Dear UQ Sustainability:
I recently had the pleasant surprise of spotting the new sign you put up next to the elevator in the Michie Building, and possibly next to other elevators across campus. I think it is lovely that you are concerned with making UQ more sustainable and lowering its environmental footprint. However, I was very unimpressed with the way you’ve chosen to tackle this issue. Not only are these news signs annoyingly patronising to everyone reading them, but also ableist and fat-shaming.
Let’s start with the ableism. Implicit in the text on this sign is the idea that taking the elevator is a luxury, an indulgence rather than a necessity. And sure, if you’re able-bodied, then you can probably get by without an elevator, even if your office is on the 8th floor of the Michie Building. But what about people with physical disabilities, who use wheelchairs or walkers or canes or crutches to get around? What about people with chronic or invisible illnesses, whose ability to simply get through the day might be dependent on being able to use the elevator? For a large number of students and staff on campus, elevators are not a frivolity, but crucial for accessibility.
Of course, you are not saying that people with disabilities or illness should not take the elevator. But imagine being a person with a disability or chronic illness (or even just the flu) seeing this sign on their way to work or class every day. A constant guilt-trip for not helping to conserve electricity like other able-bodied people? A constant judgement on their bodies and their health? A constant reminder that disabled bodies can never be as morally good as non-disabled bodies? For people with invisible illnesses, another opportunity to be silently judged by others who don’t know the full picture?
Ableism doesn’t always come in the form of cluttering disabled toilets with cleaning supplies and failing to provide ramps. It comes in many forms, and is a matter of culture as well as infrastructure. On the surface, the message to take the stairs ‘for your health’ seems all well and good. But as Lesley, writing at XO Jane points out, these sorts of messages don’t operate in a vacuum: they are tied in with a whole lot of other messages which marginalise and stigmatise disability:
“Culturally, [these messages place] a heavy value on the ability to climb stairs in the first place, and marks this as both “normal” and the preferred state of things. It reinforces the idea that disabled bodies (or bodies that just aren’t in good enough shape to run up a few floors) are somehow broken, mismanaged or defective, and together with the plethora of other ableist crap we live with every day, this has a powerful and cumulative impact on their quality of life. In a world that sees good physical condition as a signifier of morality and good character, this is a problem.”
And to follow on from that, on the topic of taking the stairs ‘for your health’ – why is it necessary to turn sustainability into a means for fat shaming and body shaming? But I’m not sure the focus here is really on health. These signs emphasise ‘burning calories’ and ‘preventing weight gain’ over actual health outcomes, and in some cases may actually prove more harmful than helpful.
Although our society pervasively sees weight as the enemy of our health and our morality, simply peddling weight loss as a panacea for general wellbeing is misleading and harmful. For one thing, it refuses to acknowledge that being overweight does not preclude being fit and in good health, just as being thin does not mean you are automatically healthy. This point has been made by many fat activists and Health at Every Size supporters. Unfortunately, the emphasis on calories and weight only helps to reinforce damaging cultural ideas that equate fat with laziness, immorality, lack of self-control, ugliness and stupidity. It is fat shaming disguised as environmentalism.
And this sort of fat-shaming is not only damaging to fat people. The assumption that losing weight is automatically good and desirable ignores the fact that weight loss is not always healthy. Weight loss is often a negative side effect of long-term illness or other chronic health problems. There are people close to me who have at times struggled to put on the weight their bodies desperately need to function. And then there is the rapidly increasing number of people – especially young people, and especially women – who suffer from eating disorders brought on by our fat-shaming culture.
If you really want to encourage people to be more healthy in a way that is not fat-shaming, there are other ways of going about it that don’t contribute to fatphobia. Ableism aside, I wouldn’t have minded so much if the signs had said ‘give your heart a work-out today’ or ‘incorporate fitness into your daily routine.’ I still don’t think that health is an obligation people have to society, but at least those messages would actually focus on fitness rather than calories and weight loss.
As it stands, I’m not sure what you really want me to make of your new signs, UQ Sustainability. Yeah, I think it’s cool that you want to encourage people to be more conscious of their energy use. But not in a way that is ableist and fat-shaming. In fact, if you really want to make a difference in energy consumption on campus, why not try turning the temperature of the air-conditioning in the Michie building up a few degrees so we don’t all freeze in summer? I think you’ll find that to have a lot more impact on your energy bills – and you’ll even make some shivering postgrads happy in the process.