This fat girl couldn’t fly home without a fight.
On Easter Sunday I was flying home after having participated in a National Popular Culture Association Conference in D.C. I had presented a Fat Studies/Media Studies research paper titled, White Supremacy, Fat Hurdles and Thin Privilege in Media Representation: A Layered Model for Media Hegemony and Effect, as well as attended many Fat Studies division sessions. One of those sessions had been a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop where we improvised and acted out strategies to fight size discrimination. Perfect preparation for the not so fat-friendly skies…Do you hear the suspense thriller music rising in the background?
I pass most of the time on airplanes, and waiting for airplanes, catching up on important books I’ve bought but haven’t been able to squeeze in the time to turn the pages. Flying from the PCA conference in DC to Atlanta, I was reading the rather fabulous Fat! So?: Because you DON’T have to APOLOGIZE for your size!, by the incredibly fabulous author, Marilyn Wann (who I had the grand honor to meet for the first time at the conference couple of days earlier).
As the plane docked in Atlanta, I knew I would be lucky to make my connecting flight to Montgomery, at the opposite end of the massive airport, in time. So I stood as soon as I could to get my overhead bag from where I had to stow it, several rows in front of me. I ended up standing next to an affable passenger in a Delta pilot uniform who was also standing, prepared to leave.
The pilot, a Jewish family (the father and son wore yarmulkes) and several mature women and I were joking about the reputed selective hearing of some husbands and fathers. I told the pilot the story of the time my father stood waiting for a northbound train in Baltimore’s Union Station. Every other person left the previously crowded platform on which my father stood and moved to another. My father’s train came, took all the people on the other platform and went to New York. My father was left to swear repeatedly that no announcement had been made about the train’s platform change. Everyone else just “intuited” to move to another gate. Right… The pilot laughed, then a lull in the conversation.
I mentioned how doubly safe I’d felt on the flight with him, a pilot, sitting a few rows ahead and surrounded by a couple dozen young, jovial DC Emergency Medical Technician recruits, headed for an Anniston, Alabama hazmat training. The smiling Delta Airlines pilot agreed I had nothing to worry about with the EMT recruits sitting near the emergency exits. And then he decided to go to a nasty, dark place…
“What you really have to worry about is when some big, fat guy is sitting there and if there’s an emergency, you have to get out behind him through a whole about this big,” he said, making a gesture with both his hands about the size of two oranges.
“The hole’s a lot bigger than that,” I retorted good-naturedly, “And the good thing about fat,” I said laying a loving hand on my own belly roll, "...is that it’s soft and can squeeze through some tight places.”
Now the pilot’s laugh had an indignant tone that hadn’t been there during our jokes about selectively deaf- husbands who couldn’t hear their wives or children when they didn’t want to.
“Yeah, right…” the pilot continued laughing, “Take a look at those seatbelt extenders. In big block letters it says, ‘FATSO.’”
With the flash of a French fencing champ, I pulled the Marilyn Wann book from under my arm and held it up to him like a placard (…Here’s your sign…) and said, “Yeah! Fat! So?” The look of shock on the fat hating pilot’s face was one I wished I could immortalize in stone. Eyes wide, staring from the book cover to me, and back again, motioning toward the book with cupped hands, in a begging gesture, he sputtered,
Perhaps from the Pedagogy of the Oppressed work, my subconscious immediately knew what to do without conscious thought. I began a mini, righteous rant,
“I’ve just come from a workshop where we’ve worked on healing and protecting ourselves from fat hatred and discrimination that is so prolific in the media and in the airline industry (One of the scenarios we had worked on was about a woman participant, who on the flight to the conference, was manhandled and female strip-searched from the waist up, because the man working the scanner said the woman’s fat was, “too dense” to allow the scanner to make sure she had no hidden weapons on her upper body. Back to my verbal defense…),
“It’s hateful people like you, who despite your talents and friendliness, use your unearned thin privilege to cause so much damage, so much pain, to so many paying customers who are just trying to get from one place to another…And to do that on Easter none-the-less, is even more reprehensible,” I paused, realizing that perhaps I wasn’t being religiously inclusive enough and asked the mother of the Jewish family, “Is it still Passover? Is he doing this during Passover too?”
She assured me that Passover was still going on, “We like to suffer a long time,” she said, I corrected her, “Oh it’s not that Jews like to suffer a long time but that they were made to suffer for a long time, just as fat hating people with power like him make the zaftig suffer for a long time.” She laughed in affirmation. Did I hear murmurs of, “You tell ‘im,” or was it just my imagination?
The pilot loudly said, “Okay! Okay! I’m sorry.” He said it in a way that made me think he just wanted me to shut up but I said, “I accept your apology.”
I turned to a chubby African American female flight attendant (I am a fat African American woman too.) who had overhead the entire conversation. She was beaming with what seemed like relief and thanks. I raised my book to her in a silent gesture of the famous shout out, “This is for all the fat girls (and guys),” as the 1998 Emmy Winning Actress Cameron Manheim said when she accepted the award for her work on The Practice.
Instead of leaving the plane ahead of me, the tall pilot scurried forward to an emptied row ahead of us, stooped into it to let me pass while he starred directly into my eyes. Did he fear as I followed him up the aisle, I might hit him in the head with the book literally, after having done so figuratively? Or was he doing me a favor to make up for his earlier disrespect?
This was certainly not the first time I had to defend against such a verbal assault. But I think it was the first time I didn’t feel traumatized, frozen, and beat-up afterward. Perhaps it was because part of me was amazed that the nasty, thin pilot was not directing his venom at plump me personally, but at some composite corpulent man with a seat belt extender, sitting at an emergency exit window. But I’ve been amazed at Whites who have denigrated Black people while speaking to my obviously African American face, usually followed by the even more insidious, “Oh I don’t mean you…You’re not like other Black people.” And I left those encounters shaken and in a state of post traumatic shock, no matter how well I may have stood up for myself and “my kind.”
Maybe because of a few days of scholarly and interpersonal support, acceptance, empowerment (Dare I say love?) I received from so many people at the PCA Fat Studies sessions that some part of me was strengthened and no longer stripped by such hatefulness? I certainly hope so. And I hope to the friendly skies, this feeling is forever.