Flying While Fat
Be nice to fat people when you’re traveling. We aren’t trying to take your space.
"I love wearing t-shirts that agitate the status quo. Even if it was too cold so no one really saw my shirt. I think it helped me advocate for myself to get in a row with an empty seat. This is your reminder to be kind to the larger bodied people flying!" - from my original Instagram post.
T-shirt: Fat Kid Dance Party
“Last night the seat next to mine on my flight was empty. This morning it isn’t.
I’m not rolling in the dough enough to purchase a second seat ahead of time and wait to get reimbursed. So, I am going to have to see if someone will be willing to switch seats with me at the last minute where there is an empty middle. You know how willing people are to give that up. [insert eye roll]
This puts me at risk of getting kicked off the flight.
This means I’ll have to deal with however anyone around me treats me.
This is why I’ve horrible anxiety the last couple days. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s part of the reason I get sick every time I travel.
Be nice to fat people when you’re traveling. We aren’t trying to take your space.
I just want to exist without people feeling like I’m taking something from them.”
This was my Facebook status that I published on March 3, 2018.
What happened is what usually happens. I don’t buy an extra ticket, because I can’t afford it. I can barely afford to fly in the first place. So, then when I get to my gate and there are airline employees at the counter, I go up to show them my ticket and ask if they have open spots where I could have an empty seat next to me.
This time though the employees looked at me, looked at their screen, and said that there were no open spots for me to switch to. That the flight was very full. I knew this wasn’t their fault. And I could feel how unwilling they were to try and figure out a solution for me. I could feel that they had no empathy for me and my fat body. This is always a risk when asking for this type of switch.
I went back and sat down to wait for the flight to board. My muscles tensed up all over my body, my neck started hurting, I clenched my jaw tight, and bounced my knee as I do when I’m nervous. I text my dear friend, Rachel, on the east coast who I was flying to go see as I was leaving from the west coast. I knew she would be awake. She was extremely supportive like she always is when it comes to things like this. She showed me empathy in the way that she always does when I tell her about people’s reactions or spaces not fitting me. She agreed that it was annoying that I would have to ask other people on the flight instead of the flight attendants doing it. Then I posted the above status on Facebook.
I decided I was going to ask the flight attendants for help when I boarded. What else was I supposed to do? I am a consultant, trainer, and medical advocate, and I talk about advocating for yourself on my social media. I help others to advocate for themselves when going to medical appointments. In addition, I didn’t want to be making anyone else uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be uncomfortably smushed between two people not knowing how they would react to me.
I’ve had a woman make a fuss and shove an arm rest into my thigh which left a bruise, because she wanted it down. I’ve gotten the looks. I’ve been ignored as if I wasn’t even there.
I managed with my anxiety and tense body while in line to have my ticket scanned. While in line to board, I rehearsed what I was going to say to the flight attendants over and over. I stood there wondering if everyone around me was dreading whether I was going to sit next to them or not.
I’m finally in the plane waiting for the line to move. Close enough now, I ask the two flight attendants if they would be willing to help me ask someone to switch so that I can have an empty seat next to me. The tall, beautiful, thin woman said I’d probably be better off asking people myself. This sounded like a horribly shameful process. The short, handsome, thin man pulls out his phone, and opens the app for the flight plan. He immediately says that the last row has two open seats, and I can switch to that seat. I feel like jumping up and down and kissing him, but this was impossible with me holding my hot tea and pushing my luggage. Then, I ask for a seatbelt extender. The man tells me that I can get one in the back, and then the tall woman moves, opens a cabinet, and hands me an extender while saying, “here you go, love.”
The amount of relief that washed over me was incredible. I could breathe better. My body relaxed, but then I could feel the after effect of having had my whole my body tense. I was thrilled that I got to fly with an empty seat next to me.
After getting to my seat and settling in some, I text Rachel again to let her know what happened. Of course, she was very happy for me, and shared my excitement. Then she text . . . ”It’s kind of sad that we celebrate people being decent humans, but I’m so glad you came across decent humans.”
As hard as it may be sometimes, I do really believe that it is important for people to hear what it is actually like for fat people to fly. I will keep telling my story. You see the amount of anxiety that this causes makes me not want to fly at holidays or other busy times, because I know that it will be nearly impossible to have an empty seat on the plane. I can’t afford two plane tickets at regular rates, how would I ever afford two tickets at holiday rates? It is a big factor that contributes to me not flying home to be with parents, sister, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents at the holidays. My family doesn’t really understand what fat positivity or fat acceptance is. They might be glad that I don’t constantly hate my body anymore, but they don’t get that I have given up the never ending diet-binge cycle. I haven’t exactly wanted to say that this is part of what keeps me from traveling home for holidays.
When I think about being able to afford international travel in the future, it makes me nervous, because in many parts of the world the seats can be even smaller. Not to mention seating in other countries will be even harder to navigate than here in the US. I’ve wanted to visit Sicily where my great grandparents immigrated from, and Australia for as long as I can remember. I hope that someday I will be able to take these trips with kind passengers and airline staff.
I think the last way that flying has had such a big impact on me is the amount of shame that I carry about it. Before I figured out how to make Body Trust® and fat positivity mine, I completely internalized the shame that I had about my size. I spent hours hating my body, shaming myself, and blaming myself for my size. My size is not my fault. This is a totally radical concept in our world where individual responsibility is so heavily emphasized and then intertwined with conversations about health. (Psst. . .weight does not equal health.)
So, this means that I am now highly aware when I start to feel bad about my body and/or my size. I recognize that it often correlates to some aspect of living in a world designed to leave my body out and discriminate against my size. In this case, it is flying.
It means being completely outraged at airlines who do not care about my wellbeing while flying. It means being completely aware of thin people who are worried and/or angry about me taking their space, instead of being angry with the airlines or treating me like a human with feelings when they react. It means managing the impact of the stress that this has on my body whether it’s the way my whole body tenses or that I get sick almost every time I fly.
It means navigating all of this on top of the typical stress of travel and time zones. It means being aware of what I choose to eat while in an airport or on a plane. It means writing about my experience, so other fat people don’t feel alone. It means writing about my experience, so that people who have never lived in a larger body can try to understand what it feels like. It means that I have to hold the impact of the systemic discrimination while doing my best to not let it keep me from living my life.
There have been several people to write about flying while fat. These days, it is pretty easy to access information on how to make flying less stressful as a person in a larger body more so than previously available. You can check out this article from Ragen Chastain responding to a thin person who is concerned about getting less space when fat people sit next to her on a plane. This article about common things people say about fat people flying which was also written by Ragen. Stacy Bias made an animation, and a website dedicated to Flying While Fat. You can watch the short animation here. Jes Baker also wrote a list of tips for this specific occasion, and a see a photo of Jes with purple hair! You can join the closed Facebook group, Flying While Fat.
Learn more about writer, Sarah thompson.
Sarah is an eating disorder recovery coach, consultant, educator, speaker, and writer focused on body liberation, fat Liberation, and body positivity. Sarah is a fat, queer, non-binary femme from Akron, Ohio, US and now lives in Portland, Oregon, US. They are an ice cream connoisseur, Grey's Anatomy expert, and animal lover. Read more about their work.