How To Be A Thin Ally On A Plane

Share the SpaceI received an e-mail with a great question about how to be an ally to fat people on planes. Before I get too far into it, here’s some background reading:

If you feel like fat people getting a seat that fits us is “unfair special treatment” this post is for you.

If you feel like “it’s not fat shaming, it’s just economics” to not accommodate fat people,  head over here.

If you’re wondering “Why don’t we just charge everyone by weight?” this is why.

If you’re wondering “how can this situation get any worse?”  Zodiac Seats France has you covered

Now for today’s question:

If I was in a flight that was not full, and was seated next to a fat person who did not have enough space, then I would want to find another seat so that we are both comfortable. I don’t want to spend the duration of the flight squishing myself so that my fat seat mate has more space, and I KNOW that fat people ALWAYS try to squish themselves and make themselves smaller in order to take up less why would I stay in my seat and make them suffer? Of course if it was a full flight then I will not ask to change my seat. What is the proper way to fix the seat situation so that both parties are happy and comfortable? Also, what do you advise me to do if it is a full flight and I am seated next to a fat person? I don’t want them to feel obligated to squish themselves and make themselves smaller..but at the same time it’s kind of rude to assume that from a stranger, right? I kind of want to tell them that it’s ok to lift the arm rest between us and to not get scared of me throwing a fit or whatever if our bodies touched. Please help.

First of all, thanks for caring about this I really appreciate that you are asking these questions.  As always I can only speak for myself, and other fat people may disagree with the advice I’m about to give you. This situation sucks, and the emotions and reactions of fat people to situations like this can, and likely will, be affected by living in society that oppresses us and tells us things like we don’t deserve the sames things that thin people get (in this case, a seat that accommodates us) so no matter what you say, a positive outcome is not guaranteed, which is one of the challenges of doing ally work.

I would start out by smiling at your seatmate and then saying something welcoming. Fat people are used to getting the eyeball trifecta – eye rolling, side eye, and evil eye – accompanied by dramatic sighing, so having someone smile and say something nice (“Hi, welcome to row 22, I’m Annie, it’s nice to meet you!”) can help get the interaction off to a good start (and has the added benefit of modeling how to act for passengers of the eye-and-sigh variety.)

Next, consider making it clear that you realize that the airline, not the fat person, is the problem.  Perhaps by saying something like “I don’t understand why they make these seats so small, they know people come in lots of sizes, they should make seats that accommodate everyone!” or “I’m so frustrated with the airlines, if you’re going to sell travel that should include more than a tiny seat that doesn’t work for half your customers!)

Next, make the offer.  “You seem awesome, so I’ll be sad not to hang out with you, but I think I see an empty seat, would it be cool with you if I switched seats so you can be more comfortable?” or “I think I can fix the airline’s mistake here – I see an empty seat, is it cool if I switch so that you don’t have to feel squished?”

If there isn’t an empty seat then I would say something like “looks like the airline decided that we should be close for this flight!  Would you prefer the seat divider up or down?” Depending on how the fat person is shaped, it also may not be possible for us to use our tray so when the drinks come around if you notice that we are not able to use the tray you might say something like “We can both just share my tray if it’s easier.”

That’s my advice, again your mileage may vary and of course if people have other suggestions please leave them in the comments!


This year we have a kick ass line up of speakers talking about everything from Re-Imagining Fashion from an Inclusive Framework” to “Activism for the Introverted and Anxious” to “Building Fat Patient Power While Accessing Healthcare” and moreThis is a virtual conference so you can listen by phone or computer wherever you are, and you’ll receive recordings and transcripts of each talk so that you can listen/read on your own schedule.  We also offer a pay what you can afford option to make the conference accessible to everyone. The Conference will be held September 23-25, 2016

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7 thoughts on “How To Be A Thin Ally On A Plane

  1. Quite often, those who give the fat passenger the “trifecta,” are also the same ones who think nothing of reclining their seat right into the knees of the tall person behind them, from the moment the plane’s wheels leave the ground until the moment it’s at the destination gate.

    I actually had one give me a dirty look one time, after bouncing their seat against my legs multiple times, when I told them I couldn’t make my legs any shorter.

    I think the airlines design their seating for someone the size of a hyperactive 8 year old. Anyone larger than that is going to be cramped. It’s one of the factors we consider when planning a big dive trip – just how long do we want to be stuck in a too-small seat space?

  2. I like the dialogue suggestions a lot!

    Personally, just having someone who is friendly and doesn’t do the eye trifecta would make a world of difference for me. I might be physically uncomfortable, but at least I wouldn’t be spending the entire flight pep talking myself to prevent feeling like a complete nuisance to society.

  3. This may come across differently from me, since I am fat (though my weight is more front-to-back and don’t have the same problems in an airline seat as someone who is shaped with more fat side-to-side.)

    For the arm rest issue, I usually just keep it to, “Do you have enough room? If not, feel free to raise the armrest.” (said in a friendly tone and with a smile.) Then I go back to my book, because I’m an introvert and don’t really talk much on planes.

  4. I don’t think anyone signs up for being packed in small seats surrounded by strangers while being offered a $6 “snack tray” and half a serving of water while hurtling through the sky for fun. We do it because we have to, because its worth to go to the place we want to get to. I sympathize with everyone on the plane, and have no problem sitting next to larger bodied person (which I always do when I fly with my hubby, he’s tall and fat). These are good suggestions and I will try to put them into action next time it happens (well, not with my husband, who may have to suffer an eye-roll or two for his bad jokes)

  5. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach, other than be really nice. Which is what we all should be anyway!

    I will say that having strangers touch me gives me anxiety. So I struggle with putting the arm rest up. But that said, I’m nice to everyone on the plane EXCEPT the dude who wants his head in my lap. I get reclining a couple inches but dude, I can’t hold my book far enough away to read it if you go all the way back! (Because I’m old. LOL)

    I’ve frequently offered to share my tray – business peeps on laptops appreciate that too. It’s not a size thing, it’s courtesy, and we all could use more of that! 🙂

  6. Ragen, if a fellow airline passenger treated me as you suggest here I think I would weep! In recent long flights to Europe, I have had seatmates (male) who either ignore me completely or are actively rude.

  7. I took my first flight nearly two years ago now and I am so grateful to the woman I sat next to on the first leg who was kind and didn’t mind my fat body being in the seat next to her. She could tell I was nervous as a first-time flyer and didn’t make it worse with body hate. I wish the same was true of my seatmate on my next leg of the flight (which interestingly was the shorter flight), he wasn’t horrible but I definitely received the trifecta. But at least I had the positive experience on the first part.
    I guess I don’t have any real tips to add, but thanks for bringing this conversation up. We’re all in this sardine can together, just trying to get where we are going!

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