Reader Pauline let me know about a conversation on the site Etiquette Hell about flying while fat. The conversation is indented and may be triggering, you can skip it and still understand the point of the blog:
I travel to the US twice a year. I would absolutely love to be able to afford first class or business seats, but I can’t. I always fly coach. The problem is this: I wear American size 22 pants, not because of my stomach; it’s because of my hips. They’re large and I have huge saddle bags. I always book an aisle seat to make sure only one person will be bothered by my saddle bags. And even though I try to lean to the opposite side as much as I can, part of my thigh still spills into my unlucky seatmate’s seat, making me very embarrassed. I read airlines/flights forums where people who could have easily been my seatmates complain about the passenger of size who should have booked a first class seat and let me tell you: Do I feel guilty! but I just can’t afford it.
So I have a few questions for all of you fellow E-hell readers and Ms E-Hell Dame: what should I do? What’s your opinion on the issue? Do you have similar stories? Have you been the “offender” or the “offended”?
Just for the sake of information: I’m 5″7 and weigh 270 pounds. When I weighed 230 I still had huge saddle bags. 0510-14
When I fly, being a BBW, I always go first class on an aisle seat. That is just the cost of travel for me, imo. In the pre-boarding seating area, I can tell which passengers the other flyers are secretly wishing they are not seated next to (squirming children, wailing babies, and big people) and I prefer to be as accommodating as possible to my fellow travelers so that I am not perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices. In other words, I never presume I am entitled to more seat than I paid for and if any body part of mine has the potential to spill over into someone else’s purchased space, I need to make sure I pay for enough room to contain my body within the zone I “own”. That may mean flying first class or buying two plane seats side by side.
That isn’t the advice you were probably hoping to read but it’s one I firmly believe in. And I don’t think this just applies to fat people but physically fit and athletic men or tall people can also easily usurp more space on a plane than their ticket allows.
Let me start by saying that she, and every other fat flyer, is allowed to believe and do whatever she wants. If she believes that “not perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices” means paying more than a thin person for the same customer experience that’s her right. My issue here is that she is saying that, as an etiquette expert, she “firmly believes” that doing so is good etiquette.
First of all, the idea of choosing our behavior so that we don’t “perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices” suggests that if people choose to stereotype us or hold prejudices against us, we are responsible for “solving” that by mollifying our bigots with our behavior. The problem with stereotyping and prejudice is the stereotyping and prejudice, not the victims of it. The solution to prejudice is neither weight loss nor paying twice what our bigots pay for the same service. People are allowed to hold personal stereotypes and prejudice but they should not be allowed to institutionalize them and the groups who are the victims of their bigotry are not required by the rules of etiquette to participate in our own oppression to make them happy.
To agree with her, we have to believe the idea that some people deserve seats that they fit into and others don’t- such that those who are fat, muscular, tall, broad-shouldered etc. should have to pay more than people who aren’t fat, muscular, tall, or broad-shouldered to get the same customer experience – specifically transportation from one place to another in a seat that accommodates us. (I’ll point out that while many fat people have been thrown off planes or forced to buy a second seat for being fat, there is no policy about tall, broad-shouldered, or muscular passengers and I’ve never heard of one of them getting thrown off a plane or asked to purchase a second seat for taking up “more than their space”)
I happen to fit in one seat (my fat goes front to back more than side to side.) That gives me some privilege when it comes to flying and I think the appropriate use of that privilege is to say “Why aren’t all the passengers getting the same experience that I get, and how can I hep them fight for that” rather than saying “obviously people my size and smaller deserve a better/cheaper experience than people who are larger than us or shaped differently.”
This argument seems to me to also be an extension of the “good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy.” “I am willing to pay twice as much as the person next to me for the same customer experience so that I don’t perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices” sounds very much to me like the way that many fat people feel that we have to justify our requests to be treated with basic human respect (ie: I have a juicer, I exercise, and I only eat vegetables that were dried with a towel knitted by someone’s Nana, so I deserve to not be bullied.) Both are a version of “I’m not like those other fat people so I deserve to be treated better than you would treat them” I think that’s bullshit in any guise.
The belief that fat, tall, muscular or broad-shouldered people are obligated to buy two seats or pay for first class or we don’t deserve to fly, has a number of ramifications. If an employer wants to fly candidates to a job interview it will cost them twice as much to interview one of us, if a job involves travel it will cost the company twice as much to hire one of us, if we want one of the jobs that helps us engage in activism or puts us in front of people (speaker, performer, stand-up comic etc.) it will costs venues twice as much to book us. People who make this argument are saying that it’s acceptable not just to say that fat, tall, muscular or broad-shouldered people need to have twice as much money as others to take a vacation, but also to do our jobs, attend a wedding, graduation, or even a funeral.
I think that if you don’t want civil rights, then you fight for everyone to have them, and once they do you choose not to avail yourself of them. Nobody is saying that if airlines give all passengers the same experience regardless of size that she has to take them up on it, she is still welcome to purchase two seats or a first class seat. I think what isn’t cool is to make a decision that just because you can afford to pay twice as much, or because it’s ok with you that you don’t get the same customer experience as people who don’t look like you, you suggest that good etiquette requires that everyone who looks like you agrees with that. It seems to me that she might be getting internalized oppression confused with etiquette.
As a member of a few groups that many people choose to stereotype and hold prejudices against I understand that those people would prefer that I at least shut up and, even better, if I wouldn’t mind being participating in my own oppression by doing whatever they think I should do. In this case that includes paying twice as much as them for the same experience, or acting like the problem is that fat, tall, muscular and broad-shouldered people exist, and not the fact that they built planes as if we didn’t, and make policies as if we don’t deserve the same experience they give passengers who aren’t fat, tall, muscular or broad-shouldered. As an activist, I’m completely unwilling to do that. People are allowed to be prejudiced and suggest that they deserve a different experience than I do because we look different, but I do not have to participate in that, and I won’t.
For the record, I fly all the time for speaking engagements and I cannot recommend Southwest Airlines enough. They did some super shitty things in the past, they were asked to make changes and they did. I boycotted them until they made the changes, and now I fly with them as much as possible and recommend that my friends support them as well (no, I don’t get anything for promoting them, I just appreciate that they are committed to giving me the same experience as their thin passengers.) Their passenger of size policy can be found at http://www.southwest.com/html/customer-service/extra-seat/index-pol.html
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