Thursday, August 25

Letter to Southwest Airlines

First, I would like to thank everyone for the support! It means so very much to me-- so much so that I've lost my words, as ridiculous as that sounds.

For those of you who are curious, this is a copy of the letter I mailed into Southwest headquarters. Feel free to send a little note of your own. :)

I wonder to myself what will come of this. Legacies like Southwest are never apt to adjust their policies no matter how many people they crush in their wake. I'm not expecting to change the world--hell, I'm not expecting to change most people in my town. But I want to be a part of the conversation and the doing that's been happening all along. Progress is not easy. It is slow and painful and I'm afraid there's much more hurt to be had before we can rejoice in any kind of victory.

It has taken me some time to understand the passengers on the plane. They didn't see me--despite my mass. They didn't see any real part of me; that I like jasmine blossoms and poetry, nerd jokes and old books. They didn't see me as Athia, as a person who was once a child that held all the magic in the universe in her palms. They didn't see me as having belonged to a family, as having felt joy and loss, finite and invincible. They reduced me to one long look of disapproval before blocking me off into their imagination as something hideous and unkind. Well, I guess that's their fucking loss because this fattie is fabulous. ;)

Be well, always,


Southwest Airlines
P.O. Box 36647-1CR
Dallas, Texas 75235

RE: Flight 740 Philadelphia to Orlando MCO; August 18th, 2011, 6:55 am

To Whom It May Concern:

It is with great pain that I write this letter today. I experienced one of the most insulting, humiliating, and distressing events of my adult life last Thursday. Due to the incompetence and insensitivity of your staff, coupled with the inconsistent and subjective enforcement of a policy requiring passengers who appear “too large” to purchase a second seat, I was publicly humiliated

On August 18, 2011, I flew Southwest Airlines for the second time this summer. I was making my way home to Orlando from a trip to visit potential graduate schools in the Northeast and was traveling back with my aunt and uncle. We left their New Jersey home at 3:55 AM and reached the Philadelphia airport at 4:50 AM. By 5:30 a.m., we had gone through security, received our boarding passes (group C, numbers 18, 19, and 20), and settled into the waiting area.

After more than a week of travel, I was ready to go home--to see my family and friends, to prepare for my final fall semester as an undergraduate, and to feel the sunshine and humidity on my skin once more.

I heard the employee at the boarding gate announce twice that they had overbooked the flight and if anyone had a flexible schedule, that they should consider boarding a later flight. Although my aunt and uncle were interested in the offer, I told them that I had appointments and errands in the afternoon on campus that I could not miss.

At about 6:30 AM, there was a call for group A passengers and parents with small children to begin boarding the plane. I gathered my things and while we were waiting for the agent to call our group, an employee came up to me and asked if she could speak to me at the desk. The man beside her (who had previously made the announcement about overbooking the flight) was handling another passenger who did not have a seat on the plane despite booking a ticket. At the desk, I asked the employee if anything was the matter.

Her eyes were barely lifted from her computer screen as she said, “It's for your safety and comfort that I'm going to recommend you buy a second seat. You will have two seats on the plane saved for you.”

“May I ask why it is that I need to purchase a second seat?”

“It is for your safety and comfort that I have to recommend a second seat.”

“But I flew Southwest here and there weren't any problems with having to purchase a second seat.”

“It's our policy, ma'am.”

At this point, I begin to panic. I'm a university student on scholarship and I come from a working class family barely making it on the income from the small restaurant we own and operate. The only reason I was able to travel this summer was due to the generosity of my cousin who had spent her summer bonus so that I could visit prospective schools. I didn't have money on me to buy another ticket, but I needed to go home.

“I can't afford another ticket.”

“What I can do for you is honor your original ticket price and charge you $100.”

By now, my aunt was circling the front desk and beginning to fume--she was not to be the typical quiet, subdued Asian-woman. She told the agent that it was unfair of them to force me to purchase a second seat when I didn't have to on the very same airline on my way here, and that they shouldn't have come to us four minutes before boarding. She also noted that there were passengers on the plane boarding who were just as large as I but who happened to be in group A boarding. We had offered that either my aunt or uncle would sit next to me as to not cause discomfort to any other passenger, but they said that would not be possible. As the conversation got heated, the agent stated that he would not speak with my aunt and pointed at me saying “We're talking to her only.” Upset and speaking barely above a whisper, my aunt stated that she did not want to speak with them either, and requested that we speak to the supervisor.

We waited for the supervisor and my aunt was livid. She could not understand why we were singled out and at such short notice. I, however, understood that I was being targeted based on my weight. I also saw that the agents were attempting to force me off the flight to make room for another, more valued customer. The plane was overbooked and they had a passenger without a seat.

When the supervisor arrived, she repeated the same rhetoric that her employees did. I said, “From my understanding, you're attempting to push me off this flight because you're overbooked.” She became visibly upset by this and said that wasn't the case, that what they wanted was to ensure my safety and comfort. My aunt then asked her if her daughter was in this situation, how she would feel. She would not answer. After a few more minutes of arguing, the supervisor asked us what we wanted to do because we were beginning to hold up the plane. I didn't want to hold up the plane--there were families with small children who had gotten up so very early, ready to embark on their vacations. I resigned myself to purchasing a second ticket. My uncle gave me the money and we handed the supervisor five twenty-dollar bills.

The walk down the aisle of the plane is a moment I will never forget. Every single passenger on board was looking at me--some were shaking their heads, others were sneering. As I got halfway down the aisle, I passed one passenger--a middle-aged white man-- and saw him make rude hand gestures signaling a 'big ass.' I heard him say, “People like them are like those people who cry race discrimination.” I could not hold back my tears.

They saved four seats in the back of the plane and I quickly took my seat by the window, hoping that the murmurs would stop. My aunt took the outer seat and my uncle went to the last available seat on the plane on the other side of us. This was not the end of our ordeal, or even the most problematic aspect of it. There was a man with his wife and child who did not have a seat. The flight attendant went up and down the aisles looking for a seat. She saw the empty one beside me and spoke loudly as she pointed to the empty space asking, “Did you purchase that?” I nodded, yes.

As the flight attendant went up and down the aisle again, telling all parents to make sure that 'lap babies' were seated on their laps, I heard the passenger sitting behind me explain to her neighbor that “she took that gentlemen's seat.” After a few more minutes of this, the airline realized that they had miscalculated the number of people and seats on the plane. An employee walked to the back of the plane, handed my aunt folded $20 bills and told my uncle to sit next to us.

I had a long while to think over how power relations in this space had defined the series of events that followed. In an attempt to make the maximum profit, Southwest Airlines trampled over my safety, comfort and emotional well-being, all under the guise of being for my safety and comfort. I am not only demanding a formal apology from your company, but also 'recommend' (read: the same way your employees recommended I buy a second seat) that you reform your current policies. I want recognition that you did not do what was in the best interest of your passengers and that you caused me unnecessary emotional distress.

I didn't have to accept the money. I could have made a scene and delayed the flight even further. I could have disregarded the man without a seat and his family. But I didn't. Despite the hurt that I felt in that moment, I was still sensitive enough to show the kind of compassion that your airlines failed to offer me--as human being to human being.

This may make little difference to your company, but I will never fly Southwest again and neither will my family.

I await a response and can only hope that the proper action is taken. But you must be aware that although I was powerless in that moment, I will not rest until my recommendations are taken seriously.


Athia Choudhury

Sunday, August 21

Southwest, Sizism, and Institutionalized Oppression

I want to talk about something that typically makes me uncomfortable and that’s my weight and size. I’m usually able to disengage with this issue, but it came up while I was traveling southwest airlines yesterday. Going to Philadelphia, there were no problems. However back home, there was a huge issue. I was back with my aunt and uncle and we arrived at the boarding gate and checked in and got our que an hour before our departure. Throughout the waiting period, the employee at the counter is making various announcements that they’ve overbooked their flight and that they’re looking for passengers who have flexible schedules and would like to take a later flight. We’re not interested in that because I’ve got errands to run and a crap load of things to do before classes start on Monday.

And, it’s four minutes before our group is supposed to board and a woman from the counter comes up to me and says, “Would you come to the counter for a minute? I’d like to talk to you.” I don’t really know what’s going on and I’m thinking it’s because probably because they saw my passport picture where I was wearing a hijab and they wanted to put me through addition security checks or something. When I get to the counter I ask her if anything is wrong. She doesn’t even look me in the eye and she has this blank expression on her face.

She says that: “It’s for your safety and comfort that I’m going to recommend you buy a second seat.“

In the meantime, I see the employee next her handling a woman who purchased a ticket but doesn’t have a seat on the plane. And I’m thinking why the fuck would they have me buy two seats when this woman doesn’t even have one? Anyway, I explain to her that I flew Southwest to this very airport and had no problems with purchasing a second seat. But she’s adamant that I have to do this for my safety and comfort. They keep repeating the phrase “safety and comfort.”

My uncle suggests that he sit next to me so we don’t cause discomfort to any of the other passengers, but they say that’s not possible. And then my aunt gets involved and it’s a little crazy so we demand to speak to the supervisor. The supervisor is spitting out the exact same rhetoric as her employees. It clicks with me that they’re attempting to push me off of the flight so that the seat will open up for the woman who is stranded. They’d rather have me pay $100 for another seat than have to reimburse her for her ticket which she paid $300+ for which is more than I paid for mine. I tell this to the supervisor and she becomes visibly upset with me and says that that it is not the case at all and that it is for my safety and comfort—once again repeating that phrase. Then she says, “You all better make a decision right now because you’re going to delay the plane.”

I’m thinking there are a bunch of cranky kids on there who probably got up at 3 am and they just want to go to Disney world, so I give them the hundred dollars and we go to board the plane.

Boarding the plane is a moment I will never forget. It was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had in my adult life. Everyone—every single person on that plane was looking at me. Some people were shaking their heads, other people were sneering; some people were chuckling. They saved us three seats at the back of the plane and I didn’t want to look at anyone and I tried to make my way back there as fast as I could. I see this man—a middle-aged white man—making rude hand gestures, the “big ass” hand gesture and then he sees that I’m crying and says to the person next to him that, “people like that, those people are like the people who cry race discrimination.”

I couldn’t say anything to him. I was so powerless in that moment that I could not say anything to him. So I’m shrinking into oblivion and I’m sitting in my seat. I’m sitting by the window and there’s an empty seat beside me and my aunt is sitting in the outer seat. My uncle is sitting at the last available seat on the other side of the plane. That’s not even the end of it. It’s not even the most fucked up and problematic part of this whole ordeal. There’s a man and his wife and kid and they don’t have a seat for him. His wife and son have a seat, but he doesn’t. And so the flight attendant walks up and down the aisle and sees the empty space between my aunt and I and says very loudly, “Did you purchase that?” I could only nod my head, yes.

She said “Oh, okay” and continued walking up and down the aisle.

Then I heard the woman sitting behind me say, “that girl took that gentleman’s seat.”

The most shady thing that happened was when another employee came up to my aunt, handed her back the money and told my uncle to sit next to us. That was the shittiest things to ever happen to me..I guess, so far? And it was completely unnecessary because that’s what we had suggested to them before boarding the plane. So, clearly purchasing a second seat was not for my safety and comfort. They were using the socially acceptable “fat-hating” norms to reinforce their institutional policies in order to maximize their profits and gains. That’s it.

This, ultimately, isn’t an issue of weight discrimination. It is a perfect example of how institutional policy and the public ritual of shaming combine together to form this oppressive process that disempowers an individual to the point where they can’t stand up in the face of injustice despite knowing what’s happening is wrong. It just shows the multi-faceted/multilayered functions of power within our society. So, what I’m demanding from Southwest in a letter of complaint I’m filing is a formal letter of apology as well as recognition that they were not working in the best interest of their passengers (or for my safety and comfort) and caused me unnecessary emotional distress.

Needless to say, I’m never flying Southwest again and neither is anyone else in my family. I hope that this story has more of an impact on you than, “Oh wow, that’s a really shitty thing to have happened, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” I believe that moments like these open up the possibility for policy reform—it opens up the possibility for us to critically look at the way our society is treating other people and to change that. So, I dunno. Give me your thoughts on the situation or whatever. I’m late for work. Bye!

Thursday, August 4

Silly Rabbit, Theory is for kids.

What I find most difficult about theorizing is getting to the bone. Past the fleshy bits, the appendages and organs, past veins and muscles that keep me together, sewn shut beneath your gaze. The funny thing is I don’t even have all of my body. I’ve got a few toes and fingers, an eyeball and a nose, a torso propped up on quivering thighs—half a nipple and no heart. It takes time and care to come into a body. I’ve given myself neither of those things.

Instead, I’m imagining a better way of living and it isn’t away from you. Isolation could never suit me. I learn from my relationship with your palms. They tell me the secrets of my grandfather. They tell me about what the world was like before either of us could talk.

I’m not an academic but I wear her skin well. I’ve pinned her to my body to look like a grown-up, but her feet are much bigger than mine. Her steps are too wide. I could never cover that much ground.

How can I prove to you that my words are genuine when I wonder where they come from? The words we come to know have been passed down to us—have been given to us for a reason. What is the reason for my words? Each I-me-my arrived from your chest the way you hold in breathes to stay alive a little longer. Every book I’ve ever read, every article I’ve ever seen, every piece of pop culture I’ve ever analyzed—this is what it means to be human. My body was directed towards those words for a reason. I was pulled towards you for a reason.

I just can’t figure out why yet.