“Pregnant or Fat?”

Supposedly, that’s the question on every commuter’s mind as they consider whether or not to offer their seat to a large woman on the bus. Because it would be SO embarrassing to offer your seat to someone who isn’t pregnant. This claim appears to be simply on the fact that lots of pregnant women don’t get offered seats.

As a once-pregnant woman who was never offered a seat even when she had to use a cane due to her knees dislocating, I call “bullshit”. Folks might have wondered whether I was pregnant or not. But they had no cause to wonder whether I needed a seat, and they still didn’t give me one. My take: simple selfishness. Human nature in action is not always a pretty sight.

Further evidence for my claim of “bullshit” is the fact that nobody offers a seat by saying “you look pregnant– would you like my seat?”. Instead they simply get up, or offer the seat without citing a reason. (Or at least that’s what I do– my experience of receiving such offers is limited.)

Thanks, Jender-Parents, for the therapeutically ranty break from marking!

25 thoughts on ““Pregnant or Fat?”

  1. not to mention the underlying assumption here, which is that women who look uncomfortable standing only deserve to your seat if they are pregnant – not if they are the fat…personally, I would have titled the article: “Does That Uncomfortable-looking Woman Deserve To Sit Down…or Is She A Bad Fat Person Who Brought It Upon Herself And About Whom You Should Not Care?

    furthermore, it’s pretty disturbing that closely examining women’s bodies (“check her feet”) is implied as the unquestioned right of bus passengers – especially men who would somehow be acting chivalrous by doing so…

  2. Absolutely. And actually, that maybe what happened to me with my cane– they decided I only needed the cane because I was fat, so I didn’t deserve a seat.

    Many thanks for the additional ranting– I should have called attention to those points to. Actually, I’ll never get my marking done if I keep thinking of things that annoy me about the article, so I’ll leave that to our very able commenters!

  3. I’m having trouble getting to the article – even through an alternative bbc site. I’m wondering if pregnant women have the same problem in other countries.

    I am thoroughly past child-bearing years. on my last (recent) ride on the NYC subway a young man gave me his seat. I think next time I’ll try not to let a certain self-indulgent sense of sensory overload show so much.

  4. It’s also interesting that it’s so often assumed that pregnant women NEED a seat more than any other sort of people (that they cannot or should not stand). I’m always bothered by the framing of pregnancy as illness, injury, or disability, when in fact a non-pregnant person may very well need or want the seat more than a pregnant one. I like the ‘uncomfortable-looking person’ concept in the comments here: much more to the point.

  5. It all depends on the people and the city you are in. I often find that women will give up their seat to older or pregnant women before a man will. I also had an experience where I had TONS of grocery bags standing and balancing on a bus, and an older woman offered me HER seat lol.

  6. When I was pregnant, lo these many years ago, I looked as if I was going to give birth to a beachball, or as if my baby was trying to exit from my navel. In other words, it was clearly evident that I was pregnant, fat or not. And no one ever gave me a seat on the bus. I believed then, and still believe, it had to do with the fact that I looked very young, in fact, much less than actual age. Hence, people were concluding either that I was young and healthy (and hence did not need a seat) or that I had wantonly gotten myself knocked up at a very youthful age (and hence did not deserve a seat).

    How interesting that a sense of merit (or lack of it), not just need (or lack of it) may determine who gets offered a chance to sit down.

  7. @Mary – Although I’m suspicious of ostensibly gender-neutral terms that might hide androcentric bias, I do think an ethic (if the giving-up-your-seat issue is serious enough to warrant “ethics”) focused on preventing discomfort from standing, rather than on pregnancy, gender, age, etc., holds promise.

    I think Marilyn Frye put it best in her simple but profound discussion of what she called the “male door-opening ritual” in The Politics of Reality. Briefly, she argues that the ritual appears to be helpful in individual circumstances, but from a macroscopic viewpoint is a message that women are incapable and helpless. This becomes clearer, she argues, if you compare the insistance on the importance of this ritual with the relative lack of concern about women in situations in which “substantial help is really wanted…in mundane affairs of in situation of threat, assault of terror…there is no help with the (his) laundry; no help typing…no help in [parenting…”

    Lastly, I just wanted to note that I find this issue and Frye’s essay especially good as discussion starters in gender studies classrooms. I teach at a mostly-commuter college in NYC, and the city’s public transit system often provides an almost-universally common set of experiences my students can draw from and relate to theory. In addition to the “seat-offering ritual,” I also usually discuss the ways in which men and women tend to sit and what that may mean in terms of gender roles, right to space, bodily integrity, etc.

  8. I lived in Russia for a few years and there there is a fairly common practice of giving up seats to older people (both men and women), people with disabilities (though many can’t get on public transportation there- acessability is almost non-existent), pregnant women, etc. I had rarely lived anywhere where this sort of thing was necessary before (there were almost always seats available on public transport when I’d used it before) but it was common, and there was cause for it (a seat shortage) in Russia, so I picked it up there. When I later lived in NY City I fairly often offered my seat to people who seemed likely to need it more than me, though sometimes it was refused. (While carrying many grocery bags, I have been offered a seat, even though no one would otherwise think to do so.) But I’d be hesitant to offer a seat to someone who I thought might just be over weight, unless they looked distressed or otherwise disabled (a cane or the like), as I would not want to insult them or imply that they could not stand normally. (I’ve seen mothers with little kids offered seats on the subway or bus in NY many times, too.)

  9. my farm-raised, elderly father came to visit me in london, and while we were riding the bus he jumped–as if bottom on fire–to offer his seat to a woman who got on the bus when all seats were full. (because she is a woman, and he is a gentleman, you know.) she looked maybe 55 years old. and she gave my father some serious stink-eye for offering his seat. as well she should’ve (dad!) but i think it goes to show that people do have pride when it comes to being offered a seat. so, it’s not so easy as ‘err on the side of offering’. –that said, ‘look at their face; do they look uncomfortable, as if they may need a sit down? if so, offer them your seat’ doesn’t seem so terribly difficult a rule of action…

  10. Elp: you’re forgetting that *every commuter* in London will be deserving of a seat, according to your rule. To make it more discriminating, I think you need to add *more uncomfortable than is to be expected on cramped and airless tube*…

    Your rule seems to me better than the rule of caution though. When I had broken bones in my foot and obviously was uncomfortable standing I was rarely offered a seat on my bus route.

    I wonder why we don’t just to ask though? I must admit I often didn’t, but probably should have. I guess it would be problematic if the person you’re asking for the seat also has reasons for not standing comfortably (which may not be visible). But then surely someone else would offer… surely…?

  11. I wonder why we don’t just to ask though? I must admit I often didn’t, but probably should have.

    There’s famous sociological literature on asking people for seats in the NY subway, done by Stanley Milgram (yes, that Milgram) and his students. A much later article about it is here:


    The results were, if I recall, that people who were asked almost always gave up their seat, though sometimes grudgingly, and that the students had to stop doing the experiment because it gave them nearly unbearable stress to ask the people. I suppose it might be easier if one had a visible reason, or could refer to one (I don’t think the students were supposed to claim any reason), but the norm structure was very, very, hard to overcome.

  12. Thanks for the interesting link Matt! It would be interesting to see whether people who had a more obvious need to sit down felt the same stress in asking for a seat. Some of the remarks (such as the mention of the person who felt better about asking if he could later reveal it was for an experiment) suggest that it is not simply asking that is stressful, but rather asking for no apparent (at the time or later) reason.

  13. Sometimes I wonder if I live in the same London as other people. When I was pregnant and traveled to work on the crowded Northern line, after I got quite large I was ALWAYS offered a seat as soon as I got onto the train, always by a young woman, never a man. I took this as a tacit kind of solidarity: they knew they might one day be in the same position and they were pretty sure that they would be grateful for a seat. In Hackney, where I lived, whenever I struggled onto buses with a pushchair, a baby, a toddler and shopping bags, someone of either gender would ALWAYS help me. I have many times seen someone offer a seat to someone who looked like they might need one and been politely declined with no apparent embarrassment on either side. Having I fallen through a space-time anomaly and am I living in a parallel Utopian London?

  14. Hilary – that’s more like my experience too. I’ve not been pregnant myself, but my friend who has been pregnant twice was ALWAYS offered a seat – often by a woman. And when I’ve looked after her munchkins, someone always helps me with the pushchair.

    Matt – I think you’re right that if one were to offer someone a seat just because they were overweight (and not obviously uncomfortable), they could be very embarrassed.

  15. Now I’m starting to get freaked out and wondering what it is about *me* that made people not want to help! Though I was in different cities from both of you. However, the very worst behaviour I encountered was from a Spaniard on a flight, who was seated in my seat, which was indicated on my ticket (and not on hers). Despite that, my very large pregnancy, and my cane, she refused to give up the seat.

  16. jender, it’s not you, it’s where you are. when i was pregnant in london (in hackney too. are you still there hilary? i pine for the spence bakery) i was offered seats. same: always by women. sometimes 40ish middle-class men who looked slightly disheveled (ie, had small babies at home).
    in general, i had a much nicer experience on public transit in london than i have had outside london. even the bus drivers were nicer. my theory is that it’s so crowded and hectic on london busses, that everyone feels a sense of camaraderie, like they would do if it were a war zone.

  17. btw totally off-topic but: it’s the same w traffic in london, i think. people are much nicer and more forgiving in london. they give way much more. and i suspect it’s the same reason as niceness on busses/tube.

  18. True story. Years ago when I was pregnant I had a class that gave me a really hard time in the most puerile ways, including putting notes mocking me on my desk. They ridiculed me and at the end of the semester, they trashed me on my evaluations. A couple of years later I met one of the students in a social setting and it came out that I’d been pregnant at the time. He was embarrassed and apologetic saying, “We didn’t know you were pregnant–we thought you were just built that way.”


  19. And there’s the significant courage of one’s everyday life. I’m so glad you had it, and so sorry you needed it.

    Perhaps the Christian brothers who ran my brother’s high school has it right: if they don’t like it, beat them up.

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