If you’ve seen any of my photos on Instagram, you may think that my travel life is a scrapbook of always-perfect experiences. That’s not entirely true.
No one wants to hear about the banality. No one cares about all the times I’ve spent waiting in airports for delayed flights, that cramped overnight train from Berlin to Vienna on which I had to sit upright for 12 hours, the time I got stranded in snowstorms in Chicago one night and then Dallas the next, and all the other tedious moments that happen in between the thrilling ones.
But sometimes, between the tedium and the thrill, there are moments that you remember — and not because they’re great.
Sometimes travel doesn’t go quite as planned. Sometimes really bad things happen, and you (or, in this case, I) have to deal with them. And in my case, most of these bad things have to do not with my itinerary or travel arrangements (though sometimes they do) — but with the size of my body.
In the end, I was lucky. There are people for whom the title of this would read “I Was Kicked Off an Airplane for Being Fat.” I, thankfully, am not one of them.
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Thirty-six hours before I was supposed to board a train to Paris, the city suffered brutal attacks that left 130 people dead and many injured.
I was in London at the time, at a restaurant off Brick Lane, and returned to my room to frantic texts from my mother, a voicemail from the friend I was supposed to meet up with there, a frazzled Airbnb host glued to the news, and posts on my Facebook wall checking to make sure I was alright.
I mention the attacks only for context. I recognize that what happened to me is nothing compared to the loss that the loved ones of those murdered must suffer.
Tensions were high in London in the following days. The next morning a terminal was evacuated and a man arrested at Gatwick Airport, the same airport I flew in and out of. Perhaps an overwhelming international anxiousness, in part, contributed to what went down on my flight.
I had planned to spend that week living in an old apartment in the Marais and showing the aforementioned friend around one of my favorite cities (and one whose residents ostensibly should hate me for my size, but from whom I have almost only ever found acceptance). I still wanted to go to Paris, but France’s borders were closed or under heightened security, and the prospect of getting into the country on top of my unease at vacationing in a city in mourning made me hesitate.
After posting on Facebook to let others know I was safe, I received a message from an old college friend living and working in Logroño, Spain.
If you decide [not to or can’t] go to Paris, you are more than welcome to hop down to Spanish wine country and stay with me.
I think he was only half-serious, and I was as well when I joked, “I might actually take you up on that!”
All night I searched for flights that would get me near Logroño from London, then on to Amsterdam and Reykjavik to finish my trip. I am in part of Spanish descent and couldn’t justify passing up the opportunity to visit if I could make it work.
I messaged my friend:
I think this is actually happening.
Two days, many flight searches, one awkward interaction borrowing my host’s computer, and countless phone calls to IcelandAir and Airbnb later, I boarded the last Vueling flight of the day from London to Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain.
I stuck my backpack in the overhead compartment and squeezed between an Englishman at the window and a Basque (I believe) woman on the aisle. Because I booked so last minute, I couldn’t select my own seat. Normally, I prefer window seats, as they give me a little bit more room to squish against the side of the plane. Here, I was stuck in the middle.
It was tight, but I fit.
I didn’t encroach past the armrests into either of my neighbors’ spaces, and after buckling (without requiring a seat-belt extender, I should note), I kept my arms folded and settled in.
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Boarding finished. The door closed.
Then the woman to my left, who had been fidgeting since I sat down, stopped one of the flight attendants.
They spoke loudly in, I think, Basque. The flight attendant stared at her, then me, then back at her, again and again. My neighbor was clearly annoyed at something. Another flight attendant shortly joined them. Passengers near us looked over at our aisle, and specifically at me.
I attempted to ignore all of this. Though I was raised by a Spanish-speaking mother and Panamanian grandmother, Basque sounds nothing like Spanish. I couldn’t understand what they were saying and wanted to believe it wasn’t about me. As a fat woman, I constantly worry about being mistreated in public spaces (especially on planes), and though it happens often in minor, microaggressive ways, it’s rarely as intrusive as I fear.
The attendants disappeared, and for a moment I was grateful, thinking that whatever the issue was had been resolved. The woman stared down at her magazine.
But a minute later they returned, and this time one actually spoke to me, motioning towards the front of the plane and asking if I would switch seats.
Everyone near us stared.
I agreed, and the woman moved to let me up. I looked at her, and she glared at me.
In the aisle I asked the attendant how I’d be able to get my things when we landed if they were still in the overhead bin by my old seat. She said she didn’t know.
Everyone kept staring as I followed her to a weirdly empty row at the front of the plane (one of those more expensive seat sections, I’d guess, based on how much legroom I had). She handed me a seat-belt extender and wordlessly walked away.
When she came past again a few minutes later, I asked if the woman who had been sitting next to me was upset or had complained. “Yes,” she said coldly and again walked away.
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I buckled my seat belt (again not needing the extender, which I passive-aggressively left on the aisle seat, so the attendants could see it), looked out the window, and cried quietly to myself.
I felt powerless, frustrated, humiliated, angry, and very alone.
I pulled out my phone and posted in the Flying While Fat Facebook group before shutting it off for takeoff. I still remember how intensely my hands shook as I typed.
The flight itself was uneventful, and I spent most of it with my headphones on and eyes closed, trying to forget what had happened.
We landed. I attempted to glare at my former neighbor as she exited, but she conveniently avoided looking at me. I waited for half the plane to disembark before being able to go back and collect my things. Many of the other passengers gave me side glances on their way out. I grabbed my backpack, ignored more stares from the flight attendants, and left as quickly as possible.
The whole thing sucked. A lot.
Through passport control and past customs, and there was my friend Taylor, taller than I’d remembered him when we last saw each other (four years ago) and smiling at the arrivals gate. We hugged, and I finally began to feel the knot in my chest loosen.
I didn’t want to bring up what had happened as we caught up on the 90-minute drive to Logroño, but I ended up giving in and recounting the story.
Taylor, a conventionally attractive actor and model who I suspect has never had to deal with size discrimination, apologized and affirmed the way I was feeling, which was exactly what I needed to hear.
In the car I checked Facebook and was nearly overwhelmed to find an even more exceptional outpouring of love and support on my post than I was expecting.
“You are a wonderful, smart, funny, boss, hot-as-fuck fat woman. You are important and awesome. […] I’m really, really sorry that happened to you,” said a date later that night when I told them about my experience.
“!!! What a jerk!!! Sorry that happened but I’m also glad you didn’t have to sit next to an asshole,” my roommate responded when I tweeted about it from bed.
The knowledge that I’ve managed to surround myself with such incredible people and community made my heart feel full. But I was also very cognizant of the fact that not all people in a situation like mine would be as lucky — both in outcome and response.
Fat travelers, I cannot stress enough the importance of cultivating for yourself a body-positive support network.
These people helped me process, both with their unwavering conviction that my experience was shitty and belief that whatever I was feeling about it was justified. When you’re shamed or hurt, it is so crucial that your emotions are affirmed.
If you’re still reading, you might think you were suckered in by a click-bait title when I didn’t actually almost get booted from the plane.
Think about this: Were there not any other seats available for me to move to, would I have been kicked off the plane?
And if — at size 26, not actually needing a seat belt extender — this was my experience, what would have happened if I was any larger? My neighbor had as much right to sit comfortably as I did, but I was not encroaching on her space. And even if I had been, there was a way to handle that situation without compromising my dignity. I fail to understand how this was anything more than a dismissal of my humanity, simply because of the fact that I am fat.
Though over 50% of American women should not be able to fit comfortably, or at all, into a 17-inch wide seat, airplane seats have been — and will likely continue — getting smaller, and it’s not because airlines are hurting for money. In fact, the airline industry is currently experiencing record profits.
There are a lot of factors that went into making my experience on that Vueling flight what it was:
- The prevalent cultural view that assumes thin is a unanimous ultimate desire/what all aspire to/the “default,” with fatness being a deviation from the norm, even though people have always been and will always be — or, heaven forbid, might actually enjoy being — fat
- That it must be my “fault” for being fat and that regardless of whether it is or isn’t, I deserve no respect or dignity
- That the size of economy airplane seats should be tolerated as acceptable
- That fat people selfishly want to prioritize the space we deserve over the space thin people deserve
- That shaming or bullying me for my size could somehow make me lose weight (Spoiler alert: It’s been 18 years, and it hasn’t worked yet.)
The list goes on, and all of these assumptions are messed up.
Humans deserve to safely live with bodily integrity and autonomy and without prejudice in all areas of our lives — from the personal acts we choose to perform with our bodies to the reproductive decisions we make to the color of our skin or the gender we present or the size at which we exist.
In the end, my trip was unimaginably wonderful.
I spent three days in Spanish wine country, meandering the stone streets of Logroño and Laguardia, drinking wine like it was water, and catching up with an old friend. I made it to Amsterdam to see the friend I was supposed to meet in Paris, and then to Iceland, where I did everything from pub-crawling with other hostelers on Laugavegur in Reykjavik to walking along a tectonic fault line and bathing in a geothermal lagoon.
And you know what? This fat girl deserved every single fabulous travel experience she had.