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It Happened: Flying While Fat

I grew up in a working class family and can remember very few times I flew on an airplane before the age of 20. Still, I harbored no fear of doing so. On the contrary, when I was nineteen I accepted an invitation for a date from someone who I was not really interested in because he offered to take me flying. Full disclosure: I accepted two such dates to go flying before my conscience got the best of me and I broke it off. Afterwards, I missed the flying.

Then, I had children and September 11 happened, all within a four-year period, and I started thinking about my mortality in a way I hadn’t before. I developed a fear of flying, or rather I developed a fear of dying in a plane crash. I would still fly when I had to, which thankfully wasn’t often, but if I could use another means of transportation, I did.

Twenty years later, the reason for my fear of flying has changed. It now revolves around whether or not my body will spill into the seat next to me (side bar: seats on airplanes have gotten smaller over the years, but bodies have not) and whether the person seated there will be accommodating or whether or not my seatbelt will fasten. In the past couple of years, I’ve taken to flying first class when I can, not because I have lots of discretionary money to blow (I mean, I teach at a state institution and have kids to support), but because I don’t have to worry about being seated right next to someone, the wider seat is more comfortable for my body, and I know I will be able to fasten the seatbelt. Truth be told, the seatbelt thing has been my bigger concern when it comes to flying in recent years. And then, of course, IT happened.

Last month, I had to fly to California from Wisconsin for a two-day workshop and no other way of transportation was feasible. I upgraded to first class and, while our family budget took a hit, I was thankful it only cost me $350 to do so. There are almost no direct flights out of La Crosse unless one is flying to Minneapolis, Chicago, or Detroit, so one has to fly in a tiny regional jet to one of these three destinations for the main leg of their trip. In recent months, I have heard from a couple of people they prefer to fly out of Madison, Wisconsin, because it also has the convenience of a smaller airport, but more flight options. So not only did I upgrade to first class, I decided to fly in and out of Madison in the hopes that I would not have to fly on one of those tiny, regional jets because whenever I have had to do so in the past, I have found the seats to be uncomfortably small and I’ve had to wrestle to get the seatbelt fastened. No thank you.

To recap, to try to ensure as pleasant a flight for myself as possible and not have to deal with other passengers, I was already out $350 of my own money and was driving two hours out of my way to try to avoid being on an aircraft that is in no way accommodating for fat flyers. Not to mention, I also had to account for why I paid for the upgrade when submitting my paperwork for reimbursement. Here one runs into the awkwardness of having to explain why you're not flying coach when the others from your organization are doing so. While I wasn't compelled to offer an explanation, I nonetheless shared with the person completing the paperwork that as a fat person, it is an issue of accommodation.

Long story short, the flights from Madison to Minneapolis, Minneapolis to San Diego, and San Diego to Minneapolis, were just fine. But on the last leg of the trip from Minneapolis to Madison, I had to travel on one of those tiny regional jets I was trying to avoid. I was grateful to see I had no one sitting next to me, as the plane was so small there were only three seats to a row, one on one side and two on the other, but those seats were definitely smaller than seats on the previous flights. I was feeling grateful that my rear end fit in the seat, then I went to fasten my seatbelt. I tugged and tugged, I sucked in my gut, but try as I might that seatbelt was not going to latch. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a male-identifying passenger watching with curiosity…or was it amusement?

A moment of panic washed over me as I briefly contemplated whether I could fly without my seatbelt fastened. I mean, I did have my trench coat laying over my lap. Would the flight attendants really come to inspect whether it was fastened? Had I ever seen them do that on a flight before? Would the guy watching from across the aisle tattle on me? Oh, this is ridiculous, I quickly realized, and waited for a flight attendant to approach. When she did, I unapologetically asked if she had a seatbelt extender. She smiled at me, and not in a condescending or smug way, and nodded. She returned with the seatbelt extender and I fastened it into place.

The trip to Madison was a short thirty-minute flight, but I was awash in emotions the whole time. I couldn’t help but feel as if I had reached some kind of fat milestone. Having to ask for that seatbelt extender was like a public acknowledgement that I didn’t fit. And, let’s be clear, I haven’t “fit” since I was nine-years-old. But there remains this part of me, no matter how much personal and professional work I have done on fatness and body liberation, that still just wants to fit at times. It was also in some ways a relief. It’s like when you fear something happening and then it does and you made it through it and it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I also felt a lot of guilt for even having these emotions because as a fat studies scholar and fat activist, I should "know better.” And I felt enormous empathy when I thought of all the folx fatter than I am who either can’t fly period or if they do, will have to buy a second ticket and/or always use a seatbelt extender.

The bottom line is, as a fat person, when I have to fly, I can’t just focus on all the usual things one would expect to focus on when doing so: what to pack, flight schedules, etc. I have to also think about whether or not the airplane seats will accommodate my body, and if not, will I be sitting next to someone who is kind or someone who is an asshole – I mean, as fat people, we’ve all heard the horror stories. The story I am sharing here is nothing in comparison to others I have heard. No one was overtly rude to me or treated me like a social pariah. Yet, I know if I want to avoid the anticipatory anxiety of this, I will have to pay more to fly first class and/or bring my own seatbelt extender, both of which are additional examples of the pervasive fat tax.

To be clear, much has already been written about the perils of flying while fat, and there are some excellent resources available for how to navigate doing so for fat people I would recommend. In fact, I was reluctant to even compose another blogpost on the subject. But I think we need to continually remind folx - especially thin folx and small fats - that the built environment we navigate is not accommodating for all bodies, especially mid fat, superfat, and infinifat bodies. This includes restaurants, theaters, fitness centers, medical offices, and classrooms, among others. It’s the places we work, the places we play, and all the places in between. The exclusionary nature of these spaces is only further exacerbated when it comes to the intersections of fat and other systems of oppression like race. If you’ve never had to think about whether the built environment would accommodate your body, then I hope you know which side of the privilege divide you are on, and I hope that you will use your positionality to join fat activists in working to change policies, practices, and laws that perpetuate size discrimination, ableism, and fatphobia. In the end, this is not about making our bodies “fit” into a society that was never built for all bodies, but about changing society so that all bodies feel safe, valued, and included.

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