Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Other Side Of The Armrest

Every now and again there's a story in the media about some fat guy on some airplane and people lose their collective minds. When it happens, there's a lot of very nasty, judgmental talk about the nature of obesity and the meaning of a shared armrest. It was Kevin Smith a while ago. There's probably been another one since then-- I've stopped paying attention. The story is usually the same: skinny person feels put upon by having to be next to a fat person, comment threads rage with abuse and cries of pain, and it's all a bore. But recently the issue was forced upon me by my Facebook feed when a guy I thought of as a friend posted an internet tirade entitled "Fuck the Fatties" about his recent experience flying next to someone large. He finished his post with this priceless bit of prose:

"I hope he gets stuck in a doorway someday and the fire department has to ease him out with butter.  No wait, he’d probably eat that butter.  Let him stay there until he withers away enough to get himself unstuck.  I hate you, fatty." (from David Rosenberg -

I felt that kind of unfeeling, dehumanizing contempt deserved an educational response, and I gave it one.

Dear Rosie,

As someone who's been on the other side of that armrest, fuck you. First, that guy didn't have any interest in making your life difficult, and he was probably mortified that it was an issue. Second, airplane seats are now generally 17" across -- 2" smaller than they used to be, in an age when most people are larger than they used to be. When required by the airline, I buy two seats, but you know what, there's fat people and thin people, and we've all played Tetris, so when the need arises we can all just get along. Third, if you were that uncomfortable, you should have asked the flight attendant to move seats.

Most airlines have a policy regarding what they euphemistically name "Passengers of Size," and I follow that policy to the letter to avoid issues at the gate or on the airplane. Southwest actually has the best policy - I buy two seats, and if there's even one other empty seat on the plane I can call and get a cash refund on the second seat, even on non-refundable fares. Virgin gives it back as a credit, and everybody else just keeps the money as far as I know. If your neighbor managed to board without issue, and he was encroaching into your seat as much as you say, neither the gate staff nor the flight crew did their jobs.

But the real issue for me here is your tone. Fuck you and your skinny high horse, bub. If he was the kind of fat where he was genuinely on your side of the armrest, he's made bad choices and I'm not going to apologize for those. But once you've made it north of a certain point on the scale, there really are a lot of things that come into play beyond simple "don't eat that." The American way of eating affects the brain and metabolism in ways that can be incredibly hard to change. If it were that easy, do you think he or I or anyone who's that obese would really want to be this way? This is a complicated health issue, and it's unfortunate that the nature of it is that it gets played out in public for everyone else to see and judge.

If being next to a fat guy on an airplane is the worst thing that happened to you today, count yourself lucky and give a dollar to someone worse off than you. It might even germinate the seed of whatever humanity is left in you. All of this is said with affection, and I mean that, but again, fuck you.