Superfat Flyers: Hello from the Other Side (of the Airport)

Flying While Fat”, an awesome recent video by size activist Stacy Bias, was published in an effort to express the experience of being the (dreaded) fat person on the plane. Fat people take up more space than thin or average-sized people and there has been much controversy around how to react to and rectify that fact (from seatmates and airlines alike). Bias gives great perspective for those chubby passengers who should feel just as enabled and empowered to fly as their smaller counterparts, even if it means they often press themselves into the wall of the plane or try to curl up to offer as much space back to their neighbors.

 

But what about the people for whom leaning and folding your arms is no longer enough to make air travel work? Several recent articles (in addition to the Bias video) have been published about how to travel while fat and feel comfortable or confident, and there are several Facebook groups dedicated to Flying While Fat, but the bent is most often geared towards how to fit into a seat. In reality, though, sometimes being just a little fat on a plane isn’t an option. The general rule for whether or not a passenger can fit in an airplane seat is if the armrest can move all the way down beside them. So what about those who exceed that line? We have to travel too, but how? With airline prices increasing and seat size decreasing, it just doesn’t feel like there is room for the supersized traveler. Buying two seats seems unfair to many and expensive to all. So what options are there for air travel when you are not just flying while fat, you are flying while superfat?

 

Pre-flight activities

 

  • Book Additional Seats

    • This all begins with booking your flight and, for travel in the US, I say Southwest Airlines all the way. Why? (You may have heard some horror stories about them – years ago – kicking fat people off a plane years ago for not fitting in their seats, but I promise this has changed). Southwest is (I believe) the only airline that has a Customer of Size policy that allows fat flyers to use a second (or third) seat on a plane without incurring additional cost. The official policy is that a seat will be granted at check-in if it is deemed necessary regardless of if the traveler has purchased it ahead of time, but Southwest recommends that additional seats are booked in advance to guarantee one will be available. If you book the additional seat in advance, you will receive a full refund after your flight, regardless of if the flight was sold out. I agree with that process- if you have the means, definitely purchase the second seat. To do so, buy another seat in your name and add “XS” as the Middle Name on the ticket (so you will have multiple tickets in your name, one with the “XS” to differentiate; or if you need more than two, use XS1, XS2 etc). However, sometimes it is not financially possible to purchase another seat or travelers may not be sure if they need one ahead of time and opt out of this practice. The policy still remains that COS flyers will get the additional seat, so advice here is to purchase it if you can, but if not- just use Southwest and you should be fine (if you don’t purchase an additional seat on an additional airline, I cannot guarantee your fine-ness). See below about Check-in for more.
    • Not everyone chooses to book Southwest, whether it is because you are flying internationally or if you have another preferred carrier. You can always purchase additional seats on any airline, though you run the risk of the airline changing your reserved seats and causing issues at check-in; I’ve heard horror stories of people who have had their seats changed to become multiple middle seats across the plane, and then had to request the change from the gate agent. Not ideal, but agents are generally fine about switching seats around. Just ask either the ticket or gate agent as soon as you notice and they will switch you. Your other option is to book first class, but be warned that first class seat widths also vary and may be less comfy depending on the airline. Check seatguru.com for more info on seat width before booking. If you are traveling internationally, try Virgin Atlantic if it goes to your destination- call their customer service and ask for a second seat, which they offer on some planes for only an additional $100 or so. I’ve heard legroom is pretty rough on Virgin, though, so tall travelers beware.

 

  • Get TSA Pre-check

    • Man do I have a lot to say about how terrible it is to go through security as a superfat person. That puffer machine- it ain’t good. So if you can avoid it altogether, and if you can avoid having to pull your shoes and clothes on and off, then do it! TSA pre-check appointments can be scheduled online or some airports allow walk-ins to complete the process. For only about $80, you have 5 years of easy security lines (with a metal detector and often shorter wait). If you are financially able, it is definitely recommended.

 

  • Travel Gear

    • As a superfat person, it’s important to ready yourself for travel in ways others may not have to. If your flight is more than four hours, you will likely start to encounter issues with leg swelling, which puts you at risk for blood clots. If you are booking a longer flight, I recommend also looking for compression socks/stockings to wear while you fly- they aren’t the most comfy, but they are really important in helping maintain circulation.
    • If you haven’t signed up for pre-check, make sure you have shoes that you can easily take on and off at security and that are loose enough that your feet will be comfortable on your flight- remember they will likely swell if it is a longer one! Don’t forget to bring anything else that will make you comfortable- pillows, loose clothes, snacks. Don’t let how you think you should look and act affect your ability to be comfortable and healthy (within reason, of course- this doesn’t mean turning the plane into your bedroom!).

 

Day-of

  • Check-in

    • You’re here! You’re at the airport! Step one is to check-in for your flight. If you have two seats, you cannot check-in using the electronic kiosks or online- so you will have to wait in line for full service.
    • If you have purchased two seats, tell the ticket agent that they should look for both (this is especially key for people not using Southwest so the airline doesn’t try to give your additional seats away!). You may also be able to ask them to start processing your refund (for Southwest only).
    • If you have only purchased one seat, tell the agent that you would like an additional seat. More often than not, they will understand why. If they question you, tell them you are using the Customer of Size policy (I have never had anyone question me FYI). If they tell you that there are no seats available, ask them to get their supervisor to release another seat- airlines will hold a few seats, even when they are “sold out”; that is the difference between “sold out” and “oversold”. If your flight is already at capacity (with no extra seats) and the ticket agent is pushing back, tell them that the policy is to go into an oversold situation, where they will ask another passenger to get a voucher for a free future flight (as a bonus to them) and to move to a different flight. (This has only happened to me once or twice. Generally, the worst thing I experience is a ticket agent who feels annoyed that I am making this request. Yes, it would be ideal if I could afford second seats all the time, but sometimes we cannot and we have a right to travel too, even if the size of one traveler as dictated by the airline is not our size. I don’t love the idea of asking someone else to change their plans, but again this is very rare and they get a free flight out of it and volunteer to participate- no one is forced to change.)
    • Additionally- if you received the additional seat at check-in and booked a roundtrip flight, be aware that your second seat will also be held for your return flight! This again means you cannot check in online or at a kiosk.

 

  • Airport Navigation

    • Some airports are larger than others and you should feel no shame in not being comfortable walking the (often) long distance to your gate. Ask your ticket agent for assistance. Having a wheelchair or car service (whatever that golf cart-like vehicle is called) take you through the terminal may help you navigate security faster too. Either way, don’t hurt yourself by trying to push more than you can. You know your own limits.
    • Another difficulty in the airport is seating. My favorite airports are added to a mental list of those with armless chairs (Newark, Philadelphia, Houston are all great ones), but sometimes that isn’t an option. I always opt for the armchair like seats (for Southwest), which are tight, but at least somewhat doable (for me). If those aren’t available or comfortable, I’ve tried the perch, also depending on how long you have before or between flights (I don’t perch on the end of seats for more than 30 min). If you are able, you also have the option to sit on the floor. I don’t love that option, but I know many who are regular floor sitters because that works for them. Lastly, though, if I can’t find a seat, I find a wheelchair. There are wheelchairs generally available that support 500 or 600 lbs and have either wide arms or arms that lift up. I will only take a chair if there are a few to spare so I am not taking one from someone else who needs it. In one nightmarish situation, though, (in which all of Southwest’s systems went down and I was stuck in my least favorite airport – DCA- with no seat options at all), I pushed a wheelchair all around the airport with me while I waited for my flight. Crazy, yes, but also necessary. It is so important to advocate for yourself and that is something that so many people are scared to do. Don’t try to stand or sit on the edge of your seat for hours because you feel like you have to. You deserve to be comfortable too, even if you have to put forth a little effort to get that way.

 

  • Security

    • Once you get to the front of the security line, the fun really begins. That puffer machine. That. Puffer. Machine. It doesn’t know how to process a fat body. Beep beep alert alert. Does not compute. And for now, this is the primary way to scan people through security. Not awesome. I have been stopped literally 100% of the time for a pat down. On good days, they will pat my thigh or arm. But on bad days, I’ve had security agents reach under the cups of my bra and between my breasts, they have reached in the top of/all around and inside my waistband and under the crease of my butt cheeks or under my belly. Yep. And I never go to a private room. I want people to see how crazy this is, all the time thinking in my head “IT’S NOT A BOMB, IT’S JUST FAT!” But I smile and I know no one wants to do this and I hope that one day these machines will be burned in a pyre. Until then, just know that there isn’t anything wrong with you if you need a pat down. Go to a private area if you need to or, if not, just be polite and it will be fast. And remind yourself that TSA pre-check is only $80.

 

  • Flight-prep

    • Two things I will always recommend for flight prep are water and aspirin. Water because being hydrated is always very important in staying healthy (and, oh yes,  plane bathroom talk below!). And aspirin because it is a blood thinner and should help prevent blood clots on flights. Of course other fun things like books, music, snacks, and friends/family are great things to bring on a flight too.

 

All Aboard

  • Boarding

    • Or should I say PRE-boarding. Yes, if you have a second seat on a flight you are entitled to pre-board. This should be true for any airline. I have only had a gate agent question me once, and, after I told her that I had two seats, it was resolved. Pre-boarding means you go on the plane before anyone else and, with Southwest, allows you to select two seats next to each other (I recommend the first row if it’s an older plane where the arms go up!). Yes, your pre-board card says “Pre-board on the basis of disability”. It’s not great. But small victories- you get to not worry about bumping someone with your stomach or butt as you pass. Be respectful as you will be boarding with anyone else who needs more time. I always stand behind customers with wheelchairs or other disabilities that affect their walking and allow them to board first. Even if you’re 5th on the plane and not 1st, it is still much easier than when the plane is full.
    • And if any thin or one-seat person out there is reading this- sit next to the fat person who pre-boarded. Fat people are avoided like patient zero of the zika virus, but if you see a fat person who has pre-boarded and who has placed a nice “seat reserved” sign next to them, know that you will have more space than literally anyone else on that flight. Let me say that again- you will ALWAYS have space between you two. That middle seat will ALWAYS be empty. So don’t run away from us; run into a seat like it’s the best one on that flight, because it likely is. Plus stunning personality and all that (if talking to strangers is your thing).

 

  • Get that extender!

    • Since I’m one of only a handful boarding, I take the opportunity to ask the flight attendant to give me an extender immediately as I get on the plane. They are always discreet, even if they have to give you the extender later after everyone is seated. For so many years (when I was much smaller), I didn’t know about the extender or was embarrassed by it, so I would try to hide my open seatbelt under my shirt. Guys, that’s really dumb and unsafe. Don’t be me. Just ask for it. Again, you are just larger than what the airline has dictated – it doesn’t mean anything about who you are as a person because you need some extra belt room.

 

  • Bathrooms – yes you can

    • OK maybe the most controversial post? You will very likely fit in that bathroom. Seriously. Before I go down my ableist rabbit hole, I promise to address other options if you cannot fit. But first, just try. I am about a size 36 on the bottom. Yes, sizes vary by brand and we carry our weight differently, but it still means I’m probably bigger than most people reading this and I use the airplane bathroom. I’ve seen people much, much smaller than me say they cannot fit, and I am confident it is just because they have not tried. So before we start going into other options, first try. If you are embarrassed about doing so in the front of the plane, then use the bathroom in the back so fewer people see. You may have to tilt or go in sideways, but try. I promise it will be ok no matter what.
    • So the most likely issue for women who cannot fit in the bathroom is being unable to sit and maneuver in there. But there are options for that! Have you heard of tools like “she-wee” or “go girl”? These allow you to pee standing up, which means as long as you can get through and close the door, you can use the bathroom. I recommend practicing using it at home first so you can learn how to stand and aim.
    • If you absolutely have tried and cannot fit in that bathroom, there are definitely catheter-like options for longer flights. I can’t make you try to use a device like that on a plane, but I really urge you to consider trying not to pee on that flight as the very last option. Please. Research and see what is out there, and please stay safe.

 

  • Long-flight health steps

    • Additional reminders for any traveler on long flights (but especially fatties)- remember to get up every 30 min and walk around to try to help your circulation. While you are in your seat, roll your ankles to help circulate blood as well. If you can, move and extend your legs. Do what you can to keep circulation going to help with blood flow and prevent clots, and do remember to stay hydrated.

 

After the Fact

  • Request your refund

    • If you flew Southwest and purchased a second seat ahead of time, don’t forget to go online to Southwest’s customer service page and request the refund for your flight. This will likely take a few weeks to process, so requesting it sooner rather than later is ideal. You’ll need the confirmation # and other flight details (date, flight #) for that request, so get them handy!

 

Flying while fat or superfat always feels like a challenge, emotionally and often physically, but it doesn’t have to be. Just remember to prepare yourself as much as you can for your flight. Stay positive and know your rights (with your airline and as an amazing human being). You deserve all the great things in the world- so go out and get them!

Beyond Superfat: Rethinking the Farthest End of the Fat Spectrum

In her short segment on This American Life’s Tell Me I’m Fat episode, Roxane Gay explained that fatness has levels. In Gay’s mind, you’re either just-a-little fat, Lane Bryant fat, or super morbidly obese, and your placement on the fat spectrum probably says a lot about the way you experience both your fatness and the fat acceptance movement.

In the fat activism community, we also talk about levels of fatness. The terms we see most often are “smallfats,” “midfats,” and “superfats,” but the lines between these categories are pretty fuzzy. There are good reasons for this—it’s important that we all get to identify the way we choose, and it’s even more important that no one be excluded from a category that they feel they belong in. 

There are some rough guidelines, but I am at the very high end of the fatness spectrum, so I’m going to leave the defining of the smallfat and midfat ranges to the people who occupy them. I do want to talk about “superfat” today, though, and how maybe it’s not the last category on the spectrum anymore. 

Origins

The term “superfat” has somewhat unclear origins–Google doesn’t exactly have a tool for determining the genesis of subcultural milestones. My educated guess is that it came from “SSBBW,” a term that, like “BBW” has fallen out of favor because it is usually used by men to describe women to whom they are (or aren’t) attracted. So “SSBBW” came from the “supersize” addition to BBW’s “big beautiful women,” and eventually women who felt that they fit into this category began referring to themselves as “supersize.””Superfat” has become the accepted label more recently–more fat women have rejected the idea that we should be labeled based on men’s attraction to our bodies and have abandoned terms like “SSBBW” for their porn-y associations. But “supersize” lasted a long time, even though its definition wasn’t entirely clear.

Nine years ago I was already well into my fat acceptance life, and I was spending most of my free time on an online message board that was wholly dedicated to fatness. I met what would become my best friends and the most important people in my life on that board, and the conversations I had there were the earliest activism-y sparks of what is now The Fat Lip. The board also developed what was, as far as I can tell, the first agreed-upon-by-fat-women definition of “supersize.”

At that time, in late 2007, the moderators and posters of that forum had created a board specifically to discuss supersize issues. The idea was that supersize women should have a venue that was private to discuss sensitive size-related issues. This was before Facebook groups, and there were so many of us who wanted to talk about these things with women who could relate. This board was to be the place where we could do that. Early on, though, it became clear that we needed to come up with some kind of consensus as to who qualified as “supersize” and who should be given access to this board.

Even then we recognized that choosing an arbitrary weight guideline or clothing size as the only qualification for supersizedom was problematic—what about women who technically didn’t weigh enough to qualify but were short? Clothing sizes differ wildly from shop to shop anyway. What about women who didn’t weigh enough but whose body shapes caused limitations similar to what those that plagued their fatter peers? And what about privacy? Should women be forced to prove their weight or explain their struggles in order to participate in an internet message board?

There were no easy answers here, and, trust me, we did not come to our conclusions lightly.

That was a pun. I’m so sorry.

Ultimately, though, we decided that in order to protect the privacy of these women who were desperately seeking a safe space, we’d have to choose a weight threshold. After much debate, we placed that threshold at 350 pounds. Admission to the board was entirely based on an honor system, and those who said they met the weight criteria were automatically allowed in. Those who did not meet the weight threshold were asked to privately appeal to the moderators to explain how their experiences qualified them and how they could both add value to the discussion on this board and benefit from this discussion in their own lives.

And it really worked. We worked through some real supersize shit on that board, and it felt really good to have a place that was hidden from men who might sexualize our struggles and from smaller fats who might judge or pity us for them. Ultimately, that board and the clearly defined label of “supersize” allowed us to identify who among the fat women in our community shared our unique experiences of superfatness.

Today on the Fat Spectrum

I don’t think any of the women that were active on that board then could have predicted (or even dreamed) that not even ten years later conversations about fatness would be getting the mainstream traction that they are today. Back then the fat community was small and sheltered and hidden. Fats were wearing bikinis all over those boards and at social events for at least 20 years before the word “fatkini” ever existed, but everything was behind the protective wall that guarded our little subculture. Now, though, we’re seeing gleeful fat women in bikinis on Buzzfeed and the Cosmo website. Times have definitely changed.

But even though fat women are now basking in the sunlight, modeling for major publications, and making a career of fashion blogging, the spectrum of fatness is still as significant as ever. For one, as fat acceptance and activism has gained more traction, the definition of “fat” has gotten broader. More people of ever more varying sizes are finding a home in fat positive spaces and claiming the fat identity.

And, to be clear, there’s nothing at all wrong with smaller people now identifying as fat. We should all be free to empower ourselves and our bodies in whatever way we choose. If a size 12 wants to call herself fat, that is totally fine by me.

What this stretching of the fatness spectrum does mean, though, is that those of us on the fattest end are pushed further to the margins. If a size 12 (for example—again, not interested in defining a category I don’t occupy) is on the left side of the fat chart, I’m on the far, far right.

I’ve seen some chatter recently about superfats in fat positive conversations.  Just this week I was reading a thread about defining levels of fatness in a Facebook group. In it I saw a user saying that superfat starts at 300 pounds or a size 26. And that’s fine! And it’s not entirely far from the parameter we set on that message board nearly ten years ago even. But it made me think about my current body and my current size.

To Infinity

Here’s the thing. If a size 12 is smallfat and a size 26 is superfat, I’m still on the far, far right. In fact, I have no idea what size I even am. At some point past a size 36 or 38, there just ceases to be any clothing. It is the Great Beyond of fashion. If you’re over a size 36, your fashion choices are knitwear and knitwear. Everything is labeled 6X and it either stretches enough to fit you or it doesn’t.

So if 12 is small fat, 20 is midfat, and 26 is superfat, what exactly does that make a size beyond-36? Because the reality is that my body is as similar to a size 26 as that 26’s is to a size 12—that is: not really similar at all. My experiences and struggles are completely different than a 300 pound person’s. I weigh an entire fat person more than that. How can we be in the same fat spectrum category?

Honestly, I don’t know if this is a question that ever gets asked because my feeling is that a lot of fats don’t even know that beyond-36s exist. But we do. And we need fat positivity too.

So here’s what I think: we need a new category. Because I can’t be outraged that a retailer’s offerings stop at a 26 when EVERY retailer COLLECTIVELY stops well before my size. Because I buy two plane tickets not because I’m hanging over the armrest a little but because I have an entire half of an ass cheek with no place to go. Because Torrid’s size 6 fits SOMETIMES but only when everyone else is complaining that the item is way too big to be labeled a 6.

But what should we fats on the very very very fat end of the fat spectrum be called? I humbly propose “infinifat.” Because what size am I? I really have no fucking idea. A size greater than any assignable size number. Infinity?

Look, this all may seem a little silly. I mean, what does it matter? Having a label isn’t going to change my experiences or the way people react to my body or the way clothing manufacturers think about plus sizes. What it does do, though, is create opportunities for the fattest among us to be represented. It acknowledges that you don’t cease to exist once you become too fat for commercially-available clothing. It proclaims to the rest of the fat community that we are here and we are huge and frankly we’d like to see you try to hide us.

So yeah. I’m going to start calling myself an infinifat. And if you’re in the ambiguous Beyond of plus sizing, you’re welcome to join me.