What it’s like to be that fat person sitting next to you on the plane.
My breath tightens immediately when the call comes. It’s my boss’s boss, telling me there’s an important meeting in another city. Or maybe it’s a friend, inviting me to her wedding in California. Sometimes, it is a family member whose health is failing, and the time has come to say goodbye.
The news hits hard — it’s a high-pressure time for my job, friend, family. My heart is pounding and my breath is tightening. I close my eyes, feel my feet on the ground and my breath in my throat, trying desperately to avoid the embarrassment of a full-blown panic attack at work.
I will have to get on a plane. And I am fat.
There is a common trope about this very situation, shown frequently on TV, in illustrations, in casually irritated conversation. Fat people are shown on planes all the time: loud, obnoxious, elbowing people, taking up space, getting cheetos crumbs all over ourselves and you, our whole existence designed to make you miserable. That caricature doesn’t just hurt when I see it — I crumble under its weight. I am a confident woman with wonderful friends, like you, and a fantastic job. But when I see that caricature of who I’m expected to be, I crumple, sinking so quickly into a wave of depression and alienation. It couldn’t be further from my experience.
There’s so much that happens before I even buy a ticket. I research policies, because every airline has one now for “passengers of size.” All of them include the possibility that I will be charged double, or denied a seat on the plane on the day of the flight, leaving me to explain to my boss, partner, friend, family why they won’t be seeing me this week.
Southwest famously let director Kevin Smith board, then publicly escorted him off the plane for looking too fat for his seat. United will refuse to board you unless you agree to purchase an additional ticket at the day-of price, and who has $600 to spare? I check first class prices, where seats are slightly wider and put me at less risk of passenger complaints. $1000. I move on.
JetBlue doesn’t have a policy — which means it is the most unsafe of all. I flash back to my last flight on JetBlue, when a passenger loudly complained to a flight attendant while I sat next to him, about how he couldn’t be expected to travel like this. She moved him to another seat, switching with another passenger. She wouldn’t make eye contact with me for the entire flight. Neither would the other passengers in my row. I was so big, and so invisible. This could happen again. I blink back tears.
The anxiety doesn’t subside once I buy a ticket — it distills, intensifying for weeks leading up to the flight. I think about how to eliminate every other stressor. Passengers hate it when someone takes too long loading their bag into the overhead compartments. I pay to check a bag, so that my fellow passengers won’t have any additional reasons to complain about me.
I practice how I will sit on the plane, pushing my body against the cabin wall, one arm holding the other firmly over my chest, so that I will make no physical contact with the person sitting next to me. I bring mints, so I won’t need anything to drink, so that the flight attendant won’t have to reach across the row for the fat person. I research whether the airports I’ll pass through have a history of confiscating seat belt extenders. If I bring my own, I’ll be spared the white hot spotlight of asking the flight attendant for one.
In the days before the flight, friends tell me I seem distant. A few of my closest friends know that this means I am getting on an airplane. They get quiet, uncertain of what to say or do. The night before the flight, my best friend and I get drinks at a neighborhood bar. Normally, we speak boisterously, laughing uproariously and making friends with other patrons at the bar. Tonight, we don’t say much. Our happy hour ends quickly, and we silently walk home.
I don’t sleep that night. At 1:30 am, I think about everything I’ve been doing to get healthy. Last month, the doctor said my blood pressure was good, and that I had a healthier exercise regimen than most of the patients she sees. She couldn’t figure out why I was still fat. Neither could I. For nearly a week afterward, I felt inexplicably sad. At 3 am, I fantasize about what could happen to spare me from the humiliation that feels destined to happen. Maybe if I wear two layers of spanx, which itch and hurt. Maybe if there’s a surprise snowstorm. Maybe if I start throwing up.
Then, in the morning, the airport. The nervous fumbling at security. The uncomfortable lean against the wall at the gate. Scanning other passengers’ faces. Who is friendly? Who else is fat? Is their face knit into knots of worry and hurt? Is mine? I run to the bathroom, lock myself in a stall, and will myself not to vomit.
Boarding begins. I line up first, not because I am impatient, but because I’ve selected a window seat, and I want to be settled before anyone else in my row. If I have to step past them, I will hear the familiar, belabored, disdainful sigh. The throat cleared, the muffled groan. These are the sounds of my body being seen in public.
I get on the plane, get into my seat, fix my eyes on the baggage handlers below, and avoid interacting with anyone unless they address me first. I grasp my arm and cross my ankles, making my fat body as small as possible. I have carefully observed what makes other passengers snap at fat passengers, roll their eyes, complain to staff. For me, these are inviolable norms.
Someone pulls out their phone as they pass. I remember the countless, surreptitiously filmed youtube videos of fat passengers on planes with titles like “Gross Obese Fat People on planes overweight” and “fat man slobbering on airplane, sleeping, snoring, drooling” and “BAN DISGUSTING FATASSES.” I make myself smaller still, doing my best impression of a calm person. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.
When the flight takes off, I realize that I’ve done something terrifying, impossible and ordinary— I have boarded a plane. This time, I won’t have to pay for a second seat, blink back tears in my seat, be escorted from the plane. I’ll arrive.
I understand why all of my fellow passengers are on edge. Because everyone is uncomfortable in airplanes. They’re designed to fit as many people as possible — which doesn’t lead to comfortable seats for anyone. Flying is costly, uncomfortable, stressful. Bags get heavy; flights get cancelled; relationships get strained. No one, it seems, is having a good time. And at the peak of all that stress — boarding the plane — the person my fellow passengers see is me. Rather than being a compatriot, stuck in the same frustrating, uncomfortable situation, I become a scapegoat for all that frustration. I become the other.
In that way, air travel is sadly familiar, a microcosm of what happens so often as a fat person. I am watched — and judged harshly — as I try — and fail — to fit into a space that was made for someone else. I am always too big, always too much, always unacceptable. I must make myself smaller and smaller, reducing and reducing endlessly, my stubborn body resisting at every turn. Still, I am never quite small enough to make anyone else comfortable.
Before the flight lands, I begin thinking of the return flight. I try to be present with friends & family, try to prep for my work meeting. I use every tool I’ve got to manage my anxiety, my butterfly beating heart and shallow breath and tight shoulders. Despite that, I don’t sleep soundly for days.