My experiences with airplanes and airports are casual at best. I’ve flown only a handful of times in my life, and then mostly whenever ground travel wasn’t possible (e.g. Hawaii or Germany). I’m very much a road trip girl. And really, with enough gas, drivers, and cases of Dr. Pepper, you can get damn near anywhere in the US in two days. *
To be frank, I hate flying. It’s not the take-off and landings, or turbulence, or the flying itself. I enjoy all of those things. No, I hate airports, lings, useless drains on resources such as time, money, and freedom (I’m looking at you, TSA). More accurately, I don’t hate flying so much as the trappings that make flying an undesirable option for me. Well, these things and the simple fact I’m fat.
I haven’t really talked about being fat here on my blog, aside from a one-off rant about being fat and needing medical attention. My body shape shouldn’t need a disclaimer of any kind, but I’m writing one anyway to hopefully avoid concern trolls (this may be, to quote Dumbledore, optimistic to the point of foolishness).
So here’s the big disclaimer, boiled down to two points. Point one: I’m fat. Not chubby, not fluffy, but full-on fat, like barely fits into [Torrid] clothing (for the uninitiated means a size 30, or rather 30ish, since some of their stuff runs big and/or small, since apparently women’s clothing sizes are determined using pregnant hamsters and some sort of black arts ritual involving unicorn turds). Point two: I don’t think fat bodies are unnatural, or that possessors of fat bodies are any less human (and therefore less deserving of human treatment) than anyone else. Period.
Despite having lived with a fat body for 30+ years, I’m pretty new to fat acceptance and body positivity in general. And being human, I kind of suck at both. I spent the majority of my life being embarrassed of my body to the point of trying to manipulate it simply for some aesthetic I genetically was never capable of in the first place. Being new to self-care and self-love, I often find myself falling into the old habits of hate and shame. So I have no problems confessing that when I got the crazy idea to fly to Florida to see my best friend, literally seconds after buying the nonrefundable tickets, I was seized by anxiety.
What if I missed the plane? What if I was too fat for the seat? What if someone complained and they kicked me off the flight? What if they charged me for an extra seat but kicked me off anyway? What if they lost my luggage? What would I do for underwear? What if I need an extender? What if they run out of extenders and kick me off?
Horror stories from my fellow fat people rang in my ears and the vaguely worded “passenger of size” policies compounded the ball of anxiety eating away my stomach lining. Making the matter even murkier was the fact that most of the fat folk who wrote about flying never really specified how big they were. Some threw out a dress size, but that wasn’t useful, given how we’ve established how useful that particular mode of measurement is (seriously though, sometimes I order the same size in the same brand and they’re still different, wtf clothing designers?!). Also, people carry weight differently, so just because they fit didn’t mean I would.
For 42 days, from the moment of buying my tickets to the moment I hugged my best friend for the first time in seven years, I pretty much had a series of (mostly) mild but constant panic attacks. Sometimes the anxiety went away, in quiet moments that I forgot I had to try and squeeze myself into a flying sardine can, but I was always aware of it. The day before I flew out, I had a full-blown panic attack at work.
“Relax,” my coworker said. She was alternately making sure I was breathing and doing the work I was supposed to be doing. “You’ve flown before. You’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know that,” I replied darkly. “And I haven’t flown as a death fat.”
Then my flight came, and here’s what happened.
On the day of, my wonderful family dropped me off at the airport (for the record I remember flying back when people actually got to come to the gate to see you off, which was awesome. Let’s bring that back). Having a supportive sendoff was helpful, because apparently a lot changes when you don’t fly for decades at a time. But the check-in process was smooth, I only got minimally groped by TSA (who interestingly enough were more concerned with patting down my braids than my person), and found my gate in minutes. In fact, my biggest problem pre-boarding was using the bathroom because there were no purse pegs, meaning I had to balance my carry ons and hover over the toilet simultaneously. (Note to self: work on balance.)
I sprung for the Early Bird Check-in in hopes of boarding as early as possible. I scored an A position, which allowed me to unfold my seating strategy, which was basically find an empty window seat nearish to the front. Generally someone will sit in the aisle, but unless the plane gets super full, most people will pass on sitting in the middle. They’ll instead go to the back, and should they not find their desired seating, they’re still unlikely to come back. Unfortunately, this flight was super full, so all seats were full. The woman that had to sit in the middle next to me was supremely unhappy, which is understandable.
One part of my journey that I’m a wee bit proud of is the fact that, when I realized I needed an extender, I had no problems asking for one. I wasn’t embarrassed and was 100% shame free. It was kind of awesome in a validating way. Unlearning decades of problematic crap sucks, so I take the little victories when I can! Second victory of the night was a chatty flight attendant with a penchant for telling punny jokes.
The flight home went similarly, but with one addition. I know that Southwest offers passengers of size a sort of reserved seating option, but honestly the website wasn’t clear on requesting one, so I didn’t really pursue it. The woman who checked me in automatically gave me a reserved seat and a preboarding pass. I asked her if it was because I was large, and she just kinda shrugged and directed me towards security. My flight was super early in the morning (before 8 a.m.), and I was the first person on the plane. This time my strategy worked perfectly, and I was able to breathe a bit more comfortably with a seat between me and my rowmate, who incidentally was a really pleasant woman. I mean, I spilled my entire drink on her leg because I’m clumsy like that, and we still had a nice chat about scifi (she recommended Wayward Pines to me, so we’ll see about that).
So basically… I spent a month measuring chairs and desperately scouring the internet for nothing. Bottom line for all my fellow fats: if you want to try flying, try flying. I can’t guarantee you’ll have an easy time of it, because I suspect I lucked out in a lot of little ways, but it might be worth trying. I know it was worth it for me and my bestie.
* I live in the smack dab middle of America. This statement is less true of someone in L.A. attempting to get to NYC.