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Fight or Flight: Navigating the Aftermath of a Shitty Experience on a Plane

Updated: Mar 29, 2019

This week, I experienced the absolute worst flight I've ever been on with American Airlines. It was completely and utterly humiliating. Quick recap: despite doing everything I could think of to ensure getting a seat that would accommodate me, I was given the opposite, and spent the entire boarding process trying to switch with minimal help from the staff or those around me. I felt absolutely alone and invisible before a plane that was completely full. One person saw me and offered me kindness. Every other person pretended not to see me. And guess what, folks? I know that they did see me. I'm hard to miss.


It wasn't just what happened on the plane itself that defined the experience, but my interactions with the airline staff before the flight as well. If you want to get the full story, you can watch me tell it here. I am very angry and very upset in this video. I cry hard in this video. If you're a fat person with flight anxiety, it might be a bit triggering. It also might be comforting to see that you're not alone if you've had similar experiences. The clip below is a short bit from the end that you might like to watch instead, where I offer some powerful reflections:


what rose to the surface as the most important thing I could offer to others was how I've practiced self-care.

Almost two weeks have passed, and I'm still elbow deep in the muck of processing. It's been difficult, but I've had some really powerful revelations. As I contemplated what I wanted to write about this experience, what rose to the surface as the most important thing I could offer to others was how I've practiced self-care. It was a very triggering experience, and what I've learned over the past four and a half years of practicing a body positive lifestyle is that we we may not become immune to the triggers. But we do get better at recovering from them.


In the immediate aftermath of this painful experience, I felt empowered.


I felt like a badass for getting home, eating a normal dinner, and getting up the next day and going to work, all without any more crying! I was proud that I came away with an understanding that there was nothing wrong with me, and everything wrong with airplanes, people employed by airlines, and clueless, unfeeling strangers. As someone who used to blame myself and my body for most of my problems, this was a huge win.


As the days went on, however, I realized that the story hadn't ended yet.


I filmed myself telling the story, mostly because it's a long one and I knew that I wouldn't want to repeat it for everyone in my life. I posted it on social media because I thought it might be helpful for others to know about my experience and reflections.


The morning after I posted it, I woke up feeling extremely exposed and I hid it from my timeline for a couple of hours. I was embarrassed to be so raw in front of everyone I know and people I don't. I was ashamed to out myself as someone who doesn't fit easily in airplane seats; to make people imagine me in that situation. I was afraid of opening myself up to judgements and people thinking, Why doesn't she just lose weight?


But then I decided that I didn't want to hide. I believe that it's important to show people how fatphobia shows up in the world and how it can affect us. I consider speaking out about it a form of activism. I reposted it.


what I've learned over the past four and a half years of practicing a body positive lifestyle is that we don't become immune to the triggers. We just get better at recovering from them.

I still haven't been able to tell the story without crying. My hunger cues have been off. I'll spend half a day not at all hungry, and then suddenly be ravenous, out of nowhere. The next day, I'll be thinking about food all day, struggling to quiet my mind enough to actually know when I'm hungry and what for. While out and about, I've noticed that I am randomly imagining myself on a plane with all of the people around me. Often, I am the only fat person in sight. I imagine all of the people looking at me and seeing that I do not fit. I feel like I do not fit.


Franny and me on a better day, being cute. Photo by Annie Strain.

I had a conversation with an old friend the other day after she watched my video and she said, "When we were young I didn't realize how your experiences (with weight loss camp, etc) affected you in a deep way but it's very eye opening and it all makes so much sense now. I always admired you and I think everyone in high school looked at you as someone who was very strong and confident but I realize now that some of that must have been protecting a very vulnerable child who really needed love and validation and you are giving that to her now."


And I cried (again).


Because it is so, so true.


There is a moment in my young life that I think of as a defining moment, when I came home from some social event in the 8th grade crying because someone had teased me for being fat. My mom, with her infinite love and desire for me to be happy and without pain, offered to send me to weight loss camp.


When I look back at this moment and think about the way I've been in relationship to my body since, my interpretation is that I internalized a harmful message on that night:


There is something wrong with my body and it's my job to fix it. If others hurt me because of my body, then the solution is to change my body and I'll then be safe from that harm. They won't be able to hurt me anymore.


We live in a society that tells us that someday, when we are good enough, we can all be thin. So we try.

When I revisit this moment in my meditations, in therapy, when I write, I imagine a different outcome. I imagine my mother saying, "Fuck them! There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, you are perfect and beautiful and wonderful exactly the way you are." And hey, it's possible that she DID say that. But the weight loss camp offer was what I clung to. Because I wanted to believe that I could be a different person. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to get lead parts in the school plays, I wanted to have a boyfriend. And I believed those things would only be possible if I were thin, so going after thinness seemed like the best solution.


Of course, it wasn't a solution. I lost weight, and then I gained it back. I went back to camp again, lost weight, and gained it back again. This cycle repeated itself over and over again for 17 years, and all the while, my relationship with myself and body became more and more strained.


These days, I know that the life I desire is possible in the body I have now. I consider it my mission to identify the moments where that old familiar message pops up and replace the standard response with a different one. A moment on an airplane, for example, where I feel humiliated and ashamed, where I know that things would be easier if I were thin...my initial response is still the conditioned one: It's time to lose weight. I'm too fat. I'm in pain because there's something wrong with me and I need to fix it. It's my fault.


And now I replace it with the message that I wish I had received all those years ago: There is nothing wrong with you. You are perfect and wonderful just the way you are. Fuck them for not accommodating you, fuck them for not helping you. It's not your fault.


My self-care is radical and I want to share it with you.

Five years ago, an experience like this would have led me to go on a diet. I would have started prioritizing exercise above everything else in my life. I would have lost weight and it would have lasted for a while. Then I would have hurt myself from overexercising and the restricting would have turned to bingeing. I would have gained the weight back, and more. I know that this is how many fat people respond to such experiences. Why wouldn't they? We live in a society that tells us that someday, when we are good enough, we can all be thin. So we try. And then we are punished for being fat on an airplane and we try harder. Then we're punished for being fat in a theater and we try harder. And we're punished for being fat at a restaurant and we try harder. And our bodies revolt because they want to survive. And each time it's harder than the last because we are fighting against nature and nature almost always wins.


I created a mantra and I've been chanting it every day, every moment when I hear that voice of self-doubt creep in:


My body is sacred

It deserves loving care and kindness

Forcing it to be something it's not causes me harm

There is nothing wrong with me


My self-care is radical and I want to share it with you.


The most beautiful thing that I've experienced in the last couple of weeks has been the support of my community. If my blog inspires a response or if you feel called to share your own story, I would love to hear from you. You can leave a comment below or under the post on my Facebook page, HERE. Thank you in advance for helping me to feel less alone. Community is everything. <3


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© 2019 by Naomi Finkelstein

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