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!