Flying While Fat Sucks
Flying while fat sucks. The stress of making sure you set yourself up for success, the self-consciousness you feel as you imagine what your fellow passengers are thinking as you squeeze into your seat, the extra luggage you have to pack because you know you sweat too much to wear your jeans more than a single day - there’s a reason I prefered to drive whenever possible instead of flying.
A few years back I started having to travel to West Texas at least once a month for my job. At first I drove every single time. Having to spend eight to twelve hours in a car was a small price to pay for being able to skip out on the stress involved with flying. Not wanting to waste an entire day driving, I would frequently make the drives overnight - starting around 8 PM and getting to my destination in the early hours of the morning. My poor sleeping habits allowed me to do this but it was a vicious cycle of bad decisions because in order to stay awake through the night I would gorge myself on sugary snacks and caffeinated drinks, adding to my weight problems that necessitated I drive rather than fly.
And then, one day, I suddenly stopped being able to make that drive. It was a purely mental block - a voice in my head telling me I could not force my body to go through the abuse of staying awake all night and driving down the solitary back roads of West Texas, where Dairy Queens outnumber libraries.
Just because I stopped being willing to drive, though, didn’t mean I stopped needing to take the trips. I had to suck up my issues and start flying.
The Hells of Flying as a Fat Person:
Regardless of how long my trip was going to be, I almost always needed to check luggage. As mentioned above, being fat meant I was always sweating and I couldn’t count on being able to wear clothing more than once. In fact, I frequently needed to pack extra shirts or jeans in case I sweated more than usual on a given day. More so, I was wearing 5X shirts and size 58 jeans. Clothing like that takes up a lot of room. Traveling in the winter meant jackets and sweaters. And just because it was cold outside didn’t mean I wasn’t sweating. At my heaviest, I was 400 pounds - I was always sweating.
On trips to Utah in January I would find myself checking two large suitcases to accommodate all the oversized layers I needed and I would still need to do a load of laundry at some point during the trip.
Where You Sit
I do most of my flying on Southwest. I guess the tickets are cheap and that’s something but the stress of checking into a flight for a fat person is truly cruel. Fat people cannot risk being in boarding group C. I would plan my entire day around making sure I could check into my flight early enough so that I would be guaranteed a window or aisle seat. It wasn’t just for my own comfort, though, it was for the comfort of whoever I was going to have to sit next to. On a crowded flight where there were no empty seats, I knew I was going to make somebody on the plane uncomfortable by having them have to sit next to me. To have to sit in the middle and make two people uncomfortable - that was not something I could do. I would and I did get up and walk out of an airplane rather than inflict that upon somebody else.
My strategy was always to try and get on the plane as soon as possible, grab a window seat and squeeze my body as tight against the window as possible, trying not to overflow into the neighboring seat. I would then close my eyes and try and mentally will the seat next to me to remain empty. When that wasn’t a possibility and somebody was forced to sit next to me, I remained motionless the entire flight. No books, no movies, no entertainment. I would force myself to sleep or just stare at the back of the chair in front of me, trying my best to absorb myself into the wall and not think about the fact that my gut was hanging over the armrest into my neighbor’s personal space.
One time my flight was delayed and I was late getting onto a connecting flight. The plane was full and I was forced to sit in a middle seat. The man sitting on the aisle was sympathetic - not sympathetic enough to give me his seat but he tried his best to give me extra room. The man in the window seat, though, made disgruntled noises the entire 45 minute flight from Dallas to Houston, making sure I knew how disgusted he was with me. He even poked my gut a few times with a pen. At least I think it was a pen. I had my eyes tightly closed the entire time, pretending to be asleep so I would not have to acknowledge the man's cruelty.
At my heaviest, Southwest began to do something weird. I’m sure it was them trying to be helpful but it actually made things so much more unpleasant for me.
It started when I went to go check my bag. The woman working the counter looked me over and then clucked her tongue, saying she was going to help me out. She typed away furiously at her computer for a few moments before printing out a ticket stub and handing it to me. I cannot remember the exact language but it basically outlined that I now had priority seating and, more so, I had a sheet of paper that I could show to prove that nobody had to sit next to me on the plane. Basically, she gave me an extra ticket because of how fat I was.
I was mortified. I knew I had gained some weight but this act of kindness dissolved any illusion I had that I was not morbidly obese. I took the tickets and walked, dejected, to the gate for my flight. Along the way I decided I was not going to use the tickets. I was in the A boarding group and I was just going to stick to my window strategy. If the flight was empty enough for Southwest to feel comfortable giving me an extra ticket without charging me for it, there was a very good chance nobody was going to end up sitting next to me anyway. Nobody ever sat next to me on a plane unless they had to.
I waited with the rest of the A boarding group but when I gave my ticket to the person at the front of the loading ramp he admonished me. “You were supposed to load up with the priority seating.” I feigned ignorance, mumbled an apology and entered the plane, taking my seat. It was over.
On the flight back home to Houston, I did not get an extra ticket when I checked my bag. I smiled inwardly, thinking that the sweater I was wearing must be slimming. I made a mental note to wear it as often as possible, regardless of how warm it got in Houston. As I entered the plane, though, I noticed that the Southwest personal checking tickets pointed at me and whispered to one of their associates before I entered the ramp.
Maybe I was just being paranoid.
As I took my seat I heard a voice over the loudspeaker on the plane: “Robert Saucedo, please hit the call button to summon a flight attendant to your seat.” I nervously complied. As I waited to see what fresh hell I had stumbled into, a young woman and her infant child took the two seats next to me. Sitting next to a kid was as good as it got when I was forced to have a seat neighbor on a plane. Sure they might cry and kick and be obnoxious, but they didn’t need that much space on their seat and they never complained about having to sit next to me.
A few moments after the mom and her child had settled in, a flight attendant approached us and handed me an extra ticket. What the hell was I supposed to do - tell the mom and her kid that they needed to move because I was so fat I needed two seats? Fat chance. I gave the attendant a dirty look and shoved the ticket into my breast pocket, clamped my eyes shut and forced myself to go to sleep until the plane landed in Houston.
Getting to the airport in time
I like to get to the airport hours before my flight. People will give me a hard time about it but it’s a habit born from being fat. The most pressing reason has to do with not wanting to rush to get to my plane. Besides the obvious fact that I’m not a fast runner and I will not be able to make it across the airport in time if I’m running late for a flight, there’s also the worry about sweating from stress.
If I had to even walk fast across an airport, hauling a hefty carry on bag or just my own heft, I was going to sweat. And then I was going to have to sit next to somebody smelling like sweat. I’ve had people get up and ask to change seats because of how bad I smelled after running across an airport to catch a flight.
Beyond the hygiene issue, there’s the little things like the fact that my clothes never fit right and would cast shadows during X-Ray scans, causing me to have to be patted down or that I had to eat before a flight for fear of my blood sugar dropping while in air. A small glass of soda and a bag of pretzels was not going to help.
I can’t remember when I stopped being able to buckle myself in on planes. I just remember one day realizing that no matter how much I struggled, I was not going to be able to connect my seat belt. I sometimes, if I could do it quietly, would ask for a seat belt extender. I even considered a few times stealing one or finding a place where I could purchase one so I wouldn’t have to ask. More often than not, though, I would just tuck the two ends of the seat belt into my jeans and cover the affair with my shirt, so it appeared to my neighbors or the flight attendants that I was buckled in.
I learned the hard way that if you are unable to buckle your seat belt without an extender, you’re not allowed to sit in the emergency escape sections of a plane. The official reason they give is because they don’t want the extender getting tangled up and preventing passengers from quickly exiting a plane. I got an attendant to admit once that there was also a concern about a large guest “Winnie the Poohing” themselves in the emergency exit and getting stuck, preventing other passengers from escaping. She may have just been humoring me, though.
Regardless of the reason why, it sucks having to be told you need to move to a different section of the plane because you can’t put on a seat belt.
There are a lot of reasons being fat sucks. Being self-conscious when you eat in public, being self-conscious about what you wear in public, being afraid you’re going to die an early death due to cardiac arrest. Most people, I’ve found, are not outwardly rude to fat people. You will occasionally get the looks or questions. I had an Uber drive once ask me why I chose to be fat. And I couldn’t even really get mad at him because I did choose to be fat. Or at the very least, I chose to not do something about being fat.
No, you don’t get many people making fun of you to your face outside of grade school when it comes to your weight. You do, however, get constantly reminded of what people think about you in other ways. They offer you their leftovers. They don't invite you to pool parties. They recommend new diets they read about in magazines.
During the initial days of the “Me Too” movement, I was sent into a spiral of depression because of the fat jokes people I considered friends were making about Harvey Weinstein and Harry Knowles. I was as heavy, if not heavier, than them. Was me not being accused of sexual misconduct the only thing that kept my friends from making similar cracks about me?
I’ve been fat almost my entire life but in my early 30s I let it get too far. I was over 400 pounds, experiencing new and frightening health scares on a weekly basis and was already starting to make peace with the fact that I was not going to see my 40s. But then something happened - I made the choice not to be fat anymore. And it was a choice.
I started eating better, exercising more and, within eight months, I had lost 85 pounds. I’m still not where I want to be and I’ve plateaued for the last few months - not having lost any significant weight since the beginning of the summer. I am committed, though, to continuing on my journey and getting to the weight level I want to be long term.
It’s going to take some more time and I’m going to continue to have to make choices about how I live my life for the better but something great happened recently that gave me hope: I was able to buckle my seat belt on a plane.
Flying still sucks but it's starting to suck a little less.