In Defense of the Fat Flight Attendant

by Tabitha Kidwell

A friend from my running club recently posted this on Facebook:

Dear Flight Attendant:
Your a$$ is too big. When I am well within the confines of my seat and you are able to bump my shoulder you need a new profession!

This really upset me, as did the “likes” by several other runner friends who have been unfailingly supportive of others trying to reach their own fitness goals. A post about an old/gay/ugly/black/asian flight attendant would be a clearly inappropriate judgement based on looks or superficial factors from a short interaction. But it’s somehow okay to comment on someone’s weight, especially when you yourself put a lot of time, money, and effort into being a healthy and strong individual. There’s a certain “healthy privilege” in our society today – people seem to think, if they have been able to make good choices and take care of themselves, that others should be able to do the same. Shirts emblazoned with “No Excuses” testify to this, as do the “Half Their Size” magazine stories touting the benefits of grilled chicken breast and long walks with the dog. But there are plenty of potential excuses and reasons to be heavier, not limited to genetics, injury, mental illness, working two jobs to make ends meet, and even gut bacteria. For that matter, who is to say that you even need an excuse and shouldn’t just be happy as you are?

I thought about commenting on this Facebook post, but I decided not to. I actually admire this friend for being the sort of person who speaks their mind without worrying about the consequences (the irony that she would not hesitate to tell me if she thought I was wrong is not lost on me). Plus, this post came after a long early morning flight where her sleep was regularly interrupted by someone else’s posterior, and I suspect it was intended to come off as sarcastic. The friends that “liked” it probably were amused by this friend yet again brashly telling it like it is. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and let it go.

Except that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I realized that the reason this struck a chord with me was not an impulse to defend the marginalized elements of society – it was about me, and my own experiences. Isn’t it always? It’s bigger that this off-hand facebook post – it’s about calling people fat, and equating their size and their value as people. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone – just last week, I gleefully – gleefully! – told someone that the bitchy girl I went to high school with is now fat. I wouldn’t have been happy to see that she was depressed or infertile or had cancer, so why should I feel any pleasure to see that she has gained a few pounds?

The link between weight and self-worth runs so deep in our culture that is easy even for the most respectful, grounded, and healthy people to take it as a given. I have been lucky enough to be at a healthy weight my entire life. Even at times when I didn’t exercise and ate terribly, I didn’t gain that much. And the only way I’ve ever lost much weight was training for marathons – running for hours at a time as if I were running down an antelope. That’s just the way my body works, and it’s a blessing. But, after a lifetime of exposure to the “skinnier the better” paradigm, I still wasn’t happy with my body. When I went to Indonesia two years ago, I thought “no restaurants, no alcohol, lots of fresh veggies – perfect time to lose those last 15 pounds!” I started with counting my calories, and ended by totally losing it. With little control over the rest of the elements of my life in a country 10,000 miles from home, I obsessively controlled my diet in a way that experts are starting to call disordered eating. I went on a juice cleanse. I counted raisins for my oatmeal. I would run 4 extra minutes so that I wouldn’t feel bad putting sugar in my tea. I would calculate that I had consumed 800 net calories by 6 PM, then would eat an ice cream bar for dinner, and go to bed hungry, sick, and sad. These erratic eating habits continued for over a year, and when I finally came to my senses I was 15 pounds heavier than I had been when I started. My thighs rubbed together, I had to buy new clothes, and I felt terrible about myself. I consider myself a fairly grounded, self-aware person, but the little bit of stress and homesickness that came with living in Indonesia pushed me over the edge.

So we’ve got to give people a break. If math – calories in vs. calories burned – were the solution, I would have lost the 2 lbs. a week my livestrong app was calculating for me. If it were just a matter of staying under 1200 calories or exercising 30 minutes a day, we could all have Heidi Klum’s body. But there are so many factors that science and medicine don’t understand. No one would choose to lug around 100 extra pounds. Those of us that have good genes, the free time to exercise, and the disposable income to buy healthy foods should feel good about themselves and leave it at that. Some of my endurance athlete friends work their butts off and deserve to be really proud of how strong they are – but we have no idea what other people are going through at any given moment. I’m so grateful to be able to walk across the terminal, lift my carry-on bag, and fit in a standard airline seat. And to know that I have no place judging someone who can’t.

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