The fear of fat is fucking up my commute

Well, this is interesting. Seems like at least once a week during my morning commute, the MTA stops or delays a train due to a sick passenger. And they never do tell you what the deal is, or how long, or why they can’t just dump the person on a platform in the care of some nice transit officers and get on with the trip (what can I say? I’m heartless when I’m late to work).

I can’t recall ever knowing exactly the cause of a delay or what exactly was wrong with the “sick passengers” holding up my commute (well, except for that one time when some guy in my car was bleeding all over the floor from some kind of jobsite accident and other passengers got pissed off at him for getting on the train instead of getting help because he was ambulatory and they wanted to go home).

All this by way of saying, now I do know what the holdup is much of the time: fear of fat. Specifically, fainting dieters.

NEW YORK – Sick subway passengers, most of them dieters who faint from dizziness, are among the top causes of train delays, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

After track work and signal problems, ill passengers rated among the main reasons for subway disruptions between October 2005 and October 2006, according to an analysis of MTA statistics, AM New York reported Tuesday.

Asim Nelson, a transit emergency medical technician, told the paper that fainting dieters topped the “sick customer” list.

“Not eating for three or four days, you are going to go down,” Nelson said. “If you don’t eat for 12 hours, you are going to get weak.” . . .

Fainting spells caused by missed meals topped other “sick customer” causes, including flu symptoms, anxiety attacks, hangovers and heat exhaustion, according to Nelson.

Nelson is part of the MTA’s “sick Customer Response Program,” which consists of emergency medical technicians and registered nurses. When a rider becomes sick, the train conductor must stay with the passenger until emergency responders arrive.

Ironically, or perhaps not so much, the article is accompanied by an ad for Zone Diet chefs. At least they encourage eating frequently in small amounts so this kind of thing doesn’t happen.

27 comments for “The fear of fat is fucking up my commute

  1. Holly
    January 3, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    What?!?

    Maybe being punitive is the wrong response here but if your diet holds up hundreds and hundreds of other people on a commute, AND puts you in harm’s way, I kind of feel like there ought to be a fine for that. But maybe I’m just still sore from all the people who were like “oh we can’t eat there, I’d have to eat carbs, let’s eat at this more expensive restaurant with giant piles of meat” last year.

  2. January 3, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    I saw this on the AMNY yesterday. I was wondering how long it would take for it to show up here… ;)

    And I’m with Holly on the idea of a fine. (As opposed to a “fine idea,” which it also is!)

    Special K is only about 140 calories with skim milk, folks. That’ll get you to work without fainting and keep you in your size 2’s. I promise!

  3. Morgan
    January 3, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    as someone recovering from an eating disorder, i don’t think a fine would be an effective deterent-it would almost be a badge of honor (i’m so ana/mia that i fainted on the subway and the fatty powers that be gave me a ticket out of jealousy).

    i get so angry when i see this stuff—why have we let fat-fear get to this level without a cultural intervention?

  4. Holly
    January 3, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    Or maybe we should take a cue from the guys who used to sell BIGNews, the newspaper produced by and for homeless people, on the subway. I used to see them a lot more selling the paper and simultaneously offering fruit and sandwiches to anyone who was hungry.

    So zuzu could print out a week’s worth of Feministe posts and sell them during her commute, and say “buy this feminist ‘paper’ and help keep dieters from fainting during your commute! If you’re on a diet and you feel lightheaded, tell me right away and I’ll give you a Luna Bar!”

    I bet we could get at least some people to eat a Luna Bar. They look diet-ish but have a decent amount of calories and nutrients. And so trendy!

    Either that or a Snickers.

  5. Holly
    January 3, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    i get so angry when i see this stuff—why have we let fat-fear get to this level without a cultural intervention?

    Why, because we can always blame individuals as being anomalous weirdos who need to deal with their own problems, of course! Dieters fainting? They must be crazy extreme people. Fat people? Also crazy extreme examples of that horrible terrifying fat that threatens to engulf us all. Feminists? Crazy. People who write their opinions online? Crazy. Etc etc. There’s no problem with the culture, move along, nothing to see here, just some crazy individuals.

    I admit that my impulse to give people tickets kind of is an example of that kind of “individual problem” thinking too. But sometimes you just want to scream and shake people and say “oh my god, stop doing this to yourself — and everyone else.” Especially as someone who’s familiar with self-disgust over body shape and size, even if not to the level of a ED.

  6. piny
    January 3, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    as someone recovering from an eating disorder, i don’t think a fine would be an effective deterent-it would almost be a badge of honor (i’m so ana/mia that i fainted on the subway and the fatty powers that be gave me a ticket out of jealousy).

    Yeah, I’m skeptical. I mean, starvation, weakness, and fainting don’t serve as deterrents. Why would a measly citation work?

  7. zuzu
    January 3, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    500 angry commuters throwing you on the platform, though: that might work.

  8. Gabriel Malor
    January 3, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    The Tube has a fainting problem, too, but it’s more about the summer heat than anything else. They play non-stop reminders that passengers should keep bottled water with them at all times. Those that feel light-headed are advised not to move off the platform, but that doesn’t stop everyone.

  9. January 3, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    What.

    I can well believe that fainting happens fairly often; but that it’s caused mainly by dieting? and that that’s the main cause of holdups? i am skeptical.

  10. Frumious B
    January 3, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Although the agency doesn’t keep an official record of the nature of each rider’s illness

    In related news, MTA EMT’s frequently talk out their ass.

  11. Holly
    January 3, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    In even more related news, news sources are really good at sensationalizing. I mean, the AM New York story is headlined:

    Skinny girls to blame for late trains?

    And I guess that should tell us something. The basis of the story is that customer illness is the #3 cause of delays, after track work (which is a planned delay) and signal problems (which is because the MTA signal circuitry is a huge ancient mess that has been known to catch on fire). One EMT then said that dieting women who faint are the most common form of customer illness. The headlines make it sound like it’s the leading cause of delays, but it’s not really clear where it would rank or how many “fainting dieters” are among the 395 sick customers a month. I should read stories more carefully too, I totally swallowed it.

  12. Mnemosyne
    January 3, 2007 at 7:22 pm

    I can well believe that fainting happens fairly often; but that it’s caused mainly by dieting? and that that’s the main cause of holdups? i am skeptical.

    I’m with Holly and Belledame — I call bullshit on this story. It’s just a little too perfectly, “Look at the crazy wimmens and their non-work-compatible ways!”

  13. January 3, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    I’m sure the article is overstating the role of anorexia in the faints. I bet diabetes, hypoglycemia, and orthostatic hypotension cause at least as many dizzy spells as EDs, per se. (Starvation, dehydration, diuretics, vomiting, and other ED-linked conditions can cause low BP or exacerbate blood sugar problems, of course, so EDs may be a contributing factor in more cases than we might suspect.)

    I’ve been studying a lot of ana/mia websites and listservs again lately, in preparation for an article I’m hoping to pitch in the new year. I’ve noticed that fasting has become the hot weight loss trend in the pronana community. I’ve followed online ED discussions for several years and I’ve never seen such an emphasis on periodic fasts. People make pacts online to fast for days, and sometimes for over a week.

    If subway faints are actually becoming more common, it wouldn’t surprise me if this fasting trend had at least something to do with it.

  14. Sally
    January 3, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    I’m calling major bullshit. When I was anorexic, I blacked out on a regular basis, but I don’t remember ever actually *fainting*, in a way that would make anyone think I required medical intervention. It was more that I needed to sit down or lean against something and then get back up slowly. I think on a crowded train, I could probably have hung onto the pole for dear life and not fallen down. I guess maybe if you black out all the time, you get used to it and know how to deal without alerting the sick passenger patrol, but I just have a hard time believing that dieters are going down with that kind of frequency. (I do think that if you’re blacking out, it’s a pretty good indication that you need to rethink your diet.)

    A fine strikes me as silly. How on earth would you know whether someone was fainting from hunger or from something else? Or if they did faint from hunger, whether it was because they were dieting or didn’t have time or money for lunch?

  15. PhoenixRising
    January 3, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Lindsay, I know this is the point of the article, but if I promise to buy a newsstand copy of the publication that buys it from you: WTF is ‘the pronana community’?

    I’m sensing that it’s not folks like myself who are in favor of their MILs offering more babysitting. Though my particular MIL is not a reliable nana, due in part to her 45 year old habit of dropping a few pounds by ‘forgetting’ to eat until she faints. My 7 year old fetches her nana a snack anytime she appears to be getting loopy, so we’re passing on the dysfunction.

  16. anonycat
    January 3, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    PhoenixRising: I think Lindsay meant pro-ana, not pro-nana. There are websites devoted to promoting anorexia — people with eating disorders will swap tips on losing weight, make pacts of the sort she mentioned, etc.

  17. EoL
    January 3, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    I’m going to also chime in and say that it’s not necessarily not eating. As someone who is naturally somewhere in the 80/50-90/60 range, I get so dizzy and feel incredibly faint when I have to stand still for long periods (like, 20 minutes). And trains are a place where sometimes you have to do that. I once actually fainted in line at a store … though I’ve managed to not faint anywhere else. If I feel woozy, cleanliness be damned, I sit on the floor.

    Sure, some people are probably hungry, but I’d wager that’s not even HALF of the problem. Hypoglycemia, low blood pressure, and so on are probably more of an issue. And to fine people for having medical conditions (because, of course, how would you tell)? As if it’s not hard enough to deal with your medical problems in the modern world …

  18. January 3, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    You know, I was wondering the other day about these train stoppages as they do seem a lot more frequent these days. And when I read that article it clicked!

    I actually do believe this story…if you add not eating to a hangover (a life style which often goes hand in hand in this city) then you can pass out pretty easily. And there are a lot of skin and bones women in this city. Anyway, I doubt the women are notifying the conductors; that would be something another passenger would do. They don’t have to fall over in a dead faint to catch people’s attention on a crowded train, they just have to get all woozy and start slipping…

    Reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago ( the last really cold winter we had here). I kept noticing all these young women wearing very “light” coats, and when they took them off in resturants etc. only wearing a skimpy camisole or bare mid-drift baring tank top thingy, and I was saying to my friend, how the hell do they do it, they must be freezing! (I can handle cold pretty well, but I at least wear long sleeves under my coat when I am walking around frigid windy NYC streets) And she said they are doing it to loose weight, and I’m like huh? Yeah, she said, apparently shivering burns calories… And no, I am not making this up, but it did make more sense than any other explanation I ever heard for it.

  19. January 3, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Asim Nelson, a transit emergency medical technician, told the paper that fainting dieters topped the “sick customer” list.

    “Not eating for three or four days, you are going to go down,” Nelson said. “If you don’t eat for 12 hours, you are going to get weak.” . . .

    I think it’s interesting that not eating for three or four days is considered “dieting.”

  20. cellar door
    January 4, 2007 at 1:08 am

    When I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, I worked in the Early College program, where we had high school students come in for short summer courses, 2-3 weeks. Part of my job was to carry a notebook around with me 24 hours a day, containing all of the current students medical data – because I was on call to accompany students to Northwestern ER if they had a health problem.

    I spent so much time in the ER with high school girls who had passed out from not eating, and trying to subsist on coffee and cigarettes that by the end of the summer, the ER admission staff knew me by first name. Maybe these girls were just acting the way they thought art-school girls are supposed to act (insert eye roll here), but I’m inclined to believe this story.

    Also, once in the midst of a massive personal crisis, I forgot to eat for a day or so and ran up the stairs to the El platform to catch my train. When I got to the top, I didn’t pass out, but I got very dizzy and my vision went grey; I couldn’t see anything at all. I had to sit down where I was to avoid the risk of falling onto the tracks. That was a reminder that calories are my friend. :)

  21. January 4, 2007 at 1:43 am

    Yes, I meant proana/pro-ana (not pronana). Heh.

    Pro-ana is a largely web-based subculture that embraces anorexia as a lifestyle choice. Some pro-anas are also pro-mia (pro-bulimia), and vice versa. You see a lot of these pro-ED websites on MySpace and Xanga dedicated to discussions of weight-loss tips, photographs of emaciated models and celebs (billed as “thinspiration” or “thinspo”). The sites are always bouncing around and reinventing new codewords and alternate spellings to stay one step ahead of their web hosts who constantly try to shut down their sites.

    It’s a fascinating subculture because a lot of the members embrace profoundly contradictory beliefs about the nature of their condition. On the one hand, many are in treatment and describe themselves as having a disease that they wouldn’t wish on anyone else (some even refuse to teach aspiring anas the tricks of the trade because they think it’s wrong to enable EDs in others), but these same people insist in the same post or listserv email that they choose this path and whole-heartedly embrace their lifestyle.

    I think most anorexic fainting is the low-BP type where the person wakes up as soon as they fall down and the blood returns to the brain. Some really far-gone anorexics and bulimics have seizures, but that’s relatively rare.

    If someone keels over on a train, there’s a pretty good chance bystanders will summon help, even if the person revives quickly. So, that might be enough to stop trains.

  22. Bolo
    January 4, 2007 at 3:16 am

    This is one of those things that I’m immediately skeptical about because I have no first-hand experience with it (namely, public commuting and extreme dieting habits found among some people in big cities) and it sounds ridiculous to me. But, the comments here do seem supportive of it to a degree.

    I’ll buy it, I suppose. But it still sounds weird. :)

  23. thegirlfrommarz
    January 4, 2007 at 5:30 am

    No, sorry, I don’t buy this. Of course, I’m in England, so maybe things are different in New York. I can believe that there are some incidents caused be people not eating and fainting, but I really doubt that it’s dieters taking it to extremes rather than people who are hypoglyemic or have missed meals due to stress or depression. I notice that the actual cause is identified as “fainting spells caused by missed meals”, which could cover a multitude of things (not least the explanation that might seem least embarrassing for the person who fainted to tell the EMT).

    What burns me up about this is the fact that it’s a filler item, a human interest story. If people are seriously now so fucked up about food that they are missing meals and fainting often enough to cause a major problem on public transport, then surely that’s a scary sign of how messed up everyone is about food and body image? Which is why Holly’s so right when she says the urge is to see it as an “individual problem”.

  24. Frumious B
    January 4, 2007 at 10:10 am

    This bears repeating AGAIN:

    Although the agency doesn’t keep an official record of the nature of each rider’s illness

    Anecdotes and personal experience are not a substitute for data. The commenters on this thread are engaging in the very same confirmation bias that the aforementioned, ass-talking EMT did.

  25. thegirlfrommarz
    January 4, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I agree that there’s a lack of hard data, hence my point:

    I notice that the actual cause is identified as “fainting spells caused by missed meals”, which could cover a multitude of things.

    They obviously do keep some statistical data, otherwise they couldn’t have analysed it to show customer illness as one of the causes of delays. I recommend badscience.net for general shredding of this sort of stuff – very entertaining, if you are grumpy about the ridiculous stuff that clogs up the papers these days.

  26. prairielily
    January 5, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    It says they keep statistical data on customer illness, but not specifically what the illness was, which means that the anecdote stands in for real stats. But yes, the article completely overstates the problem. It sounds like skinny women are fainting left and right and that the system would work flawlessly if everyone had to buy (and eat) a bagel with their subway ticket.

    I do think it’s possible, though; I get dizzy when I skip meals.

    However, I only FAINT if I’m in a crowded place where I’m having trouble breathing. Whenever that’s happened, someone always asks if I’ve eaten, and I can tell that people don’t believe me when I say that I have. Now, I’m pretty small, but I have some curves and don’t look as breakable as a lot of women out there. I’m sure it’s worse for very thin women.

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