I worked in the travel industry for many years when I was younger and I’ve been on dozens of flights. I’ve flown short haul to the Med, long haul to the Far East and there’s still so much of the world I’m longing to see.
But today, I limit my plane journeys to one or two a year. The reason? I avoid travelling by air because I can’t bear the thought of squeezing my 26 stone, size 28 frame into one of the tiny airline seats. Having to avoid the inevitable eye-rolling from fellow passengers while at the same time, graciously accepting seatbelt extenders from members of the airline crew is never a comfortable experience. The cramped conditions of a plane cabin are so unforgiving that I’d rather spare myself the humiliation.
I’m all too aware of being overweight. I’ve struggled with my eating since I was five and while I’m not blaming anyone but myself for what I put in my mouth, years of therapy have shown that my issues are complex and psychologically deep-rooted in my traumatic past. I’ve been slim. I’ve been fat. And while I’m not particularly proud of my current size, another part of me would like society to accept and accommodate me for who I am. I know airlines need to fill seats, but surely they could be a little bit more generous with the safety belts?
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The very first time I was conscious of the fact that I might need a seatbelt extender was over a decade ago when I was on a flight to India. By this point I weighed 18 stone and I remember self-consciously forcing the seatbelt over my generous thighs and only just being able to lock the buckle. Even then, I knew I needed to do something about my weight.
But three years later, I’d piled on several more stone after a difficult time in my private life. I was heading to Thailand for work and as I tugged at the seatbelt, I knew immediately that it would never meet in the middle. A little red-faced, I caught the eye of the very petite air hostess. I asked in hushed tones if I could have a seatbelt extender and perhaps be placed somewhere with an empty seat next to me. I’ve always been more concerned about the comfort of the passengers sitting next to me, rather than my own.
“We can’t always help people like you,” she said dismissively which left me speechless. But when anyone is rude to me about my weight, my brain seems to split in two. Part of me was humiliated, because deep down I know that I shouldn’t be this size. But another part of me thought: “No, you shouldn’t speaking to people like that.” Fortunately, a colleague overheard the comment and was as appalled as I was and called for the flight manager to complain. The air hostess was hauled over the coals.
But after that day, I would joke with friends that I’d be playing ‘airline seat bingo’ with the seatbelts. Would they fit? Would I have to ask for an extender? Would I be told I had to wear one? Different airlines have different sized belts, as I was to discover. It got the point where I bought my own from eBay because I couldn’t face the embarrassment of asking for one each time. I now carry my belt in my hand luggage and fit it myself without anyone noticing. Usually I book a window seat and keep myself to myself. Occasionally, I book two-for-one seats so I don’t have to worry about what the person next to me will say or do.
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Yet even with my own belt, some air crews insist – for health and safety reasons – that I use their own extenders. It’s ridiculous as some of the belts I’ve been given are exactly the same make as my own. Most crews are thoughtful and don’t make a huge show about giving me the belt, although I’ve noticed that they have to reach up for them in the overhead lockers so it’s not exactly discreet.
One day, when I’m mentally in a good place, I will lose some of the weight and hopefully not have to use my seatbelt extender. I want to see more of the world but I don’t want to feel that pressure of worrying about the person next to me.
Because if asked, 90 per cent of passengers would say they don’t mind an overweight person sitting next to them. But fat-ism is like racism. No one is ever going to admit to it.
Andrea Godfrey, 41, is a self-employed charity worker. She is single and lives in North London. Here, Andrea, who is 26 stone and a size 28, shares her candid tale of what it’s really like to be a ‘seatbelt extender’ on an aeroplane.