When self-professed “musical nerd” Hannah Jayne scored tickets to see & Juliet, an alternative take on Shakespeare’s tragic love story set to Britney Spears, she was excited, to say the least. That is, until she spent three terribly uncomfortable hours wedged into a seat that was too small for her body.
When the 34-year-old copywriter arrived at Shaftesbury Theatre in London, she tried to switch seats before the performance began, but had no joy. “I frantically looked around the sold out show hoping to find two seats that were free so I could get some extra space,” she says, “But even this requires you to explain [your weight] something so personal to an usher – usually a 20-year-old on their first job – hoping they understand and let you move.” While leaving, Jayne, who is a UK size 22 (U.S. size 18), had deep red welts along the sides of her waist and thighs from the seat; the pain was so jarring that it was hard to focus on the musical.
This experience is more common than some would imagine. There are numerous Reddit threads on r/PlusSize about the humiliation of arriving at the theatre and realising you can’t fit into the seat you paid good money for. Even on Twitter, people have predicted the “death of theatre” owing to inaccessible seats while others vent about forgoing a hobby they love because it doesn’t make space for their bodies. Users also discuss the anxiety of squishing into tiny chairs on public chat forums like Theatre Board and SeatPlan.
Many fat folk address this issue by sharing information on AllGo, a U.S.-based app that reviews public spaces for larger bodies or even on social media groups like Fat Girls Travelling. From which row and section to sit in to which theatre staff is accommodating, people try to add as much detail as they can from their own experience, hoping to make it easier on the next person. Often this means fat visitors have to extend their budgets to pay for premium seats in the box or dress circle.
“I stopped going for gigs because it was hurtful to watch the person next to me squirm and tut when my body spilled into their seat.”
But is it fair for this responsibility to fall on visitors? “I have a difficult relationship with my body, often there are long periods of self-loathing and even harm. I stopped going for gigs because it was hurtful to watch the person next to me squirm and tut when my body spilled into their seat,” explains Damon*, a 27-year-old from London. For him, the act of approaching ground staff for wider seats is so taxing that he would rather watch his favourite artists perform on YouTube. Yes, in an ideal world we should have the courage to stand up for ourselves at all times but that’s far from reality.
Charlotte Weber, a body image focused psychotherapist, emphasises that it is unfair to insist on self-confidence as a solution. “It can feel burdensome to ask for more space,” she says, adding that validating a feeling is often more important than forcing someone to inflict change. Undoubtedly, venues have been faced with this question on multiple occasions but there is little they have done to introduce institutional shifts. As they make space (although limited) for wheelchair-users and sense-impaired visitors, fat accessibility should also be seen as an issue of exclusion.
Sofie Hagen, a fat comedian, is using her platform as a performer to hold theatres responsible. Ahead of her 2022 UK tour, she added a clause to her contract: every venue she performs at, must amend their online accessibility information to include their seat measurements. “In my current show, I talk a lot about being too fat for chairs and it felt strange that the audience would be uncomfortable while watching this,” she says. “But if I limited myself to theatres that can accommodate fat people, the tour would be really short. So this is the bare minimum — people can make a conscious decision knowing the width, depth and height of the seats beforehand.”
Over 25 venues across the UK have permanently added seat accessibility on their websites along with contacts to allow requests for alternative seating. This first step forces theatres to publicly acknowledge that their regular seats may not fit fat bodies – it’s the online equivalent of having boards that say “no fat people allowed”. The move also encourages venues to devise a plan that makes space without forcing plus-size folk to pay more by buying multiple seats. For instance, the Old Fire Station theatre in Oxford, UK, now offers to place three seats without armrests next to one another to make space for a fat visitor.
Additionally, Ben Jackson, the founder of SeatPlan revealed that the company is considering a new section titled “Body Type” on the website. Here, users could further filter their reviews to find the best seats for their bodies. Katie Greenall is a theatre maker and facilitator who creates autobiographical shows on life in a fat body. She also addresses this inaccessibility by reducing the number of seats or hiring wider ones at the different venues she performs in. While all these changes suggest real financial implications for theatres, they also invite more people (and revenue) in the long term.
According to Statista, the plus-size market in the UK is projected to be £9 billion while in the U.S. it is estimated at $601 billion, as of 2022. These figures indicate that there is a sizeable population of fat people who are willing to spend money if they are given the opportunity. But outside individual and external effort, there is a serious lack of initiative from venues themselves. “I understand a lot of these theatres hold historic significance but they were also made when the average UK body was much smaller. If they update a few seats in every price point, I’m sure they will sell out,” says Amanda McCullough, the managing editor of Fat Girls Guide.
Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) is the largest theatre conglomerate in the country and has “access champions” appointed at every venue to help with inclusion. I tried to contact 10 of their theatres across the country, and despite the effort, the seat sizes available are still shrouded in mystery. While some like Lyceum and Savoy in London put me on automated hold, others like Theatre Royal Brighton did not respond to emails at all. Outside of ATG, I was in conversation with the press team at the Young Vic for comments, only to be ghosted on specifying fat accessibility.
So often, plus-sized folk are dismissed and asked to lose weight, making it a lifestyle issue instead of an inclusion one that needs to be viewed institutionally.
Similarly, the O2 communications team declined to comment on their seats being too small – a problem that I experienced as a UK size 14 (U.S. size 10) as well. To put things in context, the average dress size in the country is UK 16 (U.S. 12). When it’s this difficult to get some of the country’s best known venues to share minimal information, it’s no surprise that fat folk feel marginalised despite being paying customers.
Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S. put out a survey to understand if people prefer having minimum seat dimensions for flights operating within the country. It’s high time the entertainment industry does the same and addresses the inaccessibility that it breeds. Rebecca Alexander, the founder of AllGo explains, “For things to change, we need advocacy from people of all sizes, not just fat folk. Only then venues will understand the gravity of the problem at hand.”
Along with collective action, it’s also essential to change the way we look at fat bodies and to validate their access needs. So often, plus-sized folk are dismissed and asked to lose weight, making it a lifestyle issue instead of an inclusion one that needs to be viewed institutionally. Being fat should be seen as a protected characteristic and not as something to be shamed for. Until this changes, there will always be groups who are forced to watch recorded performances or read plot summaries online, instead of experiencing them live in seats that can accommodate their bodies.