Flying While Fat – American Airlines, 5/23/16

[Content Note: fat-shaming, anxiety]

This past weekend, I flew down to San Antonio, Texas, to attend the wedding of a friend. This friend was one of my fellow graduate teaching assistants the past two years, and I also get along really well with her now-husband, so I was really happy to be able to be there for them on their special day.

Flying is a very nerve-wracking experience for me. I try to avoid it if at all possible, not because I have any real fear of the act itself (on the contrary, I find planes fascinating and enjoy the feeling of weightlessness during take-off), but because I’m a fat woman who’s also 6′ tall.

Planes are not designed for me. In fact, the people who make planes basically refuse to believe I exist, or at least that I’m a person they want as a customer. This ranges from the extreme fat-shaming of Southwest Airlines (which will force you to pay for a second seat if you don’t fit into one) to the limited accommodation of JetBlue (which, despite having seats a few inches wider than most, still flies to and from only a few places, very few of them places I ever go). It doesn’t help that the majority of my weight is carried in my middle, with a pronounced belly and a very large butt, making it very difficult for me to sit in “normal-sized” chairs if they have arms, and requiring me to use a seat belt extender on every plane I go on. The seat belt extender is important, because it also prevents me from sitting in Exit Row seats, which most people know as the Tall People Preferred seats. However, according to most airlines, being fat is a disability. You see, people who are disabled aren’t allowed to sit in Exit Row seats, because anyone who sits in them has to be capable of opening the emergency door and inflating the slide, both of which require a certain amount of physical strength. But people who require seat belt extenders are automatically banned from Exit Row seats, because we obviously wouldn’t have the physical strength to open the door. Does anyone else smell something fishy here? I mean, it’s also true that children aren’t allowed in Exit Row seats (something that was also a problem for me as a kid, because at 12 I was already 5’8” and thus uncomfortable in normal coach seats), but I’ve seen short and skinny (read: not muscular) women sit in them with nary a peep from the flight attendants, perhaps because there’s almost always a big tall man in the row who could open the door for her. Do they think that my fatness will cause me to block the door like an over-inflated balloon when the regular people go to try and open it? I don’t fucking know, but it’s frustrating as hell.

When I have flown overseas, I’ve always borrowed money from family so I can buy a business-class ticket. This has nothing to do with being hoity-toity and everything to do with knowing that my sanity limit for sitting in a coach seat is a few hours at best. On a flight that lasts 8 hours, I need to be able to move. Even business-class seats hardly fit me, and I still need a seat belt extender, but I’m not crammed in like a sardine, and I especially am not seated next to a person who might glare at me because I edge into their space, even with the arm down. Since I’ve been overseas a grand total of three times (three round-trip tickets), and my family isn’t poor, this was a sustainable practice. But it’s not something I can do regularly, so when I booked my flights to Texas, I bought a coach seat through American Airlines.

I was really lucky on Friday with my two flights. The first one I was able to pull up the arm on the aisle side (I paid extra to reserve aisle seats on all four flights), and none of the flight attendants noticed or commented on it. On the second and longer flight, there was no one in the middle seat in my row, so I was able to spread my legs and pull up the arm to sit comfortably (although my legs still started to ache about an hour in). No one gave me disapproving looks or sighed when they saw I was seated next to them. I didn’t have to squeeze into too-small seats and be miserable. It was an ideal situation and a lucky break.

The wedding on Saturday was lovely, despite not knowing anyone aside from a few other friends from our university. The bride was radiant and beautiful and the speeches were funny and heartfelt. It was outdoors so I was a bit warm, but otherwise it was a lovely experience and I cried copiously (I cry very easily when I feel deep emotions). I was really glad I went and got to be part of the experience.

On Sunday I hung out with one of our mutual friends, as the newlyweds and our other friends had left that morning already. We had intended to do some exploring, but it was very hot so I ended up going back to my air-conditioned hotel while he did his own exploring, and we met back up for dinner at a really delicious Mexican restaurant (real Mexican, not Tex-Mex).

My flight on Monday didn’t leave until the afternoon, so I slept in until 10 am, got ready, checked out a bit after 11, went to a little breakfast place nearby to eat, then went to the airport several hours early to wait for my flight. The first leg was short and uneventful, I once again had an empty middle seat and was able to sit comfortably. The second leg was, unfortunately, a very bad experience. When I got to my seat, the row was full and it was clear that the guy next to me wasn’t going to pull the arm up. I managed to squeeze myself into the seat by sitting entirely on my right butt-cheek, with my legs slanted so my left heel jutted out into the aisle slightly. I asked the nearby flight attendant for the necessary seat belt extender, and she looked critically at my seat and said “are you going to be comfortable like that?” I grinned wryly and said “well, it’s life”, thinking maybe she had a solution, as flight attendants sometimes do. She then said “yes, but you aren’t going to be able to fly like that. You might have to make other arrangements” and she walked away. I sat petrified. I knew that I could be thrown off the plane simply for not fitting in the seat. I knew I could be refused service, even though I had bought a ticket and checked my bag at the gate. We were in Dallas, TX, and any other arrangements would require extra time and money that I simply couldn’t afford. I sat and waited for the hammer to drop, trying in vain to squeeze myself tighter, make my very large body smaller, just so I could suffer the two hour flight to get home. The flight attendant came back and said she might be able to pull the aisle arm up (which I had already tried and failed to do). I half-stood and she pulled it up and I looked at her with naked gratitude and said “thank you”.

I wish that was the end of the story. I wish I could say I had an uneventful rest of the flight. Instead, a few minutes later, a male flight attendant came back and told me that I would have to have the inside arm down for takeoff. I and the guy next to me looked confused, as it was down. The attendant called back to toward the female attendant I’d been so stupidly grateful to. “I thought you said there was a problem?” She pointed at the aisle and he realized that arm was the one that was raised. He said “I’m sorry, both have to be down for takeoff.” He said it loudly, so everyone around me turned to look. I smiled with embarrassment and pulled it down with a sharp jerk, cutting into my side. He nodded in approval and left. That was when I started to cry, silent, angry tears. The plane hadn’t even left the terminal, so I put my airplane mode back off and posted an angry status to Facebook about how humiliated I felt, typing through my tears. The people around me had quickly looked away after he left, but the damage had already been done. Everyone knew I was A Problem. My body wasn’t okay, and I didn’t deserve to be treated with respect.

The female flight attendant who’d acted so helpful before came and whispered “it’ll only be for takeoff, then I’ll come pull the arm back up for you”. I choked out a thanks, but I was so angry at her. She may have just been doing her job, as she saw it, but I’ve flown enough times and known enough sympathetic (and non-sympathetic) flight attendants to know, that she could’ve said nothing and it would’ve been fine. My fat body protruding half an inch into the aisle wasn’t going to throw the entire plane off balance. I’m practiced at the art of leaning out of the way in tight spaces, which I did every time someone or something came down the aisle for the rest of the flight. All I wanted was to go home with my dignity intact. But on top of alerting everyone that my body was A Problem, she spent the rest of the flight acting like she’d done me a huge favor by lifting that arm, instead of just being a decent human being. I spent the rest of the flight trying to read my Kindle, alternating between wanting to pretend I wasn’t there and being unable to concentrate on the book because I was so angry. It was only a few hours, but they felt like eternity. By the time the plane landed, all I wanted was to get off and try to forget it happened. It was almost 11 at night, I still had to get my luggage, then find my car and drive the hour home from the airport. I was stiff and I had bruises on my sides from where the arms cut into me. I was so relieved and tired by the time I got home at 1 am that I  fell into my bed and slept, after spared some time to cuddle my kitties, who had a lot to tell me about me being gone.

I live in a world that will not let me forget that my body is A Problem. Most of the time, I can protect myself from the worst of it. It’s pretty rare to be mooed or oinked at in the street, although it does happen. I’m not well-known enough online to draw the amount of hatred that most fat women bloggers do. I don’t go out to eat often, and I almost never go clothes shopping. When I do go out in public, I try to only go with friends, so the ever-present voice in my head is drowned out from telling me that everyone is looking, everyone is judging, everyone is watching you and disapproving of your fatness (and if you think that that voice is lying to me or overreacting, you’re only partially right).

Flying is one of the few times I actually feel endangered by fat shaming. Not of assault or physical violence, but a very real danger of being refused service, despite my existing reservation and money spent. A danger of being extorted, of experiencing both financial and emotional difficulties because of my body.

The reason for this is so I’ll feel ashamed of my fat body. So I’ll try my best to change it, through surgery, or dieting, or disordered eating, or exercise, or pills, because my body is the problem and it needs to be fixed.

What I actually feel is angry. Angry at the companies who shame me for not fitting in their tiny seats that were never meant to accommodate my body. Angry at the people who treat me like shit because they might have to sit next to me, rather than taking the airlines to task for making the seats too small in the first place. Angry at the country I live in for its complete lack of affordable alternatives to flying. Angry at the idea that I should feel ashamed simply because my body isn’t average. Angry at every single micro-aggression and simple injustice that I have to deal with every single goddamn time I try to say I deserve to be treated like a human being. And most of all, I’m angry that every time I remember this trip, this wonderful chance I had to watch two people I care about joined in marriage, I will also remember this anger and humiliation.

And this is what it’s like, flying while fat. This isn’t the first experience like this I’ve had. It won’t be that last, either. But I will be damned if I feel ashamed of myself just because I’m expected to. I’m going to stay angry, and keep yelling at the indignity of it, and hope that someday in the future, I can look back and say “isn’t it nice that things aren’t like that anymore”.

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