A letter from the fat person on your flight.
When another passenger humiliates a fat person, what do you do?
To the traveler in seat 7C,
I met your eyes for the first time in the Long Beach airport. Quarters were tight and flights were delayed. Passengers were irritated by closeness, strangers’ skin too near their own. Their faces twisted, then calcified with aggravation.
Our flight was oversold, and I was reassigned at the last minute to a middle seat. When the ticket agent handed me my new boarding pass, I looked at her pleadingly, feeling the full width of my size 28 body. I know, she said. I’m sorry.
I retreated from the desk, defeated. I remember looking for warm faces, desperate to find softness in the frustrated passengers that would flank me. Who could I trust to tolerate the breadth of me? Whose face bore the marks of mercy?
That’s where I found yours, bright and warm, nestled in a persimmon scarf. I think you met my gaze. I think you smiled.
I planned carefully, working diligently to avoid taking any more space or time than I needed. I couldn’t afford to give my fellow passengers more reasons to take aim at my body. I lined up early, checked my suitcase at the gate, took my seat quickly. I watched the passengers file down the row, again searching their faces for something forgiving. I saw your warm face again, and hoped you’d sit next to me. You took your seat, one row up.
Then my seat mate arrived. When he sat down, he didn’t meet my eyes. He adjusted the arm rest, assertively claiming it as his own. He needn’t have—I had learned that any free space belonged to the thin. My arms were crossed tight across my chest, thighs squeezed together, ankles crossed beneath my seat. My body was knotted, doing everything it could not to touch him, not to impose its soft skin. I folded in on myself, muscles aching with contraction.
Suddenly, he stood up, fighting against a stream of passengers in the narrow aisle to speak with a flight attendant, then returned to his seat, looking thwarted. Moments later, he got up again. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but there was an urgency in his face. I wondered what their summit had been about. He returned to his seat again, mouth straight and muscles tense. I considered asking if he was alright, but his agitation threw me. I was a young woman he an older, upset man, the two of us in an enclosed space for hours to come. I had spent a lifetime learning not to put my hand on the hot stove of men’s agitation. Maybe you have, too.
He got up a third time. That’s when I heard him say unbelievable, his voice sharp with irritation. The fourth time, I heard paying customer, angrily over enunciated, all convex consonants.
He returned to his seat, and let out the sharp, belabored sigh of a wronged customer. He crossed his legs away from me, leaning into the aisle, chin in his hand, glowering. He checked over his shoulder repeatedly, constantly scanning the cabin.
I didn’t yet know how to read those signs. The stove wasn’t lit, but it let out the low hiss of leaking gas, and I caught the first whiff of its acrid stench. I moved gingerly, not knowing what it meant. I didn’t yet know the certainty of its ignition, or the blast that was coming for me. I didn’t yet know how to protect myself, or respond. This was the day I learned.
At long last, a flight attendant approached him and crouched in the aisle, whispering something in his ear. My seat mate got up silently, gathered his things, and moved up one row. Before he sat down, he looked at me for the first time.
“This is so you’ll have more room,” he said. His voice was cold.
The flight attendant looked at him, puzzled. “This won’t be a vacant seat,” she corrected. “Someone will still be sitting here.” My former seat mate looked away, then took his seat, just opposite you.
That was when I realized what had happened: he had asked to be reseated. The nearness of my body was too much for him to bear. All that agitation, all that desperate lobbying — all to avoid two hours next to me. I’d never feared it before. I didn’t think I needed to.
The next thought came quickly, urgently: don’t cry. You can’t cry.
But it was too late. Hot tears stung my eyes, then spilled onto my cheeks. I stared at my lap, eyes fixed on the width of my thighs. I glanced up and saw your warm face drained of its color, blank as a canvass, eyes wide and empty. Your neck was craned so you could see me. You were watching me like television.
I stayed like that, body knotted up into its most compact shape, eyes locked low, for the rest of our trip. Flight attendants visited my row frequently, offering free wine, beer and snacks to the passengers sitting on either side of me — apologetic offerings for having to tolerate a body like mine. The flight attendants didn’t speak to me. My seat mates didn’t look at me. I had been erased.
As we began our descent, I planned my route from the gate to the bathroom, where I could cry until the humiliation had drained me. I just had to get there. When passengers filtered into the aisle to retrieve their bags, my former seat mate looked at me for the second time.
“You know, I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker,” he said.
“What?” I struggled to find my words. I hadn’t expected to talk to him. I hadn’t expected to talk to anyone.
“I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker, or a pregnant woman,” he repeated.
“I know,” I said. “That’s what makes this terrible.”
There it was. A stranger telling me, in no uncertain terms, that my body entitled him to treat me however he saw fit. He could complain openly, scoff at the fact of my body, publicly decry it to anyone who’d listen, and he would only be met with sympathy. He would never treat me with basic dignity. He would never be expected to.
I watched him as he disappeared onto the jetway. When he was finally gone, my eyes settled back to the aisle, where they met yours. You were watching us again.
Since then, I have thought often of what I could have done differently. Whether unprompted kindness would have interrupted the momentum of his anger. Whether I should have confronted him more directly. If I could have made another plea to the ticket agent. Whether I should have skipped the flight altogether. Whether I should ever fly again.
Since we met, you and I, I have spent my time learning. I have learned that airlines have steadily shrunk their seats over the last fifty years, reducing their width by over four inches, making room for more passengers and more fares. I have memorized the policies that give flight attendants the discretion to escort me from the plane if I don’t appear to “fit comfortably,” leaving me stranded in some far-away airport without a refund or a way home. I have heard from other fat passengers, like Errol Narvaez, who experienced precisely that. Errol was publicly led past thirty rows of passengers, and was charged $170 for the privilege of a rescheduled flight. I have memorized the maze of policies that vary, airline to airline, from kicking me off the plane without warning or refund, to charging me double for the simple privilege of an economy seat.
I have found ways to minimize the likelihood of humiliation. I check my bag, save up for first class tickets, which means I don’t often fly. I see my family less often than I would like, and I find reasons not to take work trips.
Often, when I board a flight, I think of you. I’ve met you so many more times.
I met you in 32A, when you silently watched a woman sitting next to me explain loudly to a flight attendant that she couldn’t be expected to fly this way. I met you when I’d saved up for a first class ticket, believing it would protect me from the hostility and humiliation I’ve since learned to expect. You were there in 2F, as a man made desperate by the presence of my body asked to change his first class seat. You watched, stalk still and silent, as the flight attendant offered him only a middle seat in coach, and he accepted. When I looked to you, you looked away.
You are there so often. And you are always silent.
I believe that you are thoughtful. I believe that you want to do good. I believe that in that moment, you struggle. And after that moment, you likely forget me. But I do not forget you.
I cannot claim to know what I would do in your shoes. I like to think I’d take action in the face of bullying or discrimination, but the angular reality of it is so cumbersome and sharp when it materializes. We’ve lived so long in the fact of our own bodies that it can be difficult to believe the reality that comes with a different one. The harshness of that realization can shock us, stun us into inaction. Sometimes we even feel shame, knowing that this harsh treatment must have been around us all this time, and have not recognized it until now.
But this isn’t the first time you’ve seen me treated this way. You’ve seen me in fat suits in movies, the simple shape of me eliciting boundless peals of laughter in living rooms and theaters. You’ve seen my humiliation on The Biggest Loser, shouted at and shamed for entertainment, bet on like a starved dog in a grisly fight.
You’ve heard fat jokes told at a party, and watched the round face of the fattest woman in the room flush red. You’ve heard the fear and shame in your coworkers’ voices when they tell you about the weight they gained over the holidays. You know how terrified they are of becoming fat. Of having my body.
You know because you’ve felt that fear, too. The way your mother taught you what you should and shouldn’t wear. The cardinal rules of slimming and elongating, and the original sin of maternity. You know because you’ve told your friends she shouldn’t be wearing that. You know because of the ways you avoid photographs of yourself, wishing your body into oblivion when you see an extra chin or a new roll.
You have seen this before. I am not your first. So why didn’t you say anything?
Maybe you were stunned by seeing it live, all that pent up fear & talk about fat people loosed in real time on an actual fat person, right in front of you. Maybe you were shocked by the harshness of it, a bracing slap across your stinging face.
Maybe you didn’t know what to say or do without making the situation worse. Maybe you thought he’d get even angrier, and his aggression would spill over to you, too. Maybe you were trying to save yourself.
Maybe you had become accustomed to it, seeing it so regularly that it felt routine. Maybe you have learned to live with it. Maybe you think I should, too.
Maybe you thought it wasn’t your business, or that more attention would remind me of the shameful fact of my body.
Maybe you wanted to say something, but didn’t know the right thing to say. I’m sorry felt so empty. Don’t listen to him would be feeble. And what’s the point of a sympathetic glance?
Whatever your reasons, however good they may have been, my result was the same. In that moment of piercing humiliation, I was still alone.
This happens all the time. A parent is rough with her child in your aisle at the grocery store. A man is cruel to his date at the next table. A bus rider lashes out at a person in a wheelchair for needing more space than bus riders who walk. So many of us recede, retreating into ourselves.
And when those cruel, cold moments center on an experience we don’t share — like having a fat body — we shut down even more. We reel, trying to imagine what the right thing to say could possibly be. What if I make it worse? What if saying something trivializes this terrible experience?
I wonder if that is what you thought on that flight out of Long Beach. If it is, please free yourself of that impossible standard. It is staggeringly rare to see fat people publicly defended.
Instead, we blame fat people. We are taught to hurt fat people, and to see our own harmful actions as a natural consequence of the size of their skin. As if we cannot help our response. As if our actions were inevitable, forces as strong and natural as the moon’s pull on the tides. We do not know how to break our own cycle of abuse. And we certainly do not know how to show love or support for fat people.
The problem isn’t imperfection. It is inaction. All you have to do is anything.
When a complaining passenger asks to switch seats, you can ask them why. Make them say it. Call them out, and name their bad behavior. If you want to be snide, you can talk loudly with your seat mate about what a shame it is that there are bullies in the world. When someone asks you to switch seats because they don’t want to sit next to a fat person, switch with them. When you get off the plane, you can write to your airline in support of bigger seats and better policies for fat passengers.
You can check in with the fat person. They’ve just been the target of unchecked, public aggression. Ask if they’re okay. See if there’s anything they want you to do, or not to do. If that’s too much, you can make sympathetic eye contact. You don’t have to make a scene. You just have to show up.
Show fat people — like me — that I’m not alone. Show me that you noticed. Show me that you know the size of my body isn’t carte blanche for casual cruelty. Show me the deep decency and goodheartedness that warm your beautiful face. Realize their promise in your actions.
Show up however you can. Just show up.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including What it’s like to be that fat person next to you on the plane and To body positive friends who don’t wear plus sizes. You can also find Your Fat Friend on Facebook and Twitter.