Flying the Fat Skies

Dearest fellow travelers, let’s get uncomfortable. Not oops-I-mispronounced-your-name uncomfortable or we’re-both-trying-to-go-the-same-direction-from-opposite-directions-and-keep-walking-into-each-other uncomfortable. No, I’m talking about roll-your-eyes, let-out-a-long-sigh, grumble-loudly-about-the-inconsideration-of-SOME-PEOPLE uncomfortable.

I refer, naturally, to the discomfort a thin person feels when seated next to a fat person on an airplane. The encroachment of sweaty, flabby, smelly flesh on your space, which you paid a damned good portion of your paycheck for, thankyouverymuch.

Oh wait. No, I’m not. Your discomfort sure is too bad, but it is by no means the only discomfort experienced in that situation. As the sweaty, flabby, smelly lump of flesh oozing into your seat, I can promise that you are not the only uncomfortable one here.

When I’m in an airplane seat, I am squeezed in on all sides — by the small seats that barely contain people with bikini-model bodies, let alone anyone else; by the low overhead compartment that I invariably bump into when standing up/sitting down as I try to fold up my tall 5’10” frame to fit; by the fully extended seat in front of me bruising my knees with every readjustment; and by the endless succession of passengers lurching down the aisle into my head on their way to the can and flight attendants rattling drink carts into my elbow. These are all complaints that everyone who has ever boarded an airplane has voiced (except for maybe the tall stuff — that just adds to it).

Now add to that the claustrophobia of total disapproval and condemnation. The resentful glances every time you shift in your seat, the looks of contempt every time you dare put food in your mouth, the pinched face of the flight attendant as she holds out a seatbelt extender at arm’s length. In daily life, but especially in the cramped confines of an airplane, I’m crowded in by people’s disapproval of my own body and the way I inhabit that body. Not only am I a walking moral failure, too weak to resist overeating, but other people have to see that, and that’s just offensive. On top of which, people seem to think that if they get too close, if they physically touch me, they’ll catch my fat. It sure isn’t my job to disabuse people of these totally false notions, and I’m quite content with the body I have and the way I live in it, but that isn’t a comfort when I’m hemmed in by judgment and I just want to get to my destination in peace.

Of course, not everyone is so unpleasant. A couple years ago, I sat next to a petite college-aged woman who was able to curl up in her seat and rest her head against the window. She was fine with me moving the arm rest up, and didn’t glance over with disgust when I ate the unappetizing meal of limp chicken and rice. She didn’t care what I did, so long as she could sleep for the eight-hour flight. Last year, a flight attendant held out a seatbelt extender to me with an apologetic look and said, “Oh these are old PanAm planes, and their belts are shorter.” Condescending, sure, but sweet. The remarkable thing about these women — and I shouldn’t have to remark on it at all — is that they simply treated me as another human being. I got no special treatment, just the simple courtesy you afford others when you’re all packed in like sardines and eager for a smooth journey. I don’t see why that should be so hard for people to do.

I’m going on a plane on Wednesday, and I’m not looking forward to it. I’m flying United, which last year joined Southwest as one of the major airlines that is very public about its anti-fat people policy. They received a whole 700 complaints from people who felt infringed upon by their fat neighbors (I’m guessing their fat neighbors number far more than 700). I gotta say, I feel pretty infringed upon by this policy, which states that if a flight attendant finds a passenger too large (unable to put the arm rests down “comfortably”), that passenger will be asked to buy another seat, buy a seat in first class, or if those aren’t options, get off the damn plane they’re already on and wait for another flight that has one of those options available. This policy has been covered in a lot of fat acceptance blogs, but I’ll just add to the chorus of “oh no you didn’t”; everyone is uncomfortable on a plane, nobody can afford two seats, and making the decision up to the whim of a harried flight attendant is icing on this particularly tasteless cake. Not to mention, as that Shapely Prose post details, it’s all one-sided; if those 700 people who wrote United are so upset about their comfort level, how about THEY buy the extra seat or first class ticket?

In anticipation of my impending flight, I bought a seat extender in the hopes that I could avoid the nasty looks of other passengers and the very real possibility of a humiliating encounter with a flight attendant who finds my substantial hips to be a “safety issue.” (I promise you, if the plane crashes, I will be moving off it plenty fast enough.) I spent $55 on this precaution, and then asked my friend T. to embroider my name on the extender so TSA agents and flight attendants won’t accuse me of stealing theirs. Isn’t it pretty?

my embroidered seatbelt extender -- thanks, T!

But for all that, it might not work. I might be delayed by more than a day as I wait for a flight that has two free spots, I might drain my checking account to pay for those two spots, I might miss my cousin’s confirmation (which is the main purpose of my visit to England), or any number of things could go wrong. I shelled out an extra $55 just in case my body might cause someone else to freak out, because their freak-out could very easily turn into my punishment in the form of humiliation, inconvenience, and a huge outlay of even more money. Flying is a stressful enough activity without adding these worries, and I shouldn’t have to consider them when booking a flight.

I think it’s clear to anyone reading this blog that travel means a great deal to me. It’s a freeing feeling to soar above the clouds in a giant metal bird, but lately I’ve been feeling more and more constricted by airline rules, passenger comments, and the attendant anxiety, to the point that I hesitate before booking a flight, and I find that terribly sad. I strongly encourage you to read Kate Harding’s piece in Broadsheet last week about the Kevin Smith/Southwest debacle, and bring a Kleenex, because she gets personal and very moving. She gets to the heart of why these airline policies are wrong, and why people who argue in favor of them are heartless.

For those who think the policies are reasonable and fat people need to pay for the sin of inhabiting their own bodies, just remember that however uncomfortable you may be with that mound of flesh next to you oozing into your seat, that mound of flesh is working every day to maintain a sense of dignity in a world that reduces her to just such a characterization. I am constantly re-humanizing myself in a society that doggedly works to forget how human I am, and I promise it doesn’t get much more uncomfortable than that.