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Small Resistance: Thoughts on Taking Up Space as a Radical Act

May 29, 2024

Written by Kaitlin Desselle (she/her), VP of Business Development at SDI.


I arrive early. I hover at the front of the line well before the call for pre-boarding. I wait for a few older folks, passengers with strollers, and others who “need extra time” to go before I’m brave enough to join the group. I feel the stares of the horde behind me…wondering why I’m not waiting my turn. I’m clearly not fit enough to be military, not visibly disabled. What entitles me to go ahead of them?

I wince when the gate agent scans my boarding pass, waiting for them to see that it says Main Cabin 2 and remind me—or the whole gate via loudspeaker (God forbid)—that we are only preboarding right now…validating all the of the accusing stares behind me.

They don’t know it’s for their sake. It’s so I don’t disturb them with my big body as I squeeze down the aisle, passing them in their seats, bumping my bag, my belly, and my hips on every row. I learned the hard way that the anxiety of preboarding is nothing compared to the judgement and disgust and accusation in the faces of the people who I have to apologetically inconvenience with my big body.

When I make it to my row, I immediately lift the armrests and install my seatbelt extender…one that a kind flight attendant gave me on a flight long ago and that I was bold enough to keep. I pack it in my carry-on for every flight so I can avoid the embarrassment of having to ask for one each time. I hope that the attendants won’t question it. I hope the person sitting next to me won’t see it. It’s my secret. It is both a necessity for my body to fit and a dead give-away that my body doesn’t “fit.”

I watch anxiously as the rest of the plane fills up. Waiting for someone coming down the aisle to make eye contact and signal that they are sitting next to me. Hoping they are kind about it, forgiving. I hope they won’t immediately try to put the armrest down, forcing it awkwardly over my squishy hip that spills over into their seat just a little. Hoping their body will be small enough to fit comfortably in the room I’ve left them. While also hoping that they are big and squishy and don’t mind us being tightly packed together at all. A silent agreement between us to embrace the closeness and the warmth and the shared resentment of the system that designs spaces where our bodies don’t easily fit. Mostly, I’m hoping it’s not a man…specifically a white, fit, neatly dressed and clearly-judgmental-of-me man.

When it is (it very often is), I spend the entire god-forsaken flight in literal terror. I’m frozen. I’m making myself as small as I can, and moving as little as possible. I’m hot, but I don’t dare reach for my fan or use it to cool my burning cheeks. An hour in, my sides and my back hurt, but I don’t dare shift my weight to find relief. I just stay still and will it to be over.

I decline the in-flight beverage—my tray table doesn’t fit over my big belly anyway—and I don’t dare accept the cookies or chips. I can’t fuel this man’s assumptions that I’m an over-eater…that my big body, imposing on his space, wouldn’t be so big if I would just resist the cookies.

We land. The worst of it is over. One final challenge—to be as stealth and quick as I can in disassembling and hiding away my seatbelt extender. It’s the same color as the actual belts—which is why I kept this one…not all of them are and I can’t risk the color difference calling even more attention to it. To me. To my fatness. Most times, I manage to slip it into my bag without anyone noticing. I’m relieved that I can pretend I didn’t need it. That while my body is obviously big, it’s not that big. Not big enough to cross the threshold of needing an accommodation…not “oversize” but still safely within the “standard” size that’s been decided for us. Not deviant, not resistant. Compliant.

I can’t wait to be out of this seat, shuffling along with all the others, disappearing into the mass with my little secret tucked away until next time.

Admission of this shame, the lengths I’ve gone to to make my body small, to take up the least amount of space possible and be compliant with standards imposed on my body—feels like a betrayal of my radical self-love. It’s certainly not what I expect to still be feeling and doing as a fat liberation activist. But I’m challenging myself to remember how our society and systems are constantly indicting my body. I am in a constant body-shame warfare. My very existence in this body is a radical act.

Boarding the plane, taking up space, my seatbelt extender…each a small resistance.


Interested in learning more about addressing sizeism and fatphobia? Check out our workshop,Taking Up Space: The Roots and Implications of Sizeism, where we dig into the body shame profit complex and discuss how to recognize and interrupt systems of fatphobia in education, healthcare, and the workplace. And see Kaitlin present this content at the 2024 National SHRM Conference!