On a crack-of-dawn flight from New York City to Seattle recently, I had my first ever, um, altercation with a seat mate. I'd almost missed the plane—I was that person staggering on board just before the doors closed—and I'm sure he thought he was going to have the row all to himself. I flashed him an apologetic smile (I know that aeronautical heartbreak too well!) and pointed to the middle seat. "Hey, sorry, I'm over there." He looked at my body, sort of glared blankly at my hips, but didn't respond or make eye contact with me. Then, as I went to put my bag in the overhead bin, I heard him mutter something sour.
"[Something something] say excuse me."
My adrenaline went bonkers. Was someone being a dick to me? In person? At 7 am? In an enclosed space? For no reason? When I have a hangover? And we're about to be stuck next to each other for the next five hours? I'm used to men treating me like garbage virtually, or from fast-moving cars, but this close-quarters IRL shit-talking was a jarring novelty.
Me: "No, you said something. What did you say?"
Me: "No. What did you say? Tell me."
Other passengers: [silent screams]
Him: "I said that if you want someone to move, it helps to say 'excuse me' and then get out of the way. You told me to move and then you just [gestures at my body in the aisle]."
Me [head melting]: "I'm putting my bag in the overhead bin. You know, because that's how planes work?"
Him [dripping with disdain]: "Yeah, okay."
I sat down. They closed the doors. I said, "Looks like there's no one in the middle seat, so you won't actually have to sit next to me. Since I apparently bother you so much."
Him: "Sounds great to me."
As soon as he fell asleep (with his mouth open like a NERD), I passive-aggressively jarred his foot with my backpack and then said, "OH, EXCUSE ME," because I am an adult. We ignored each other for the rest of the flight.
It felt foreign to be confronted so vocally and so publicly (and for such an arbitrary reason), but it also felt familiar. People say the same kind of thing to me with their eyes on nearly every flight—this guy just chose to say it with his mouth.
This is the subtext of my life: "You're bigger than I'd like you to be." "I dread being near you." "Your body itself is a breach of etiquette." "You are clearly a fucking moron who thinks that cheesecake is a vegetable." "I know that you will fart on me."
Nobody wants to sit next to a fat person on a plane. Don't think we don't know.
I have, in my life, been a considerably thinner person and had a fat person sit next to me on a plane. I have also, more recently, been the fat person that makes other travelers' faces fall. Anecdotally, I can verify that being the fat person is almost indescribably worse.
This year, for the first time ever, I got on a plane and discovered that I didn't fit in the seat. I've always been fat, but I was the fat person that still mostly fit. I mean, I couldn't fit into clothes (MORE TUNICS PATTERNED LIKE A PARISIAN SUITCASE, PLEASE), and I had to be careful with butt safety (I'll take the chair side, not the banquette, thanks), but I was still the kind of fat person who could move through the straight-size world without causing too many ripples. Until this fall.
It's been an incredibly busy year for me professionally—I've probably flown 20 times in the past eight months—and one day I sat down and it just didn't work. I was on a flight home from Texas, I think, and the flight out there had been fine. Suddenly, on the return flight, I had to cram myself in. I mean, I know I ate that brisket, but I was only gone for two days! I'm no butt scientist (at least, not certified...ANYMORE), but how fast could a person's butt possibly grow!?
If you've never tried cramming your hips into a jagged metal box that's an inch or two narrower than your flesh (under the watchful eye of resentful tourists), then sitting motionless in there for five hours while you fold your arms and shoulders up like an origami orchid in order to be as unobtrusive as possible, RUN DON'T WALK. It's like squeezing your bones in a vise. The pain makes your teeth ache. It fucking hurts.
But even worse than any physical pain is the anxiety of walking up the aisle and not knowing what plane you're on. Am I going to fit this time? Will I have to ask for a seatbelt extender? Is this a 17-incher or an 18-incher? Did I get on early enough that I can get myself crammed in before someone comes and sits next to me? Is the person next to me going to hate me? Does everyone on this plane hate me? I paid money for this?
People's butts might be getting bigger, sure, but it's a certainty that seats are getting smaller. I fit in every other chair. (Some people don't. That's fine too. Those are good bodies too. Those people deserve respect and accommodations too, without caveats.)
I'm sure some fat people are fat by their own hand, without any underlying medical conditions, but a lot of other fat people are fat because they're sick or disabled. And unless you're checking every human being's bloodwork before they pull up Kayak.com, you do not know which fat people are which. Which means, inevitably, if you think fat people are "the problem" (and not, say, airlines hoping to squeeze out an extra $200 million a year in revenue, or consumers who want cheap airline tickets without sacrificing amenities), you are penalizing a significant number of human beings emotionally and financially for a disease or disability that already complicates their lives. To me, ethically, that's fucked up.
A few weeks ago, I went to Seattle's Museum of Flight for my nephew's 6th birthday party. They have the body of an old airliner from the '60s in there, and you can go hang out in it and pretend you're a Mad Man or whatever and honk the buns of invisible flight attendants. Whatever you're into. And you know what? THOSE SEATS ARE FUCKING HUGE. It's like sitting in a normal human chair, but IN THE SKY. The difference was incredible. (It was definitely the most interesting exhibit in the museum, and that place also has, like, the first plane. Which, to be fair, didn't have seats at all. So...upgrade? I guess?)
Soon after that museum visit, I came across this post: "It Is Now Physically Impossible for an Adult to Fit on a Plane." The Wall Street Journal reported that seats are getting smaller and smaller, even on long international flights—some squeezing below an already scrunchy 17 inches. In case you don't know how small small is, that is CRAZY SMALL. That's not just too small for fat people, it's inhumanely small for "normal"-size people too. Another headline: "Airlines squeezing in even more seating."
Southwest, the largest domestic carrier, is installing seats with less cushion and thinner materials — a svelte model known in the business as slim-line. It is also reducing the maximum recline to 2 inches from 3.
My boyfriend is 6'5". His shoulders are so wide that he physically must use both armrests (and then some), and his legs are so long that the person in front of him absolutely cannot recline their seat. He doesn't fucking fit. He fits worse than I do. Even though fat people are always blamed for RUINING EVERYTHING on planes, I realized the other day that—thanks to insecurity and my proficiency at origami-arms—I've literally never used a plane armrest. Even when I'm in the middle seat. I hear it's nice, though!
None of this is news. The should-fat-people-be-allowed-on-planes debate has been raging for years, and I have no interest in pointlessly rehashing it all over again. Some people will always disagree. That's fine.
But I just want to say this: Before the day I didn't fit, this conversation was largely an abstraction for me. My stance was the same as it is now (if people pay for a service, it's the seller's obligation to accommodate those people and provide the service they paid for), but I didn't understand what that panicky, uncertain walk down the aisle actually felt like. How inhumane it is. How much it makes you question your worth as a human being. I've done it a dozen or so times now, and I've also had a fat person sit next to me and squish me a little bit for six hours. There is no comparison.
I'm telling you this right now not to get sympathy or pity, or even to change your opinion about how airplanes should accommodate larger passengers. I'm just telling you, human to human, that life is complicated and fat people are trying to live. Same as you. Regardless of your stance on the "obesity epidemic," these things are objectively true: Airplane seats are too small. They're too small for everyone except for small people. It's bad. Passengers are going fucking nuts. And, sorry, it's not my responsibility to fix it.
That guy next to me didn't call me fat to my face. I don't even know if that's what was bothering him, although I know the way he looked at my body (my body, not my face, not once, not ever). I can't be sure why that guy was mad at me, but I know why people are mad at me on planes. I know that he disliked me instantly, he invented a reason to be a dick to me, and then he executed it. At 7 am. In a flying fart-can. When I HAD A HANGOVER. And, much more importantly, I see other people staring those same daggers at other fat people's bodies every day, in the sky and on the ground. It's just a shitty way to go through life, for everyone.
You don't have to change your mind about fat people. But you could just be fucking kind. You could give it a shot. It's the holidays, and we're all in this fart-can together.