An Open Letter to Thin People Who Feel Infringed on by Fat People on Airplanes

You don’t know me, but I know you.

I see you glance at me over your magazine or phone at the gate. You cast your gaze downward when I meet it. “I hope I don’t get stuck next to her,” I imagine you thinking as you go back to scrolling through your social media feed. Maybe you tweet about me, the fat woman sitting across from you at the gate, whose hips can barely be contained by the generous seat. Maybe you text your thin friend, who will understand your anxiety about being seated next to me on the plane.

I wish I could tell you that I’m also terrified of being seated next to you. I’m afraid of how you’ll look at me, what you’ll say to me. I’m afraid that you might film me, film how my thighs struggle against the seat and invade your space, perhaps to laugh at me on social media or complain to the airline afterward. I steel myself for a confrontation that hasn’t happened yet. I scan the other people waiting at the gate; each thin person is a potential aggressor, someone who may be disgusted and enraged by sitting next to me. I try to shrink myself in my chair. It’s no use. My hips touch the arms of the chair, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I am grateful, however, that the seats at the gate are wide. The arms of the seat don’t dig into my hips; they just gently graze them. Since we are stuck at this gate for a few hours, I am thankful that this particular chair will not leave me with bruises on my hips. It’s happened many times before, and it’s a discomfort I have come to both expect and never question. I usually greet the discomfort with a weary sigh, but in this case, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. This seat is comfortable. Usually, seats are not.

I return to my book and try to forget about you.

I snuggle into my husband, who is traveling with me. He is thin and conventionally attractive, but he doesn’t mind when I invade his space. I also see you glance at him, then back to me, your eyes darting to our wedding rings. I know what you’re thinking. “How does that work? How is he with her?” My husband doesn’t see this, but I do. He never sees it. He grabs my hand. He knows I don’t like to fly.

We take a selfie, because we’re on our honeymoon.

us

The act of being in the airport feels bold to me. It’s something I have been afraid of doing. I wish I could tell you how much thought and preparation went into this flight. I spent hours online researching the policies of the airline, taking comfort in knowing the possible outcomes if I do not fit into the seat, or if a passenger takes exception to my presence. I seek out opinions online — I am part of a group of fat travelers who share information about the aircrafts they’ve flown on, how big the seats and seatbelts are, what the “customer of size” policies are, how accommodating the airline is. The group has thousands and thousands of people just like me, who are terrified of people like you, of being dehumanized and humiliated. I try to find pictures of aircraft seats online. I try to find the exact seat size, arm rest to arm rest, so I can determine whether the pillowy expanse of my hips will fit within them. I know that the measure of whether I will be able to fly peacefully depends, in part, on that measurement.

In the end, the math that makes the most sense is upgrading to a first class ticket. We are not rich, but it is worth the added peace of mind.

I see your face when I stand up to board first. You scan me, trying to understand. I do not look rich; I’m wearing jeans, a hoodie, a t-shirt, beat up old Converse sneakers. “How is she boarding before me?!” you think to yourself. Your eyes turn, once again, to my husband. “That’s it,” you say to yourself. “He must be well-off.” You stop looking, satisfied. Because you assume that because of my size, I must also be lazy, underemployed, poor. But you jut out your jaw a little bit at the injustice of it all when you turn back to your phone. I feel you hovering close to the outskirts of the line, waiting to board, furious that I get to board before you.

In the first boarding group, a thin man in a suit pushes past me. He also cannot believe I am there, so has decided that he can push me out of the way. He has more of a right to be there than me. His carry-on is a laptop. He is very important.

My husband grabs my hand again, and kisses me on the cheek. He acts as a protective shield in situations like this. If he could fold me up into his luggage to transport me fully shielded from you and your gaze, your jutted jaw, your brief but unmistakable eye-rolls, he would. He just wants me to get there unscathed.

We board the plane, and I hang back, like I always do. There are many people here who are more important than me in this priority boarding group, so I let them board first. I don’t want to make a scene, or act too entitled. I know I am lucky to be here. I want you to know that I know I’m lucky, so I let everyone else board first. I am quiet, and smile at everyone who passes me. My smile is deferential, appeasing, a shield.

suhyeon-choi-184102-unsplash

When we get to the plane, I find my seat. In first class, there are only two seats per row, thank god. The only person whose space I can infringe on is my husband’s space, and he doesn’t mind.

I get to my seat. The man in the suit with the carry-on laptop is in my seat. I wait for a moment, and then approach him. “I’m sorry,” I say, in my most polite voice. “I think you’re in my seat?” It is not a question, but I phrase it as such, so as not to seem too bold or accusatory. I am the master of non-intimidating uptalk.

He looks at his ticket. He’s already stowed away his laptop bag and opened his laptop. He says nothing, does not apologize, but collects his things and moves to his seat.

I ask my husband if he can put my carry-on in the overhead bin. I ask him to do this not because I am lazy, but because I worry about what will happen if in reaching up to stow away my bag, my shirt travels up an exposes a bit of back or tummy. I wear a camisole underneath my t-shirt to shield any eyes from my exposed flesh, in the event that it becomes a possibility, but I’m still nervous about it. I never know what will set you off, and I feel your eyes on me. So I’m not risking it.

I settle in, crack open my book. I’m sitting my the window because even though the window makes me feel anxious during the flight, it provides some degree of protection from other passengers.

I ask a flight attendant for a seatbelt extender. She grabs one and passes it to me discreetly, with a wink, like she were handing me something illicit or embarrassing. Her discretion is not necessary, but I am grateful for this act of kindness.

The rest of you board. I focus on my book, but I feel you pass me, one at a time, and look before you head to the other side of the curtain, to find your economy seat. Sometimes I catch a hint of befuddlement, sometimes resentment. “Who is she? How come she’s in first class?” The feeling of collective injustice is palpable as you all pass. I mentally challenge you not to look at me. You all do, anyway.

We take off. I did it, I got on the plane without any major incidents. I absorb myself in my book. The rest of the passengers forget about me.

I am offered drinks by the flight attendants, but I refuse, because I know there’s another hour left in the flight and I won’t fit into the tiny bathroom. I am thirsty, but say, “No thank you.” I have strategically planned my meals and fluids for this flight, and stopped eating and drinking several hours before we boarded. Every part of this trip has been strategically planned.

I wish you knew, I wish you could understand, how much planning goes into travel when you’re fat. It adds more layers to your trip than I think you can imagine. I am lucky, because I am white, able-bodied, and can hide behind my husband. If you are brown, disabled, trans, or otherwise visibly “different,” it adds even more layers. There are even more eyes on you, as you try to quietly get to your destination.

Consider Norma Rodgers’ experience. I wonder if the woman on the flight, loudly calling the large bodies she was seated between “pigs” and telling the flight attendant she “can’t breathe,” would have been so bold seated beside me. She was seated between two people who were fat, but also Black. I imagine this added to her distress. Not only was she flanked by people in large bodies who had the audacity to want to travel, she was flanked by two Black people in large bodies. I imagine it added to her rage, that the bodies touching hers had brown skin. She didn’t know or care that Norma Rodgers is a distinguished nursing professional. To the woman, her presence was an affront to her privileged status, her right to travel in comfort.

florian-van-duyn-552731-unsplash

It’s a right fat people are rarely afforded. We don’t expect comfort. We plan, we strategize, we prepare for confrontations. Scenarios race through our heads. And someone should tell Pete Singer, a noted animal activist and fatphobe who considers obesity “an ethical issue” and vocal opinion-haver about fat people on airplanes, that we do pay more. We pay to upgrade to first class, as I did, so as not to infringe on other passengers’ right to not be bothered by us. We often pay for an extra seat, to place a barrier of space between us and other passengers, so they are not bothered by us. That doesn’t even get into the emotional and mental toll we pay when we travel. Or that everything costs us more, down to the clothes on our backs. We pay, and we pay dearly. Sometimes we cannot bear the cost, so we do not travel at all, instead opting to stay home, in an environment we can control, free from the prying eyes of strangers trying to determine how much our bodies cost them and impede their ability to be comfortable and unencumbered. Sometimes we bow out of attending destination weddings, work trips, vacations, funerals. All because your comfort is worth more than ours.

I wish I could tell you, and have you understand, how great my fear of you is. I have never traveled far. I live on the East Coast, and the farthest I’ve made it was New Mexico. I was there for work. Before the trip, I spent weeks fretting over the flight. Would I fit? What if I asked my employer if they could send me by train instead? How long would that take?

Once, at work, I was excited to go to a conference I had helped plan. But I worried. I looked up how much it would cost to upgrade to a first class ticket out of my own pocket, even though I knew I couldn’t afford it on a nonprofit salary. I was both relieved, and saddened, when I was told at the last minute that I would not be attending the conference after all. My boss cited “budget concerns,” but I knew the truth. The cost of me flying to the conference was not worth my labor at a table, handing out pamphlets, because they didn’t want me representing them anyway. The week my entire department was gone at the conference, I sat alone in my cubicle. My entire department went, except for me. Before the trip, after I was told I would not be attending, my inbox swelled with desperate requests for finding volunteers. They needed me, but they also didn’t want me. It was a lonely week.

I have never traveled internationally, because I fear being trapped on board a long flight with you. I have never traveled internationally because while I am privileged enough to be able to afford to upgrade to first class for a short flight, that may not be the case for an international flight. And I know it will be a long flight, and your odds of being angry and uncomfortable will increase, and that I am at risk of being a target for your anger.

The thing is, I don’t expect comfort. I want it, sure, but I deal with discomfort every day. I do not expect chairs that will be comfortable; I expect chairs that will be uncomfortable, and may even bruise me. But I have learned to minimize my discomfort, and pretend that I am fine, for your benefit. I have also learned to avoid situations where your comfort might be compromised by me, by having to be near me or see me, which is why I do not travel as much as I’d like.

The solution seems simple, to me. Provide a few seats on flights that are larger, where fat people can be seated, away from your thin body and your expectation of comfort. But not only do you insist on comfort, you also insist on not paying extra for that comfort, so airlines must shove as many seats as possible onto the plane so you can purchase your tickets for less. All of this is your doing, yet we bear the blame. We miss out on so much because of your entitlement. I would pay more for such a seat, even though I make a modest salary and it would require extra financial planning, but I can hear your protests already — “Why should fat people get special treatment or special seats? Why should I risk having my ticket’s price go up so the plane can add a few extra seats where one fat person can sit instead of two or three people like me?” There is no winning here.

What you want is for us to be weighed at the airport. Your thought is that we should be asked to pay more, and you should be asked to pay less, because you have been successful in your pursuit of thinness. “I eat salads,” you hiss at fat passengers like Norma. I also eat salads, and I’m sure Norma, being a nurse, does too. (I eat a lot of salads, because for fat people, all eating is performative.) But you eat salads, and you are thin, and you therefore deserve privileges the rest of us are not afforded. You can’t feel the congratulations all around you, the privileges you are already granted for your thinness and salad-eating, so you feel you deserve even more. You don’t even realize that we already pay more than you.

I know better than to ask much of you. I want to ask you for compassion, to remember that the fat person sitting next to you or near you on a flight is a human being. I want to ask you to remember that you don’t know us, or why we’re flying, and to consider the idea that maybe our sole purpose for being on that plane is not to make you uncomfortable or invade your space. I want to ask to you to please be kind. And consider that fat people have no desire to touch you or squish you or infringe on your space any more than you wish to be infringed upon. We don’t want to touch you any more than you want us touching you. We just want to get to our destination, and live our lives. That’s all.

I want to ask you these things, but I don’t dare. I have learned that asking things of you results in rage.

I hope you’ll do better, but the news cycle constantly reminds me that you will not. You refuse. You constantly disappoint.

I hope you will prove me wrong one day, and instead of eyeing me with suspicion and disdain, or pushing me out of the way, you’ll do what I do and simply smile at a fellow traveller.

208 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Thin People Who Feel Infringed on by Fat People on Airplanes

    1. It saddens me to hear about your experience. That was painful but TRUE to read. There are so many things that I can say and I am sure you heard them all. Enjoy every day, because YESTERDAY is history. TOMORROW is a mystery and TODAY is a gift that is why it is called the PRESENT . God bless you always in all ways. I will leave you with a funny quote, where there is meat there is heat. Lol

      Like

  1. I’m so sorry for your experiences and no person should ever have to feel like that, but I do feel compelled to make a quick comment on the tone of this article. I am an extremely thin person (unwillingly due to illness) and have done a lot of travel. Still I have NEVER judged, scowled or even so much as taken a second glance at an overweight person. Yet, when I was reading this piece I couldn’t help but feel kind of attacked. The language you used in this felt like you were personally condemning me for something I have never even thought about doing. I loved what you wrote however the way you directed it almost made me want to turn against it.

    I hope your fear of flying and judgement does not hinder your ability to travel and see the world. Good luck with whatever life throws at you. X

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I so felt every moment of your anguish, I too am beholder of a larger than I’d like body, and in the next few weeks I’m to embark on a flight. The idea of this absolutely scares the crap out of me, the thoughts already cramping my mind.. “will I fit in the seat” “ how will I have the courage to ask for a seatbelt extender” and the most scary of all “what if they ask me to leave the plane”. I’m so anxious but I thank you for your honest feelings as I too will be feeling the same way and am dreading what should be a happy start to a weekend away.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo! This needs to be said, discussed, and passed along. I find it amusing that people still think that weight is all about eating salads. I am also appalled that people act like this towards others.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so sorry this is your experience. Thank you for such an honest and truthful post. I will be more mindful when traveling and will be sure to speak up when I see someone being rude and inconsiderate. The people you describe are truly wicked and I have hope that one day God will rid this world of such unloving people (Psalms 37:10,11). Until then, please know that you are an important person at any size and you deserve to be comfortable too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was ready to follow you for the donuts in your banner alone (they look delicious). This is brilliant and sad at the same time. Brilliant because you wrote it; sad because you had to. I’ve flown twice in my life when I was much smaller than I am now, but still “technically obese.” It was a tight squeeze then and I can’t imagine what it would be now. Thank you for reminding me to look up seat belt extenders for my own personal use though. I’ve been struggling with that for a while and I know it would make car rides that much more comfortable. Existing in a fat body is unreasonably difficult in this world, and I’m glad to see people coming together to fight against how wrong it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is an awesome article. I have shared with my followers. There are struggles we all deal with while traveling and it’s important to be kind and treat everyone with respect and dignity as we are unaware of struggles they may be dealing with.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for writing this. I have never been on a plane and yet I can relate. I have been the recipient of those sideways glances and the disdain of others. I applaud your ability to put your experiences into writing to share with the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A sincere feeling of guilt engulfed me while reading this. I was ashamed for the times I’d thought fat people unfair for squeezing me in-between them in a commute. I’d never for once thought about all the discomforts they are constantly faced with because of the body size. Now I feel so guilty and sorry.

    Thank you for this piece, for enlightening me, and trashing my silly entitlement mentality. I promise to honor the humans plus size people are, henceforth. I’ll do better.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well done young lady. Anyone with ” thick” status can relate. Always people seem to think we’re fat because we eat SO much, not true. It can be age, medications, illness, hereditary. A lot of factors. Thanks so much for your heartfelt voice.

        Like

  9. Thank you! Thank you! What level of beautiful truth! I have been overweight most of my life. Not only do I dread flying because of my weight, but also due to severe anxiety.. I cried after reading your heartfelt article. I do hope that “thin” people realize that WE fluffy people have rights too! Please don’t add insult to injury. We know we’re overweight. Thanks for that reminder.

    Like

  10. Just as the LGBTQ community has found a voice (we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it), those of us who are fat/obese/overweight (description of your choosing) must find a voice to address the haters, the bigots and the downright ignorant.
    This piece moved me deeply and I thank you for baring your soul.

    Like

  11. I understand about your experiences on a airplane. I had your experience before as a thin person, but now my body mass had changed due to my thyroid that changes my weight. Not that I am colossal and I constantly eat. Many people are not considered of others what they are fighting on a daily basis. My family has inherited this disease, so I hope others think too. Some may say get the operation. My mother in law did and her bones started deteriorating with other heart and brain problems…and she was in a wheelchair till her death!

    Like

  12. You are SO awesome. Thank you for saying what I’ve never been able to articulate. I have had decades of cruelty aimed at me for my weight — I have struggled with my weight all my life. So many people make it so hard with comments, etc. I admire you SO much!!

    Like

  13. Part of the issue with flying is the airlines and their insistence that humans be packed onto planes like sardines. I am a fairly small person in height and weight and even I feel too big for coach. Fixing that issue will require an entire reassessment of how we fly.

    In the meantime, I would suggest to the author that she work on not caring so much about what other people might be thinking about her or anyone else. Even imagining what they might be thinking, even caring how they look at you ( or don’t look at you )gives them power over you. Don’t cede your power to jerks.

    Like

  14. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m sure that posting it was scary & difficult, but very necessary. Our society is broken in so many ways….it takes true courage & fortitude to stand up for common courtesy or decency these days. We live in a world where beauty, youth, wealth, & power r prized, often to the exclusion of all who lack these attributes. Please keep up the good work.

    Like

  15. There are parts of this letter that sound as if I had written it myself. I always enter a room, building or any place we’re there are people with my eyes scanning to see if I’m the largest person there. The next thing I do is look for the widest seat I can find at the same time trying to gauge if it is sturdy enough. I have always been fat, I will use that term because it is how I see myself. Although I am fat I did not feel that I was ugly or smelly or any of the things some thin people think of fat people. That is until about a year and a half ago, I’ve always done the things you spoke of when flying because I never wanted my size to infringe on someone else. I never really felt the hate until then twice in the last year and a half it was brought home to me what I had not seen or possibly chosen not to see before. In the first instance I boarded the plane behaving the same way you described, overly polite, smiles and such. Part of this is just my natural way of being I’m from the south and generally friendly. But I realize now that this behavior was hugely multiplied when I traveled. I always get window seats because I find I can give the person less contact with my body if I can scrunch up against the window. On this trip there was a gentleman seated in my seat by the window. I smiled and explained that the window seat was actually mine. He got up to move to the middle seat. First he asked if he was going to have to come all the way into the isle for me to get in. I said I thought it would be easier that way I kinda laughed in a way to let it be known that I was aware and sorry for the inconvenience. I was trying hard not to notice that this was holding up the people boarding. That’s when he stated that I should have been required to purchase two seats and that it should be at the disgrestion of the person having to sit by them as to which two they could spread across. I was so stunned that it took me a moment to realize he was actually looking at and speaking to the crowd about me but not to me. I very quickly slid into my seat installed my belt extender and scrunched up as small as I could. A few minutes later I saw him hit the button to call a flight attendant. When she arrived he loudly demanded to be moved to a different seat because (he jerked his thumb towards me) fat people don’t bath and even if the do they still stink and the smell was making him gag. She looked at me then she moved him to another seat. I stayed on the plane after landing until I was the last one to get off so that most all of the people on the flight would have dispersed. This forever changed how I felt about myself. Don’t get me wrong I have always known that fat people were thought of in a bad light by some people. Put aside the fact it hurt my feelings beyond belief and that it took every bit of strength I had to smile and act like it didn’t matter. The worst part for me was suddenly realizing that people in general think it’s okay to treat a person that way.
    The next time I flew about six months later I was nervous but also figured hey what are the chances of this kind of thing happening again. I flew first class this time and was very excited about it never having done so before. I got to my seat and found that the two guys in front of me and the guy next to me were traveling together, no big deal right? As I passed the front two and turned to sit down I heard one of the guys in the forward seat say “oink oink pig alert” to which all three burst out laughing. A few minutes later one of them turned and told the guy next to me that it sucked to be him cuz he knew that he hated pork. Of course another big laugh. I just kept my face buried in my book but the flight attendant had heard and spoke to them. After that they pretty much left me alone. To be honest I don’t know what was worse what they said, that it was heard by others or that because I am fat I don’t feel I have the right to say anything to these types of people in my defense.
    These event though minor to some people have changed me. I take my size into account in every way and about everything when I leave my home now. I’ve even looked up at restaurants and noticed a person here or there looking at me as if I should not be there seen them turn to the person next to them and then both of them look at me and laugh. I though always fat never noticed this stuff before. Now I see it everywhere. It’s a terrible way to see life.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s