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The best $19.98 I ever spent: A seatbelt extender

As a fat person, I was really buying safety and peace of mind.

“We’d like to offer you the position,” she said, meeting me with a broad, expectant smile.

I had thought I was coming in for a final interview, but was instead met with a job offer. I was stunned. I had applied for the position on a lark, thinking I was too inexperienced for this dream job, and now here I was. We spoke about the particulars, about where all the bodies were buried, about the work that would need to happen, and about the most complex problems of the role in the kind of unvarnished terms you only use when telling someone else who’s accountable for fixing things.

As I left, I hesitated to call friends and family to tell them the good news, though I knew I should have. This was good, right? This felt not just like a job, but like a calling. I was getting a raise, too, and while the role would come with daunting responsibilities, it also came with substantial professional clout. Still, I didn’t want to tell anyone. Still, I was afraid.

Because this new role wasn’t like my other jobs. This one required regular travel, often across the country, from one coast to another. I would spend hours in airports and on planes each month. And I was fat.

If you haven’t been fat — not just “felt fat,” but been undeniably, unquestionably fat — you might not know what it’s like to board a plane as a fat person. You might not know what it’s like to walk past 10, 15, 20 rows of passengers, most of whom meet your face with dread, disgust, or fear. You might not know what it’s like to hear your body loudly derided in your presence.

You might not know about the emotional toll that the simple act of boarding a flight causes. You might not have the sad, familiar experience of paying for a second seat, only to board the plane and find that seat to have been resold to another passenger — someone who doesn’t know that you paid, that you tried, and that they needn’t resent you. You might not know the heartbreak of knowing they will resent you no matter what you do.

You also might not know about the maze of confusing “customer of size” policies that nearly every airline has laid out. You may not know that United Airlines requires fat passengers to buy a second seat at the day-of price if the flight crew determines we cannot “fit comfortably” in our seats. If the flight is fully booked, that fat passenger will be removed from the flight and required to rebook. You might not know that nearly every policy is mired in murky language that poses more questions than it answers for its fat passengers — and that many airlines don’t publicly share their policies at all.

You might not know that it is up to flight attendants to determine whether fat people are “comfortable” in our seats, and whether we should be permitted to keep them. You might not know that other passengers’ complaints are among the most common reasons fat people are kicked off flights, sometimes left without a refund, and nearly always left without legal recourse. You might not know the simmering resentment from our fellow passengers when fat people take on the simple act of daring to fly.

You might not know about these facts of fat passengers’ experience, but those of us who are unquestionably fat know well the contours of these anxieties. Each time I board, and each time I ask for a seatbelt extender — often the trigger that leads to being deplaned — I am left to wonder if this will be the prompt my seatmate or flight attendant needs to complain, to suggest that I “might be more comfortable on another flight,” and to leave me stranded, miles from home.

In this new job, those humiliations wouldn’t just be mine to hold. They’d be added expenses I’d need to justify to my new boss, travel delays that could hold up colleagues or delay meetings — the kind of public admonishment that needed to be explained away.

Yes, I had my dream job. But I could only have it if I exposed myself to a brutal kind of humiliation that I had limited for years.

It wasn’t long before that anticipation became too much to bear on its own. Less than a month into my job, I decided to see if it was possible to make — or, better yet, buy — my own seat belt extender. I’d heard stories about fat people bringing their own seat belt extenders only to have them confiscated by the TSA, a kind of contraband of dignity we would not be permitted.

It was a risk: This small, protective measure could lead to even more public embarrassment. I imagined a TSA agent seizing my extender in front of an endless line of passengers, all inconvenienced by a fat woman, leaving them with a simmering resentment that would almost certainly boil over into aggressive comments and actions. Still, that same risk could also save me from the perilous act of asking for a seat belt extender — which could, in turn, prompt a passenger to complain about my body and request my removal from the plane.

I had other fat friends, but none who had purchased their own extender. So I was left with a sea of seemingly identical extenders from questionable sellers on shopping mega-sites like Amazon and Walmart. After poring over dozens of reviews, reading carefully for safety concerns, I was ready. I took the risk, and bought the extender.

It arrived days later, its thick woven strap neatly coiled around a heavy metal buckle, all nestled into a purple velour pouch. I was surprised at its heft, how formidable such a small thing felt. The pouch reminded me of something from a crystal shop, a kind of talisman with mystical healing powers. It seemed oddly grandiose at the time, giving the royal treatment to something I had so long feared. But as time went on, that velvety pouch felt more and more fitting.

As my job took me back and forth across the country, my seatbelt extender saved me time and time again. It saved me from the exhausting and commonplace arguments with flight attendants about whether or not I could fully lower the armrest next to my seat (I could), and whether or not I looked like I could “comfortably fit” in my airline seat (who does?). It saved me from the threat of being forced to purchase a second seat at its day-of price, then explain that astronomical expense to my boss.

That seat belt extender didn’t just save me additional fights to retain the seat I’d purchased on each flight. It also saved me from dreading the very worst aspects of boarding the plane as a fat person. It spared me the humiliation of being escorted from a plane, ejected from the flight after everyone else had been seated. It relieved the anxiety of wondering how and when to ask for my extender.

It alleviated the desperation to find a perfect script, the panacea statement that would save me when my seatmate looked at me that way, just as their disgust curdled into action. And it allowed me to relax into the knowledge that there was no perfect line to say, no ironclad defense of my body. After all, no explanation would suit them. They would resent my body regardless.

Now, when I board planes, I still worry. Airlines’ lacking “customer of size” policies still leave me vulnerable to being stranded, or to spending hundreds in unplanned second seats or rebooked flights. Boarding the plane still makes me the target of so much bigotry and overt disgust.

But when so much is outside of my control, my little seat belt extender, neatly coiled in a purple velour pouch, is my quiet reassurance. It is functional, yes, and it is also a reminder of my resourcefulness, my resiliency. It helps me remember that I have faced worse than this before, and I will again. When others’ intolerance of my body rears its head, my seatbelt extender is a talisman: welcome protection against the reliable heartache of flying while fat.

Your Fat Friend, also known as Aubrey Gordon, writes about the social realities of life as a very fat person.


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