this understanding, and also the signs of her physical stress. After she made the comment about the woman being “oversize”, I was shocked. Scandalised might be a better word. I was angry too, on behalf of the other woman, and felt that she would be well within her rights to respond to the skinny woman’s rudeness. The anger quickly gave way to sympathy. I wanted to reach out to the assaulted woman somehow and let her know that I knew she was wronged, that she didn’t deserve to be treated that way. I was too embarrassed to meet her eyes though. I was afraid that acknowledging my status as a witness might make any negative feelings she had worse. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Overcome with all these emotions, I also felt a little like crying. How cruel! How stupid! How senseless! And there I was just standing. Who was I, anyway, to be reacting so intensely to something that didn’t even happen to me? Would the assaulted woman resent me if she knew what I was thinking and feeling? I wonder now as I’m writing this why I didn’t say anything. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. It might have made an uncomfortable situation much worse. But maybe I should have.
Regardless of the woman’s desire to sit down, there was no need for her to shove her way into the space, and to publicly belittle the larger woman as she did so. As I said, the train car was full. She made no attempts to modulate her voice so that the exchange, such as it was, was private. Her huffing and puffing, the way she commented that the other woman was oversize, conveyed total disgust and censure. Moreover, she didn’t even say “you” are oversize. She said “this”, as though the woman were a non-human object. She basically broadcast to everyone else in the car not only that she thought the woman was lazy and gluttonous, but that her very being was transgressive, because she was too big for one seat.
Now, in spite of that fact, there was no love or grace or ‘common politeness’, as my mother or grandmother might say, in the skinny woman’s approach to the bench. Surely she could have extended some humanity to the other woman, and either refrained from sitting down – she didn’t ride the train for very long, if she had this actually would have helped explain her entitled behaviour – or spoken in a gentler manner. She was small enough to make the seating arrangements feasible, if a little tight, so there was no need for her to fling her body and her opinions about that way.
This brings me to another point, race. Can you imagine the same scene with the races of the women reversed? Only with extreme difficulty, and only with the skinny black woman appearing to reinforce the angry, ill-bred, chip-on-her-shoulder black woman stereotype. The white woman was confident and secure in her skin enough to humiliate a black woman without hesitation. This is an example of the way her skin gives her privilege to speak and behave as she’d like to, without fear of her words and actions being attributed to something beyond her own personality or having consequences beyond herself.
Another privilege at play of course is her body size. Her small figure did more than allow her to slide into the half seat, it gave her the upper hand in the exchange because she embodies the more highly valued physique in our society. With this physique comes respect and prestige from the larger community.*
The city itself played a role in making the exchange possible. The anonymity it affords gave another kind of power to the woman: it freed her to act as she pleased since she was interacting with and observed by strangers who she was practically guaranteed never to see again. New York makes it easier for those of us living here to behave callously toward one another – our liberating anonymity is also a shield.
Something else I turned over in my head was how one woman could be so mean and insensitive to another. With all of the social and media pressure to conform to particular standards of beauty, with all of the glass ceilings, locked doors and biased or restrictive legal matters that obstruct our every day lives, it’s unconscionable to me that the skinny woman could have no qualms about sucking joy or contentment out of the large woman’s life. Whether we agree with one another’s choices or not, the very least we can do is afford each other the respect we do not get from the wider world.
The scene was ugly, and all of the power and privilege dynamics at play reveal the dark side of human nature. I wasn’t thinking about those so much when I left the train though, I just felt sad. I couldn’t believe the older woman’s meanness and indignation; it filled the air and made the whole car feel hostile. I wondered how the rest of the assaulted woman’s night went, whether she’s experienced that kind of aggression before and how she manages it. The whole thing brought me very low. Reflecting on it now still brings me low. I want there to be a record that it happened, that I was a witness, that we need to do better.
*Economic class surely had a role to play in this exchange as well, but without knowing the women personally it’s difficult to speculate how exactly.