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 seat 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.