Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Flying anxiety: I’ve always loved travel—until recently. It’s never been very easy as I am overweight and do not have money for extra seats or first class. I try to get around this by flying at nonpeak times and arriving early to see if there are any empty rows I can move to. My goal is to not inconvenience others. A few months ago, I was traveling for work and I had an empty seat next to me. So far, so good. Then the woman in front of me took my picture while pretending to take a selfie. I heard the click and looked up just in time to see my entire body on her screen. She then texted the photo to someone. On the verge of tears, I tapped her on the shoulder and told her what she did was unkind and to delete it. She did, but I got no apology. She wouldn’t even look at me.
Now my family wants to go on vacation this summer, and I keep coming up with excuses not to go. As stupid as it is, I now have a lot of anxiety around flying. In general, I hate being in public and feeling like a spectacle, but there is so much baggage around flying while fat that it seems doubly fraught. I’ve thought about talking to a therapist, but the one time I went to one and mentioned my self-esteem issues, she gave me dieting tips, as if I’m not on a perpetual diet. I don’t want this one woman to ruin something I enjoy, but I can’t seem to get over it.
A: I’m so sorry that you had to encounter this kind of cruelty the last time you flew, and that the last time you saw a therapist her only response to your pain was to offer diet tips.
I can understand why you’re finding this difficult to just “get over,” and if nothing else, I hope you can be a little bit easier on yourself. What you’ve experienced is really painful, dismissive, and humiliating, and it makes a great deal of sense that the idea of trying to fly again makes you anxious and self-conscious. If you feel comfortable sharing your anxiety with your family members, it might help to let them know why you’re balking at the idea of buying a ticket. (If you think they’ll just offer you the same diet tips as your therapist, of course, feel entirely free not to mention it.)
But it’s not stupid that you feel anxious. Many public spaces are designed to exclude fat people, to humiliate them or cause them pain when they try to sit down; airlines in particular go out of their way to cut costs by cramming more and more, and smaller and smaller, seats into the same place. If you decide to look for a new therapist, I’d encourage you to focus on therapists who work with fat clients in a nonpunitive fashion. That may not make this upcoming flight easy or even possible, but I want you to have a number of resources you can call on when figuring out how to navigate your life in public.