Hey look! It’s an actual blog post! Not a group hike, or a reposting of published work!
Travel is one of the most exciting parts of my job and has only recently become a part of my life. I fly multiple times a month, often with Delta. Like many, I hate flying, but not out of fear of plane crashes. Air travel is fucking amazing, are you kidding me? It’s a tremendous privilege I’m grateful to finally experience. What I hate is airplane seating.
I’m a size 20ish person. Roxane Gay would call me a Lane Bryant Fat. Meaning, yes, I am a fat person and I experience oppression, medical mistreatment and straight-up hatred as all fat people do, but I also sometimes benefit from the broader spectrum of size privilege. I can almost always find a chair that is comfortable (barring airplanes), seat belts almost always fit, I can always find my size in plus-size clothing stores and occasionally I see people of my size represented in media. Yeah, privilege sometimes just means getting the absolute least, which is more than what some get.
I also hate going through TSA, but it’s gotten easier the more I travel. It took me a few months to figure out why I was being pulled for pat downs on nearly every flight. Those cylindrical body scanners, the ones where you put your arms up and legs apart on the yellow footprints, measure body heat. My body runs hot, so I used to get pat down nearly every time. I’ve started doing everything I can to stay cool before going through security and now I only get pat down half the time. Always under my boobs, crotch and the parts of my back where my backpack rests. It only feels a little bit violating now. Apparently, it’s a mere $85 for TSA pre-check status for five years, but the anxiety of not having a sparkling clean public record has kept me from following through. I’m going to do it! I swear! Soon…
The Grand Rapids, Michigan airport is a breeze. I spent the weekend in Grand Rapids DJing the grand opening of an REI and tabling for Unlikely Hikers with Merrell, who sponsors a lot of my work because they RULE. Yesterday, I got to the airport only an hour before take-off and was at my gate fifteen minutes before boarding. When my group was called, I made my way to my seat, put my bags in their respective places and sat down in an aisle seat in the very last row. The seat was small. I mean, they’re always small, but this was the smallest seat I’ve ever had. My seatbelt wouldn’t close, either, which has only happened to me one other time. I didn’t feel ashamed, which is a feat unto itself. It’s not okay that seats and seatbelts should vary this much and it’s wrong that plus-size passengers aren’t considered. Our money spends the same way and we are entitled to the same services. Asking for the minimum, is not asking for extra, as many seem to think. Body diversity is a real thing. I felt angry. At the airline, at fatphobia. In fairness, I’m mad about fatphobia every moment of my life.
I know flight attendants have nothing to do with seating, or my discomfort. I’ve worked customer service for twenty years. I know where and when to fight my battles. I asked a nearby flight attendant for a seatbelt extender. I’ve read a lot of stories by fat folks who’ve been mistreated for asking for them. Many people bring their own, though it’s technically a violation of safety code, to cut down on the possibility of mistreatment. She didn’t seem uncomfortable with my question and I felt like it was a good opportunity to ask why airplane seating varies so much. Being on flights all day, it seems like something she’d be pretty aware of. She was polite, but insisted the seats hadn’t changed in eight years. I told her this was the smallest seat I’d ever been in. She ultimately said different models of planes probably have different seating. This made sense, but it doesn’t make it better.
I checked to see if the aisle-side armrest would go up. My bad ass fat friend, Sam Ortiz, just showed me this flying-while-fat hack last month and it’s a game changer. On a flight a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t figure out how to put it up and this little whisp of a flight attendant came over and did it for me and squeezed my shoulder in this incredibly sweet way before walking off. Then she gave me extra cookies when the cart came around. I liked her.
I got the armrest up, relieved I wouldn’t be smashed into my neighbor which would be awkward and uncomfortable for both of us. Just before taking off, the flight attendant I talked to came by to ask me to put the arm down for take-off. I asked if I could keep it up because I was so uncomfortable. She was obviously busy, all things considered, and replied “it’s for your safety,” already walking away. I left it up, hoping I could discuss it further with her when she came back my way. I decided it was worth it to be vulnerable and see what might happen if I just told her how I felt and asked for what I needed. Instead, she returned with another flight attendant, a man.
“You have two options: put your armrest down or be escorted off of this plane,” he said.
I can still feel the way my head involuntarily whipped back. I opened my mouth, not knowing what to say other then, “why are you speaking to me this way?” I felt like I’d been slapped by a stranger in public. I put the arm down and tried to get my thoughts together. In a feminized, mocking tone, he then said, “I sincerely apologize. Thank you so much.” And walked away. I wasn’t going to accept this. Because he was just a few feet from me in the back of the plane, I said, “why are you treating me like this? I decided to be vulnerable and advocate for myself by asking if I could keep the armrest up.” In my head, I was saying, “be a bad bitch, be a bad bitch,” to try to keep myself together and insist on fair treatment, but a few tears began to escape my eyes and my voice got louder. I wasn’t yelling, I was just overwhelmed and frustrated. At this point, a few men around me were telling me to shut up and put the armrest down. I already had, but surprise, they didn’t actually know what was happening and decided to give their opinions anyway.
Have you ever been harassed by a man in public and instead of literally anyone standing up for you, other men join in? It’s happened to me more times than I can recall and it’s terrifying.
As I said, I’ve worked customer service. I know that petty power struggle that can happen with an entitled customer. This was not that. My willingness to say how I felt and ask for something I needed flagged me as a problem customer. It was not expected that I would say anything about my existence as a fat person. Fat people are supposed to act like their bodies are a secret that can somehow be kept from others. We are supposed to make ourselves as small as possible as we move through places designed to exclude us. We are expected to apologize for the “extra” space we take up. We are supposed to quietly endure. After all, we are the ones in the wrong for existing outside of societal expectations. To advocate for myself was a threat and it was treated as such.
Respectability politics and toxic politeness are hazardous to our health. They shift responsibility away from perpetrators. It’s victim-blaming. Staying quiet is a false sense of security and it erodes you from the inside. Complaining on social media won’t mitigate the pain forever, though it does help. You’ll eventually snap, or worse, go through life feeling unsatisfied and internalizing oppression and abuse and potentially acting it out on others around you. People in dominant positions: white people > people of color, cis people > trans and non-binary people, able-bodied folks > disabled people, heterosexuals > queers, thin people > fat people, etc. don’t want the “negativity” of our lived experiences interrupting their experiences.
It was easy to think I was the guilty one. This fat woman who can’t fit in her seat and at that point, holding up the flight. Fat-hatred is culturally-sanctioned in the west. It’s capitalized on. Fat people are seen as out of control, weak in character and choosing to be fat, like body diversity isn’t a thing. It’s acceptable to espouse anti-fat bias in public without reprimand. You will find it at the doctors office, in all forms of media and even our most intimate spaces with loved ones. Fat isn’t the public health crisis we’re taught it is, but the hatred of fat people is. Don’t try me on this. Poverty, toxic beauty standards, lack of access to medical care and nutritious food are the real public health crises and they don’t always make a person fat–and even if they do we are worthy of respect, regardless.
The flight attendant harassing me, the man, told the first woman I spoke to to call security. She picked up the phone and for whatever reason put it back down. At this point, whatever composure I had was gone. I know I said some things about being a human being deserving of respect, but it was all a blur of emotion.
Another flight attendant I hadn’t seen came over, knelt down beside me and in a gentle tone asked me what happened. I started to explain, but she was already backing up the other two flight attendants, saying I was ignoring safety protocols and that it would be better to delay the flight and have me escorted off. Asking a question is not ignoring safety protocols. I felt totally helpless.
A couple of the dudes who’d said things were laughing at me and since I knew there was no turning back, I said, “of course a white man isn’t going to know what’s actually happening here. The world is made for you.” This was a slim fingernail clipping of what I really felt, but I got to look like an instigator and a crazy bitch, regardless.
The plane backed up the few dozen feet it had rolled away and there was all this dramatic “prepare for arrival” smoke and mirrors. I was escorted off the plane by POLICE. I had no idea what was about to happen and I was terrified. When we reached the gate counter attendant, he told the police they could go.
Even the counter person, though polite, did not want to hear about what happened. He explained it wasn’t his concern what did or didn’t happen, it was his job to get me where I was going on a different flight. I appreciated the honesty and boundaries, but I was distraught over the fact that no one wanted to know my side of things. Not a drop of compassion coming from any direction. It was so lonely.
He booked my tickets for the same time the next day. I called my partner, Brie, and totally lost it. Crying and hyperventilating, I could hardly speak. Listen, I really am a bad bitch and bad bitches have feelings, too. I made a video about the experience on Instagram Live, but the bullshit shame dementors that follow being violated were swooping in for control. I took it down figuring it was better to talk about it when I cooled off.
I booked a hotel room, got a Lyft, ordered some Postmates, watched six hours of Bravo and occasionally cried. Brie sent me pictures and videos of our cats being perfect. It helped. I was exhausted, but anxiety kept piercing through the precious moments I could sleep. I’d wake up and say to myself, “I’m okay, I’m okay…” and breathe deep. I dragged myself out of bed at 10:15am and drowned myself in work, which always makes me feel better.
Shame is a herd of spooked horses thrashing about in my head. I know I didn’t do anything wrong, but shame has a way of making me doubt everything I did, everything I said, my intuition and perception. I’ve replayed the events in my mind dozens of times now. Today, I decided, I’d keep my head down and my mouth shut no matter what happened. Make myself as small as possible. Endure whatever I had to so I could get home. I got to the airport, went through security with no pat down and ran into MOTHERFUCKING SAM IRBY!
I love her. She’s a genius. She makes me want to scrap this entire blog post and make it as funny as it is real. She was super nice, hilarious and knew I “do the hiking.” We managed to talk about crotch sweat like three times, I brought it up first. It felt like talking to an old friend even though she’s hashtag goals to me. Read her books We are Never Meeting in Real Life and Meaty and watch Shrill! She wrote episode four and I’m an extra in it! (Look for the gold bikini top.)
The whole thing put me at ease. I got to my gate and did all of the getting-on-an-airplane things. My seat actually fit with no creeping into my neighbor. My seatbelt had like five additional inches of slack. Yay comfort, but WHY ARE PLANES LIKE THIS?!?!?!?! Everything went as well as possible and made me feel so much more assured that what happened yesterday wasn’t in my head. On my second flight, I got in the wrong seat at first and that seat was smaller, but the seat belt closed with ease. When I realized I was in the wrong seat, I went to the right one, the seat was the same but the seatbelt wouldn’t close. I put my jacket over it and called it good. I was sitting by a very small child so that felt like a level up, I guess.
I’m worried that telling this is just going to add to the anxiety plus-size people already feel about flying. Unless you can go first class, it’s just not going to be comfortable, but there are definitely things you can do to make it a little bit better. Some of these are tips I’ve received from others and I’ll report back when I’ve fully investigated them, but I want to share them anyway:
- Get TSA pre-check
- Pay extra to pick your seat if you can. Middle seats are my version of hell.
- Download the apps for your airlines and check in online for an electronic ticket. This way you can just go into the airport and directly to security.
- Ask for the seat belt extender! Don’t be me and put a jacket over it, which just makes me aware of it the entire flight. Or, find your own online!
- If you don’t get TSA pre-check, take no chances with security. Don’t bring something you’re afraid of getting thrown out. Don’t wear clothing or shoes that will be overly complicated to take off and try to stay cool!
- Check your bag so you can be as unencumbered as possible as you board and deboard the airplane.
I won’t be writing a guide to flying more comfortably without a guide for thin people on how they can be accomplices to us. Existing in a vacuum does not spark joy.