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Big Bias

by on January 03, 2017 5:00 AM

Last week I was reading an online Penn State Athletic Department post that included photos of the football team boarding the plane to Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl. It showed several of the players looking rather comfortable in very nice seats with video screens and full-reclining capability. It appeared they were traveling in first class. On a 747 double-decker jumbo jet!

To which I say, “Bravo, well done Penn State!”

As someone who stands 6-foot-4, weighs 230 pounds, spent a few years of his work life traveling on planes weekly and now avoids them whenever possible, the joy I felt when I saw those young men – many of whom make me look tiny – sitting in seats that were large enough to contain their bodies, well, it made an old guy smile.

As we larger people know, society has a bit of a bias against big folks. And it’s my new year resolution to do my part in pointing this out.

Let’s start by looking at those airline seats. Most sources report the average width of a current coach-class domestic airline seat is between 16.5 and 17 inches. The average seat pitch, which is defined as the distance from one row of seats to the next and gives a rough measure of leg room, is about 31 inches today.

The federal government’s National Center for Health Statistics gives the following median measurements (50th percentile) for people in this country aged 20 and older. Women are 5-foot-4l with 37-inch waists and upper leg lengths of 14.5 inches. Men are 5-foot-10 tall with 40 inch waists and upper leg lengths of 16 inches. If we go all the way up to the 75th percentile those numbers change just slightly: Women are 5-foot-6 with 41-inch waists and upper leg lengths of 15 inches. Men are 5-foot-11 tall with 43-inch waists and upper leg lengths of 17 inches.

That means an airline seat that is 17 inches wide and has 29 inches of legroom (subtract two inches from the seat pitch for the thickness of the seat) will suit three-quarters of adults in this country – they physically fit well within those dimensions. And half the people will have several inches of excess space.

Contrast that to us big folks out here.

When I am seated, the width at my hips is 19 inches, at my shoulders it is 21 inches, and the distance from the small of my back to the front of my knees is 29 inches, meaning in a standard coach seat part of my body flows over into the seat(s) beside me, and my legs just exactly fit into the space allotted.  And I’m not obese (at least according to the BMI – more on that in a bit).

The average first/business class seat on a domestic airline is 21 inches wide, has a seat pitch of 37 inches, and also has a few extra inches of divider between the seats. So it just fits my width and gives me a few inches in front of my knees. In other words, the “space” experience that 75 percent of the women and 50 percent of the men in this country get by flying coach, I only get when flying in business/first class.

Humanely, over the last few years airlines have started allowing us big folks to buy the coach seat next to us in advance if we don’t want to pay first/business class fares. In the old days you weren’t allowed to do this at all, or only when the airline required it at the gate (for really big folks). Although almost all airlines who do allow it now require you to call them directly to book your flight – Southwest is the only one I know with the ability to book the extra seat online.

And airline seats are just one of the many biases we big folks encounter.

When you go to sleep every night, it sure is nice to have your whole body fit on the mattress, right? At 6-foot-4, when I lay flat and point my toes, I cover 82 inches of space. But the longest regular mattresses available out there – king, queen, extra-long twin – are only 80 inches long, meaning I have to sleep on my side, with my hips and knees bent, if I want the small creature comfort of not hanging over the edge of the bed. And yes, I could sleep diagonally on the bed, and did in my youth, but my wife would now quickly veto that option.

How about being able to go to any store you want to buy clothes? Convenient isn’t it? When was the last time you saw pants with 38 inch inseams, or shirts with 36 inch sleeves, or socks larger than a size 12? You probably weren’t looking but I assure you the selection is drastically reduced if it’s even available.

You would think the athletic apparel manufacturers, who clearly have to make clothes to fit the multitude of tall athletes would at least sell these same taller clothes on their websites, but no.

Why, this big folk bias starts even in childhood. Until recently many seat belt laws around the country were completely age-based with no concern for the actual size of the child. Pennsylvania’s law still requires children up to age 8 to be restrained in an appropriate booster seat regardless of their height. So if you have a seven-year-old who is as tall as their grandmother they must by law sit in a booster seat that causes the seat belt to restrain them improperly and potentially harmfully. I corresponded once with a child-safety organization about this and was told a flawed law is better than no law. That may be so as long as it’s not your kid who is in harm’s way. Bias.

Even in everyday social situations people make comments to big folks such as, “Boy you’re tall”, “How’s the weather up there?”, or “Do/Did you play basketball/football/volleyball?” Comments that, if turned around, would be considered gauche if not downright offensive.

But my favorite big folk bias is the Body Mass Index (BMI). This is at the top of many people’s lists right now as they make their new year resolutions to lose weight and shape up.

BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. According to the BMI, you are of “normal weight” if your BMI score is between 18.5 and 24.9. You are overweight if your score is between 25–29.9, and you are obese if your score is above 30.

For people in this country aged 20 and older the median BMI score for women is 27 and for men it’s 28, which means a majority of people in the U.S. are classified as overweight. Not necessarily surprising information.

BMI is calculated by taking a person's weight in kilograms and dividing by the square of their height in meters. Taking the square of the height has the effect of incorporating two dimensions into the equation, but people exist in three dimensions, not two. And this is where the BMI chart shows its big folk bias. As people grow taller, they generally grow wider AND deeper as well.

Think of it this way. Say you are 5-foot-4 with a borderline-overweight BMI score of 25. That means you weigh 145 pounds. According to the BMI chart, for each additional inch you grow you can increase your weight by five pounds and keep your BMI around 25. So at 6-foot-4 you can weigh 205 pounds. Except for every inch taller you grew a bit wider AND a bit deeper. So the increase in pounds for every inch you grow should not be equal, but each successive inch should create a corresponding increase in the amount you gain. Meaning at 6-foot-4 the borderline-overweight BMI score of 25 should correspond with a weight closer to 225, not 205.

Or we can conversely say that if we agree 205 pounds is the proper borderline-overweight score for anyone 6-foot-4, then the borderline-overweight score for someone 5-foot-4 would be around 125 pounds.

To be clear, the folks who created and tout the BMI openly state that BMI can be used as a screening tool but is NOT diagnostic of the body fatness or health of an individual. However, given the amount of attention foisted on it, BMI ends up being another in the long line of biases we big folks encounter regularly.

And hopefully as you read this those big folks on the Penn State football team will soon be happily boarding that 747 jumbo-jet for a return flight home in seats made for guys just like them.



John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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