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What I Want People to Know About Being the Obese Passenger on a Plane

This article was written as told to Hallie Levine and provided by our partners at Prevention.

At 5'7" and 250 pounds, 39-year-old Tricia* has a BMI of 39, which means, like a third of American adults, she’s obese. But while more overweight flyers are taking to the skies than ever before, hostility toward them is rampant: Last year, for example, someone sued Etihad Airways, claiming injuries after being seated next to an obese passenger. Here, Tricia opens up about some of the biggest challenges she faces up in the air.

Long lines at security, major delays, and nearly nonexistent amenities (you're lucky if you can snag a pillow): Nowadays, air travel isn't much fun for anyone, especially those of us who fly coach. But for a larger person, it can be downright excruciating. Sometimes, as people are boarding, I see their eyes flick to me and then move away quickly, and I wonder if they're thinking, "I better not be sitting next to her."

When you're very overweight, simply making it through the aisle to get to your seat can be awful. I'm pear-shaped, carrying most of my weight around my hips and butt, which makes getting through that narrow space even more difficult. I always try to get to my seat before anyone else in my row, because I don't want others sitting near me to see me squeezing in. (Look and feel more radiant than ever with the new Younger in 8 Weeks plan!)

I also try to board early for another reason: I want to get my seatbelt on without anyone witnessing me struggling with it. Thankfully, I've never had to use a seatbelt extender, but just the thought of publicly asking for one is mortifying. 

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Most of the time, I can be one of the first ones boarding in my section, but that's not always the case. The last time I flew, about six months ago, there was a mixup and my boarding pass wasn't registering in the system, so I ended up being the last person to get on the plane. I had to walk all the way to the back of the aircraft, to the very last seat. I felt like everyone was staring at me, already irritated because the snafu had caused a slight delay. As I made my way down that narrow aisle, I felt like I was walking the gauntlet.

When I'm in my seat, I'm pretty uncomfortable, but I know that others are, too. Although many people have gotten bigger in recent years, airplane seats have gotten smaller. But I'm almost always the largest person in my row, and I know no one is happy to be next to me. I try to make myself as small as possible during the flight: I lean my upper body away from the person sitting next to me, and I don't use the armrest because I don't want to be in someone else's personal space.

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I'm also quiet. I don't chat up my neighbor, and I try to be as kind and accommodating as possible. There's so much bias in our culture against people who are overweight, so I feel like I have to go out of my way to protect myself. No one has ever said anything nasty to me, but I'm always self-conscious—especially when it comes time to order food from the refreshment cart. I always wonder, will people think, "Why is she eating that when she's clearly overweight?" There's a persistent belief in our society that people who are obese end up that way because they have no self-control and are constantly feasting on Ho Hos and potato chips. 

I rarely order a beverage, and if I do, I sip only a little. I try not to drink a lot before and during the flight because I don't want to have to get up to go to the bathroom. It's not just getting out of my seat; it's the idea of having to walk sideways down the narrow plane aisle to get to the lavatory. I'm always nervous about spilling over onto the seats on either side as I move. It's happened before, and I've gotten this sideways long look that makes me uncomfortable. 

Thankfully, I've always been treated kindly by flight attendants, who have never said anything about my weight. I was asked one time as I was making my way onto the plane whether I wanted a seatbelt extender. The attendant was standing by the front, next to the closet where they were, and since the door was open she just motioned to it discreetly. I shook my head no, but I was glad she checked with me before I sat down so I could avoid the humiliation of having to ask for it later. 

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Every now and then, I see someone who's heavier than me struggling to get on the plane or requesting a seatbelt extender, and I have to confess that it makes me feel better. I'm sympathetic, of course, but at the same time I'm glad to have the attention deflected away from me. It's not a charitable thing to say, but it's the sad truth.

Sometimes I wonder why airlines aren't more accommodating, given the fact that so many people in this country are obese. It would be great if seats were made more accessible for larger people, just as they are for those with other disabilities. For example, having some seats that were wider, or making seatbelts longer so you wouldn't have to request a seatbelt extender, would really help. I understand it would cost them more money to make these changes, but if they did, they'd have more obese people buying tickets to fly. 

I definitely limit my plane travel. It's not physically comfortable to sit in those small, narrow seats for any length of time, and I often exit a flight with bruises on my hips. I know some people will roll their eyes at this and say snidely, "Why don't you just lose weight?" but I have to tell you, it's not like I can snap my fingers and magically melt off 100 pounds. It's a struggle you can appreciate only if you've experienced it. 

*Last name omitted for privacy

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