flying while fat
photo: iStock Images

Flying gives me anxiety. It boils down to an irrational fear of turbulence, rough streams of air that I've encountered far more often than I'd like. A plane bouncing and shaking 20,000 feet above ground gives me heart palpitations, sweaty palms, and an overwhelming sense of impending doom.

But the fear of turbulence hasn't kept me from flying, because I've learned how to manage the anxiety: I meditate before every flight, send up a prayer, bring an engrossing read to keep my mind occupied, and select planes equipped with wi-fi so I can speak to my friends and family when anxiety strikes.

No, the fear of turbulence hasn't kept me from boarding flight after flight — but gaining weight has.

This Is Us Chrissy Metz Kate Pearson flying
photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

While there are ways of breathing through turbulence, there's no way of avoiding the discomfort of flying as a plus-size woman. In episode eight of "This Is Us," Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) personified that experience when she boarded a plane from Los Angeles to New York.

Fellow customers shot Kate disdainful looks as she searched for her seat. Their faces held an unanswered question as she walked down the aisle: Would she be sitting next to them? Rather than silently absorbing the fatphobia, Kate quickly retorted with, "Don't worry, I bought both of these seats."

Unfortunately, Kate's awful experience is normal for plus-size people.  

Popular culture is littered with similar scenes of plus-size people being mistreated on airplanes simply for having larger bodies.

Tyler Perry Jill Scott Why Did I Get Married
photo: Lionsgate

There's also a heartbreaking scene in "Why Did I Get Married?" where Sheila (Jill Scott) is forced to drive to Colorado after being unable to fit in her plane seat. It mirrors cultural perception of fat bodies: Since fatness isn't considered permanent, discrimination against fat people, even on airplanes, is acceptable.

I am most aware of the size of my body when I am on a plane. Flying is a hellacious experience between the small seats, the breath-shortening arm rests, the seat belt explicitly designed for smaller bodies, and the tray table that doesn't lay down fully on my thighs because of my stomach.

Yet, there isn't empathy for this plight.

Instead, the response from fellow passengers only enhances the discomfort.

I often pay the additional money to board flights early so I can get comfortable before the plane overflows. But that rarely, if ever, keeps me from noticing the expressions on other passengers' faces as they walk past my seat.

Many have noticeably relieved expressions when they realize they don't have to sit next to me. Others have resigned expressions when they realize they do. Most, if not all, speak to me — but one woman, in particular, did not.

She sighed before sitting down, forced the armrest down, although it dug into my side, and smirked noticeably when I attempted to lower my tray table. Her unkindness made me uncomfortable. 

Unfortunately, my experience is quite common.

Fat activist Stacy Bias captured the difficulty of flying as a plus-size person in her animated film "Flying While Fat."

"Flying While Fat" explores how the shrinking of airline seats to accommodate more passengers has harmed plus-size customers. The video also echoed a lot of the anxieties that fat flyers, including me, have.

"I love to fly, and my only stress in relation to flying comes from my interaction with other people," one of the voices featured in the video said. "It's like I have a hyper-awareness of my body at all times that other people don't have to think about. They don't have to think about their space and how much or how little they're taking up. I'm always trying not to burden someone else with my body."

In addition to the discomfort of flying while fat, airlines have done little to make flying a more pleasurable experience for plus-size customers. The logic is that fatness can be controlled. It isn't a permanent state of being. 

So, rather than making airplanes, amusement park rides, and public transportation seats bigger, plus-size people are encouraged to lose weight instead.

Making flying as uncomfortable as possible for plus-size people is another way of punishing us for being fat.

Fatness comes with a punitive burden. Whether that's being unable to find clothes that fit well, encountering doctors that treat fatness instead of illnesses, or having to shell out extra cash for an additional airline seat, fatness is treated as a crime coupled with penalties.

Unfortunately, for me, and many other fellow fat people, it's a price we're unable to pay.