I refuse to take on the additional guilt of not having gotten into Harry Potter until I was 35. But I'll admit that despite the annoying J.K. Rowling vs Native People scandal (that I doubt you heard anything about, but I followed because I'm Native), I got deeply sucked in last year. It was the depression and disgust surrounding Donald Trump's election that sent me into a YA fantasy endurance run where I went so far as to purchase an armchair for my round-the-clock bedroom reading. By "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", I was logging onto Pottermore to determine my Hogwarts house (Ravenclaw) and my patronus (a Scops owl), comparing the novels to the movies, and then sobbing when Dumbledore ... well ... no spoilers.
So it should be no surprise that when three friends and I went to Universal Studios just outside Los Angeles last month, I demanded that our first experience be The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an interactive area of the park designed for the fan who wants a taste of the wizarding life. As it was my first time at Universal Studios, I couldn't have possibly been more tickled to drink butterbeer and visit all of the Hogsmeade shops. I even purchased a $50 [~R620] wand that I used on all of the goofy little spell spots around the delightful town square. I was a child again, grinning ear to ear the entire time, posting massive numbers of Instagram stories so that all of my friends knew I was finally livin' that Harry Potter LYFE!
But then I received the most dreadful, helpful message from a friend who saw that I was traipsing around Hogsmeade.
My dear friend Ruha ― who has been a guest on my "Woman of Size" podcast about the discrimination against fat women's bodies ― wrote: "Heads up. I was kicked off the Hogwarts ride because I didn't fit. It was humiliating but they gave me front of the line passes to the rest of the rides at Universal. Just be aware."
Woof. I'd been investigating size-based discrimination for several months, interviewing and publishing conversations with women in my life who have experienced body shame, injustice and inequity around their size, gender, race and presence. Clearly, our world would prefer that women who look like the Fat Lady painting that guards Gryffindor Tower just ... disappear. "Evanesco," the spell in Harry Potter that causes an object, animate or inanimate, to vanish into non-being, is not just fictional sorcery to women of size. It's a very real experience that we often shoulder so that sizeist-ass muggles can sleep comfortably at night knowing they'll never catch the fat we've been told we're spreading.
But like the Fat Lady, I am big and loud and demanding, and I absolutely refuse to vanish.
So I did what any new Hogwarts student would do after being warned that she might be excluded: I bounded into the line with my friends and we were soon dazzled by the intricate details of the Hogwarts School of Wizardry. Disappearing projections of Harry, Ron and Hermione! The pensieve inside Dumbledore's chambers! It was so exciting that I found myself chuckling and prancing like an adolescent girl going to her first dance. When we reached the front of the line, we were perfectly placed on the ride, four across and seats locked down. I glanced at my friends and we all cackled, "We made it! I got on! I'm not too ― "
:: Record scratch ::
One of the 20-something ride managers walked over and asked us all to step off because of a "safety" issue. We were ushered through a door to what looked like a backstage area where another 20-something employee rattled off a spiel about "safety" and "three clicks" and having to "try out a safety seat." That's when we all knew that I hadn't actually made it onto the Hogwarts ride.
The four of us were taken to the beginning of the line where another 20-something informed us that for safety reasons, the restraint covering a rider's chest must click down three times. She asked us to try out the test seat and my friends all looked over at me because I was obviously the fat one who caused our current predicament.
I took the bullet and pulled the restraint over my shoulders, pressing down as tightly as I could, my precious E-cups getting smashed into my chest and up around my neck. One click. That's all I could manage. So I got out of the test seat and negotiated with my dear friends, who in solidarity were about to walk away with me. I demanded that they go on the ride and I waited for them at the end, watching several other people, bigger than me or with breasts as large as mine or with children in tow, walking away from Hogwarts dejected.
As disappointed as I was, the experience didn't entirely ruin my day. But I wonder how I would have reacted had I not already built up a small community of women in comedy dealing with similar body discrimination. Ruha did me a great service by warning me, but if I hadn't been producing my podcast and discussing these issues weekly and meeting like-minded people, rejection from the Hogwarts ride because of my size would still have been a humiliating shock.
When I walked outside with my friends, I exclaimed, "Hogwarts would never condone this!" But upon further investigation, the books and movies have only a few big characters and most of them are antagonistic. The Fat Lady painting is obnoxious and bossy. The Dursleys are lazy and entitled. Crab and Goyle are both fat dunces who follow the orders of the lithe, vampire-looking Draco Malfoy. So I think I'm wrong! Hogwarts absolutely condones this and so does the general public.
Exclusion is a powerful weapon. I have support on all sides telling me that my investigations into size-based discrimination are helpful and important, and my community of people combating this issue is steadfast and intelligent. Despite all that, I couldn't quite shake the feeling that I wished I were small enough to take the Hogwarts ride. That's the impact of exclusion: it makes a person internalise an entire system of institutional hatred.
At Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, the locking mechanisms on the Hogwarts ride were adjusted in 2010 to safely accommodate bigger bodies, but not before this man was "inspired" to lose weight so he could be allowed on board. That's wrong. Exclusion and shame are not motivational techniques; they're forms of bullying. Exclusion makes me, a logical and educated person, believe that I'm at fault for not fitting into this ride instead of recognising that rides should accommodate all people's bodies. Apply this thinking to race or gender discrimination or disabled accessibility, and you have yourself the hot stew we're in today.
While 'safety' is often the given reason that fat people are excluded, it's clear to us that companies are actually just keeping the general public safe from our fatness.
We must be more intelligent and inclusive about the way we're designing spaces and experiences for people. My ordeal at Hogwarts was so slight compared to the kind of exclusion that others experience, but it's not the first time a place has been built that doesn't accommodate my body. While "safety" is often the given reason that fat people are excluded, it's clear to us that companies are actually just keeping the general public safe from our fatness. In this case, rather than turning people away daily from an incredible Hogwarts moment, Universal Studios could have simply designed and built a ride from the start that welcomed a diverse range of body sizes, especially as more and more Americans identify as fat or plus size.
Because Harry Potter is fantastical ― beyond reality ― the park experience should also transcend the fat-shaming that we encounter every time we leave our homes. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter needs to open its doors to all kinds of people with all kinds of bodies who experience life in all kinds of ways and who would be so delighted to be invited into its magical realm. Right now, it's just a little too realistic.
Jana Schmieding is a comedic writer, performer and educator in Los Angeles. She is the creator of the weekly podcast and accompanying live show, "Woman of Size," where brilliant women discuss their bodies. For more info, visit her official website here.