People sitting on a crowded airplane.
Image Source: Suhyeon Choi / Unsplash

Flying While Fat and the Normalizing of Fatphobia

Today, Nov. 1, is the final day to submit public comments to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about the size of airplane seats. Over 23,000 people have already submitted comments (Regulations.gov). Since the 1960s, the average weight of U.S. residents has increased by 30 pounds while airplane seat width has shrunk by 1.5 inches. The FAA is soliciting public comments on whether airline seats are so small that they might interfere with emergency evacuation (The Week). There’s currently no minimum seat size, though this could change based on public comments (The Hill). Unregulated airplane seat shrinkage is bad for all passengers, particularly if it adds precious seconds to evacuation time in an emergency. Smaller seat sizes are especially bad for larger passengers, whose exclusion is built into infrastructure and discriminatory social norms.

 Despite receiving $50 billion of taxpayer money in 2020 with “no scrutiny or regulation” (Nerdwallet), airlines have failed to increase seat sizes or create policies to accommodate larger passengers. This creates no-win situations for passengers forced to pay a “fat tax” to fly. Influencer Kayla Logan (@kaylaloganblog) writes of the “pain, embarrassment and humiliation” of flying while fat and having to pay either for two seats or provide medical documentation to the airline. People are also subjected to fellow passengers’ fatphobia —the prejudicial stigmatization and hatred of fatness and fat people (Newsweek). Political commentator Sydney Watson live-tweeted her fatphobic outrage at being “WEDGED” between two fat people on a flight. “I don’t care if this is mean,” she wrote. “You are TOO FAT TO BE ON A PLANE.” Watson would later pen an op-ed doubling down and lamenting a society that “normalize[s] obesity” (Newsweek).

TAKE ACTION

Write a comment today about the minimum seat dimensions on U.S. passenger planes.

• Question fatphobic attitudes held by yourself or others

Instead of criticizing the multinational corporation that she, and the people beside her, paid hundreds of dollars for a comfortable and safe flight, she took out her ire on two other passengers. In fact, she said that because of their size, they ought to be prohibited from using air travel altogether. When fatness is associated with “ugliness, inferiority, and immorality” (Irish Times), it’s easy for the intolerant to rationalize dehumanization and exclusion instead of accessibility and dignity. 

Da’Shaun Harrison, theologist, abolitionist, and author of Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, received over 800 responses when they asked other fat people about things they’re extra careful about doing in public. People reported only buying small amounts of groceries at a time, avoiding eating in public, and refraining from dancing or attending parties. As Harrison puts it: 

“The clear discomfort expressed by thin people when sitting beside a fat person on public transit, which they likely view as harmless, can oftentimes lead to the criminalization of said fat person — especially when that fat person is Black. The unwarranted fear expressed by white people when fat Black and brown men walk near them validates police forces’ heightened interaction with and brutality against “large” (read: fat) Black and brown men. When we assign language like “overweight” to bodies, we assume that there is a default, “normal” weight for bodies across the board. There is not” (them). 

Bigots sometimes justify fatphobia by appealing to medical authority, as if the exclusion and stigmatization of fat people is “for their own good.” Doctors sometimes fat-shame their patients to the point of encouraging anorexia (Today) or miss diagnosing serious medical conditions because they fixate on weight loss as the cure for all ailments (Healthline). We can’t know about our health from our size alone. “Social determinants of health, such as poverty, discrimination, and access to health food, are likely far more important” than obesity in contributing to poor health, says Dr. Lindo Bacon of the University of California, Davis (Science). Many obese people have healthy cholesterol levels, while slightly overweight people actually have an advantage when recovering from heart failure and cancer compared to those who aren’t. The idea that “the current state of our health can be determined by weight” is a “myth” (Psychology Benefits). 

Shrinking seats in classrooms, airplanes, bus stops, or restaurants isn’t great for anyone, but wealthy institutions get away with it because those most affected are marginalized. Many people “avoid being seen” with fat people. Fewer take active measures against anti-fat bigotry (Irish Times). Denouncing social, structural, and interpersonal fatphobia is essential (them). A society without body shaming is better for everyone, just like an airplane with reasonable seating is good for everyone aboard. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Today is the last day to tell the FAA your thoughts about airplane seat size. 

• Inadequate seating is one manifestation of fatphobia, discrimination against and hatred of fat people. 

• Body weight does not determine health.

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