Is Kevin Smith Too Fat To Fly? Thoughts on Obese Discrimination

What difference does it make if a fat producer is kicked off an airline? Isn’t that a private issue between the passenger and the company? If he didn’t fit in the seat, he should get off the plane, right?

Wrong.

This one had me from the first tweet. Even if I had to ask my husband who is Kevin Smith other than a guy with 1.6 MILLION followers on Twitter? (Answer: a producer of movies that teen & 20 & 30-somethings love).

A lifelong big guy, returning home after speaking at MACWorld, is seated as a standby on a Southwest Airlines Oakland-to-Burbank flight and then summarily ejected because he is a “safety” problem. One that involves the width of his body in his seat. (I still don’t get that one, what’s the safety problem?)

Of course, they saw his body habitus when they ticketed him at the gate for standby. They sized it up again when they seated him. They saw that his seatbelt fastened without an extender and his armrests went down. They polled the two ladies on either side who didn’t object to his presence.

Yet they made him get up from his seat in front of 150 watching people, retrieve his carry-on luggage from the overhead compartment and get off the plane. Like the bad kid being sent to the principal’s office.

And he was FURIOUS!!! And tweeted all night long.

I’m pretty confused about this. I like Southwest. I fly them, their seats are comfortable, their service is pleasant. They were extremely nice to my 88 year old father who needed some extra assistance last fall. But I am also a person with lifelong obesity. And there have been times in my life, 90 lbs ago, when I needed a seatbelt extender. I did my best to stay within the boundaries of my seat and be invisible and non-offensive.

So why can’t the airline just say they screwed up?

Instead Southwest has created a public relations disaster in which they blog their apology by making fun of his comedic character “Silent Bob” and his real-life angry persona. They titled their blog “Not So Silent Bob”, and defended their customer size policy while intimating that his badmouthing the airline publicly was oh-so-unfair. Unfortunately, they also explain the parameters of the customer size policy which, in this case, appear to have been applied arbitrarily if indeed he successfully buckled and put his armrests down. I’m guessing he was profiled more on his hoodie & pants-on-the-floor look than his actual size.

Blaming the fat guy for discussing the anger-causing events never works well for the merchant. You’d think they would just say, “we made a mistake, you fit in the seat, we’re really sorry, we misapplied the policy, we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again”. Doesn’t require they rescind the policy, just acknowledges they were overzealous in its application.

The story doesn’t end there – it gets worse.

Smith put up a long, rambling, profane “Smodcast” (his name for his podcasts) of the events. The ‘AHA!’ moment occurs more than 50 minutes into the rant.

On the next flight, he had two paid seats of his own. An obese young woman was seated in the third seat; his paid-for, empty middle seat between them. After she was seated and settled, the attendant took HER to the principal’s office. Where she was told that she had to ASK PERMISSION from our fat producer to spill over into his empty seat, or she would be ejected too. And next time, she should purchase two seats. Different flight, different crew, different passengers (except for our angry producer).

Bullseye! Kudos to the airline. You have now effectively destroyed the very shaky self-esteem of yet another fat person who will invisibly skulk away into the night in shame, never to fly your airline again without paying double.

Now I’m furious. Once is a misapplication of a policy. Twice is a pattern of pointless and opportunistic discrimination. No wonder they didn’t apologize. They feel righteous in their contempt for adiposity.

And so do hundreds, if not thousands, of commenting passengers on forums, blogs, tweets. Thousands are in support of the producer (and by proxy, the woman on the second flight); some vow to boycott the airlines forever. But thousands others have seized the opportunity to be venomous and verbose slayers of fat people. (often anonymously, gee I wonder why).

The language is at best intolerant and unforgiving. Those are the people who are talking about being uncomfortable on an airplane. They have a point, although it could be expanded to include passengers who drink, smell of cigarettes or perfume, have screaming babies, or crack chewing gum among other encroaching habits.

At its worst, however, the language in these comments is frightening and revolting, almost horrific. If you changed the word fat to black or Jewish or female or gay or Muslim….the rhetoric would sound illegal. These people aren’t commenting about their crowded seat. They are taking the opportunity to express mindless, revulsive hatred against a group they feel is inferior to them.

Southwest needs to take a step back from this sizeable group, and from their uneven and discriminatory enforcement of “customer size policy”, and return to the idea of helping ALL people navigate the often difficult world of airline travel. With dignity and respect. Just the way they treated my dad.

If you have been a victim of obese discrimination, you are not alone. It is the last unanswered prejudice. Do what Kevin Smith had the bravery to do. Tell your story, even if just to a friend or a family member. Be assured that you do not deserve to be hated or hurt because of your weight. Or your skin color, religion, sexual preference, gender, political beliefs…

So to answer the question about why we should care because a fat producer got kicked off a plane…

Maybe we should care because it is uncovering the worst in us, both individually and corporately.

Sara L. Stein, M.D.
Author, Obese From The Heart: A Fat Psychiatrist Discloses (2009)

Comments

5 Responses to “Is Kevin Smith Too Fat To Fly? Thoughts on Obese Discrimination”
  1. cristinik says:

    Sara, it is not discrimination! It’s about every passenger’s comfort and no one likes or wants to sit next to an overweight person. You should all get over this and use all this negative energy in a good way. Exercise instead of bragging about it.

  2. Dave Ramos says:

    cristinik, I’d rather sit next to a gaggle of overweight people than someone like you. Good essay, Doctor…

  3. Mary Benton says:

    Points well made, Sara. Cristinik – perhaps it is not your intention, but you help make the point for discrimination. You assume that Sara does not exercise because she has admitted obesity. (I don’t know if she does or not, but I know many overweight people who exercise more than I do and I am underweight.) When someone is overweight, it is easy to make assumptions about why and attribute negative traits to them. That sows the seed for discriminatory behavior.

  4. Katie says:

    I’d also like to share how the SWA employees have been cruel to Kevin Smith for speaking out. They have taken to the web to ridicule, insult, and sneer at him, and all while admitting they’re employed by Southwest. Just look at this guy …

    http://twitpic.com/147lcp

    http://twitpic.com/146eaq

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