Who REALLY Takes Up Space On Airplanes?

I do a fair amount of traveling. Not as much as some folks, but I have clocked a respectable number of flying hours (see also: airport hours) in my day, and thus, I’ve had a chance to observe a broad spectrum of human behaviours on aircraft. In these heady days of institutionalised fat hatred, where airlines are freely permitted to discriminate against fat passengers, I’m accustomed to the kind of hate leveled at fat people waiting at the gate or getting ready to board, the snide comments, the sighs of disgust when passengers end up in the same row as a fat person.

I find this kind of behaviour puzzling because it’s wildly rude and inappropriate and not acceptable, because showing utter contempt for another human being’s body is gross. But I also find it puzzling because of the assumption made: That being seated next to a fat person means you will lose seat space, that fat bodies inherently take up space on airplanes.

And yes, it is true that when a large body is crammed into a seat too small for it, overspill does occur. This is an inevitable consequence of seat downsizing and poor design; I’m short and stocky and I have trouble fitting comfortably in airplane seats except on the rare occasions when I end up in first class, in which case I take an opportunity to bask in the available space. Flying while fat can be extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant because your body will be crammed into a small and unpleasant space, and everyone will stare at you while this happens. Assuming that you are going to steal space from them.

In my experience, I’m far less worried about fat people than middle-aged white men, because they are the ones who inevitably take up all available space, regardless of build. They are the ones who sprawl out over both armrests, who carelessly jab me and don’t even apologise, who lean over into my seat space, who take up the underseat space where my personal belongings are supposed to go, who casually reach their tentacles onto my tray table. I absolutely dread being seated next to them and usually plead for an alternative seat assignment when that happens; in fact, I have been known to trade with passengers who are whining about being seated next to a fat person.

Middle-aged white men of small to medium build get lots of passes in our society that allow them to do whatever they want, including taking up space that is not theirs and heedlessly invading the space of others. They can rest secure that airlines won’t start charging them for two seats when they fly, and that they won’t be subject to filthy looks from other passengers while waiting at the gate, though. Because they’re the social default, unremarkable, perfectly usual, and everyone has been conditioned to tolerate their invasiveness and rudeness. All the anger about who takes up space on airplanes is aimed at fat people, with nary a word for the self-entitled dudes who seem to think they own the aircraft.

Sitting next to fat folks can be an exercise in delicacy, but not for the reasons people seem to think. It starts when one of us sits down, and the fat person feels obliged to apologise for existing; ‘sorry,’ with a sheepish expression. My rowmate thinks that I am going to be displeased at the prospect of being seated next to a large body, that I will probably be rude about it, and there’s a preemptive show of submission. I want to say ‘really, you don’t need to apologise for being a person, in a body, it’s cool.’ Every time my rowmate shifts position or needs to get up, there’s another apology. An accidental elbow-bumping is followed by a cringe of embarrassment. Because flying while fat can be deeply unpleasant, since an accidental elbow jab can provoke a tirade of hate from the passenger in the next seat, or a series of heaving dramatic sighs.

This isn’t a universal experience; Marianne Kirby loves to fly, for example, and she as hell sure isn’t going to apologise for having a body. But there’s a reason many fat folks are afraid of flying, and a reason many are so apologetic and fearful on aircraft; because they know there’s a chance they are going to catch flak for their fatness. Meanwhile, the middle-aged white men can apparently do whatever they want, living in their bullet-proof bubbles where no one can touch them.

When I think about conversations about ‘taking up too much space’ I am struck by how inevitably, no one talks about the elephant in the room. Some people are assumed to belong in a space because they are the default, the norm, the people who are acceptable and okay. Everyone else is not, and needs to take up as little space as possible to avoid offending or upsetting people. Thus a fat person crammed into a tiny airplane seat is a violation of social norms, a wrong, a thing that must be rectified, while a medium-build businessman spilling out into the seats around him is perfectly okay and doesn’t need to be politely told to respect the passengers around him.

Fat people, meanwhile, are required to be constantly self-aware. They need to monitor themselves and where they are in their environment to determine if anyone’s going to get mad at them, and they need to be fast about preemptive defense to reduce the risk of being attacked for having the audacity to exist and want products and services. Like everyone else, fat people pay for their seats, and they deserve to occupy them without harassment or rudeness from fellow passengers.