Flight Advice

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There’s been something that’s been weighing on my mind since last week, when I flew back to Los Angeles from San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was a long travel day – my first flight, from San Juan to Charlotte, North Carolina, was 3.5 hours, and after a two-hour layover in Charlotte, I boarded my second flight, bound for Los Angeles, which took 5.5 hours.

It wasn’t a fun or easy travel day. The Charlotte-to-Los Angeles leg seemed unending, but the San Juan-to-Charlotte leg… well, it was thought-provoking. And I’m curious for your opinion. My readers are a vocal bunch – so keep reading, and then share what’s on your mind in the comments section, if you would!

I’ve written about air travel on this blog before – specifically, how much less stressful flying has become now that I’ve lost a significant amount of weight. I no longer worry about my excess pounds spilling over the armrests and invading the personal space of the passenger next to me. I can use my tray table as much as I want without my belly getting in the way, and I have no trouble returning it to its original upright and locked position. And I no longer need to use a seat belt extender – the seat belt fits comfortable around my waist, thank you very much!

The post where I discuss all these changes, called “How a 400-Pound Man Flies,” has proven to be one of the most popular posts in the history of this blog, and I just read it again myself (you can read it here). I was prompted to write that post in the first place because I was seated across the aisle from a man who reminded me of my former self. Seeing him gingerly make his way down the aisle brought back years of memories of me doing the same thing – trying my best not to bump into other passengers, and seeing others look away, certain they were praying that I didn’t have the seat next to them.

On that flight, I was seated across the aisle from my former self. On my San Juan-to-Charlotte flight, I was seated next to my former self.

The plane was a Boeing 767, outfitted with a 2-3-2 seat configuration, and the other guy (I don’t know his name, so let’s call him Al) had the window seat, and I had the aisle. There was no middle seat. Al was already seated by the time I made it to our row, and I saw him make the subtle shift that I was oh-so-familiar with: a slight adjustment so he was leaning more towards the wall of the plane, with a second slight adjustment so his left arm and shoulder would be a little more out of my space and in his. It didn’t do much good, because Al was a big guy. I don’t know how much he weighed, especially since Al was probably 8 or so inches shorter than me, but his excess weight protruded up and over the armrests.

Even with my weight loss, I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable on planes – I’m taller than the seats, so there’s no place to put my head or my legs, and my shoulders are as broad as the seat, so I fill my space nicely. I still appreciate when I end up sitting next to smaller or shorter people, but when I saw I had the seat next to Al, I wasn’t bummed, and I wasn’t pissed. I immediately smiled at him. I knew flying must be difficult and annoying for him, and I was glad, for his sake, that he was seated next to someone who wasn’t going to a big deal, or a little deal, or any kind of deal over sitting next to him.

Oh my. I fear those last couple sentences may come off as self-righteous, and that’s not my intent. I only mean to say that I’ve had my share of flights where I’ve sat next to people who see me and roll their eyes, deliberately sigh, and make all kinds of other passive or subtle indications of their disappointment or disgust. I’d wager that Al has, too. And I’m not, and never will be, one of those eye-rollers, because I’ve been at the other end, and it feels awful. There’s nothing worse that having the thing you’re most self-conscious about pointed out or referred to in an uncomfortable setting.

Al and I didn’t talk the whole flight, save for a few words at the beginning, when he asked me to get up so he could retrieve something from his bag. For most of the flight, we both had our headphones in, and I turned my attention to my book. I spent a majority of the flight leaning into the aisle a little, to give Al some notion of space, and, all told, it wasn’t a terrible flight (not nearly as bad as the excruciatingly long Charlotte-to-Los Angeles flight).

This is where you come in:  For a long time, ever since I began building an audience of readers with this blog, I’ve occasionally gotten comments or suggestions that I should approach people and let them know about it. After I published “How a 400-Man Flies,” a number of people suggested I pass out cards at the airport, encouraging people to read my blog. The whole idea irks me a little bit, because 1) I’m not a natural schmoozer, and 2) If someone approached me at the airport about anything regarding my weight, I’d be mortified.

Here’s my question for you: Is there anything I could have said to Al to let him know that, in a way, I’m a kindred spirit who understands what he might be feeling? How could I broach the subject? 

The truth is that what I know about Al is astronomically less than what I don’t know about Al. He might already be on his own weight loss journey. He might have already lost a significant amount of weight. I don’t know. This might be his first time on an airplane. I don’t know. Maybe he’s been an airplanes tons of times, and maybe he has no feelings of shame, like I did. I don’t know.

I could have nonchalantly passed him my blog business card at the end of the flight, but I didn’t have any business cards on me (I brought a nice stack with me on my travels, but had passed them all out to family and friends). Maybe I could have pulled out my laptop and shared some ‘Before and Current’ pictures with him. I suppose my goal could simply be to kindly let him know that I walked in his shoes for a long time, and that change is possible. And I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out if there’s a polite, respectful, kind way to do that.

What do you think?

Share your comments below. OH – and be sure to come back tomorrow, I have a BIG ANNOUNCEMENT!

Keep it up, David!


21 Responses to Flight Advice

  1. Lynn says:

    Well, if it had been me, I would have talked to him and shared your photos, you might have inspired him to lose some weight, or he might have just been relieved to know you were not judging him the whole flight.

  2. Rachel says:

    Hey David! Having just finished a pair of pre/post Christmas international flights, I need to say that even at the 55 lbs lighter that I am now (still a bunch to go!) flying was way easier than it has been…(the tray table slides!?) In Spain, I got lots of looks/rolled eyes for even taking up what seems to be more than my human-allotted space on packed metro cars and when people needed to share seats with me on the bus…However, what I can’t convey to everyone out there is that I know I’m fat. Like, I get it. And, I’m sorry that you’re inconvenienced by the fact that I don’t look like everyone else, and you might have like centimeters less personal space. Believe me, I’m trying to be as least-fat as I can be at this moment – because I think about it all the time. 🙂 If only I could say that in Spanish.

    But, in terms of talking with people that are facing weight challenges, you know as well as I do that making the change is a decision that needs to come from yourself, and until I made that change I was unable to even hear that it could be a possibility. For more than a decade, I got offended and upset by before/after photos, “perfect” diet promises, other people’s success, and shows like the Biggest Loser because making that change didn’t even seem within the realm of possibility for me. My brain wouldn’t let me believe I could do it.

    So, I would say…Al just needs you to sit next to him and smile. And lean a little to the right without complaining. And, if you end up engaging in a conversation with Al, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to weave it in, but don’t make it an issue. He already knows it is. What did Richard say to you when he was on Ellen? I remember it being something subtle and not offensive…like, there’s help out there if you want it.

    Thanks for your continuing inspiration! 5 months ago I couldn’t walk 15 minutes – I’m running a half-marathon next month! Keep it Up, David!


  3. Desi says:

    David, I’ve been reading your blog since the first airing of your appearance on Ellen. I often cheer you on, laugh, and “think about” commenting.

    The last time I flew in airplane I was normal size. Tall for a female but within the weight standards of the military, which I was in at the time. I flew back to the states from Puerto Rico. That was in January of 1991.

    Now, in January of 2012 I weigh 450 lbs. My highest was 486. I wanted desperately to go see my mother when she was ill in 2010. I knew that even if I could come up with the money to fly, I would be humiliated and may even need an extra seat. She never made it out of the hospital alive. How I wish I could have just jumped on a plane and seen her. She was aware of her surroundings, I would have been able to communicate with her.

    As a morbidly obese person, I can understand how you’re afraid to strike up a conversation with someone now. Your story could be the very story that motivates a person and gives them the inspiration they need to make the changes in their own life. You do make a difference, you make a difference to people every day. Don’t kick yourself now for not speaking to him, just know that in the future, please don’t pass up the opportunity. It could save someone’s life.

    I can see you nonchalantly logging into your blog or something of that nature, I don’t know how readily available wi-fi is on flights. Obviously I flew so long ago that phones were cans attached to strings, so things have changed. But, saying something, even saying “It’s nice to meet you” and making small talk. At some point just downright saying “I’ve lost 165 (?) over the last 2(?) years” and it seems like just yesterday I was dreading how people treat me on flights. Then just leaving it at that. Let whoever you’re near know, then leave it open for them to ask questions.

    We all hate to make others feel bad, we all hate having others get angry at us. If you’re open and honest and talk about your own path, and not their own shortcomings; I think most of the time it will be a great thing for both you, and the person you’re speaking to.
    Keep it up David! We’re all rooting for you!

  4. Jen says:

    I think that the only way to bring up your blog and not seem like a schmoozer or trying to embarrass your seat mate is if you were already in a conversation with him. Normally, someone will ask you what you do, and then you can say that you are a blogger and talk about your weight loss.

    I think the best way to talk to someone about it is if it is in natural conversation and does not seem forced.

  5. DidoCarthage says:

    I totally get and sympathize with your dilemma. I do think “Al” might have been glad to know of your experience, but, yes, *you don’t know*. The only thing I can think of that I might have done is just generally been more openly friendly with him. He might have appreciated just plain friendliness, and that in itself would be a good thing. I wouldn’t bring up the weight thing unless I had established some kind of relationship and it seemed like a subject that would fly.

  6. Emily says:

    Hi David!
    I would have done a covert operation. I would have pulled up the blog on your laptop and just pretended to be working in it or writing – that would have given him an opportunity to see your pictures and given him the chance to open up a conversation if indeed he did want to. I’m sly like that… That’s just how I roll. ;0)

  7. Mom says:

    I had the same thought as Rachel when reading your blog. What did Richard Simmons say to you when he met you? You know that you had to be willing and ready to start a diet, that you had to initiate the process with Richard.

    I think as others said above that you could have been friendly to Al and in the course of conversation, your story would naturally come out. Then again, maybe he didn’t feel like talking. For you to be an evangelist or salesperson, you have to be able to take rejection. You could also ask Richard how best to spread your word, I wonder what he would advise.

  8. bill says:

    One of my favorite authors was Leo Busgalia. Leo said, “Never deny yourself the opportunity to reach out and talk to another human being”

  9. Tara says:

    Such a delicate subject. To say or not to say that is the question. We so desperately want people to see us as our former selves so that we can encourage them to journey to their new selves like we have.

    So often I see my former body in someone and just want to give them the slight nod that I get it. To somehow use a secret handshake that says “I used to weigh almost 300 lbs and of you want I can share my story with you”.

    In reality David, we don’t know what people are thinking or how they are feeling about their bodies. What we think and feel about them is our projection of what we used too (and still do) feel about our bodies. He may in fact already be on a journey. Maybe he’s lost some weight already. Maybe he doesn’t give a flying crap about losing weight. If the conversation arises about the successes you’ve had in weight loss then by all means strike up that conversation. But we both know if the David today was actually sitting next to the David of yesterday, you probably would not have been open to hearing about a weigh loss story.

    When the opportunity presents itself we know. You did the right thing by not saying anything. Maybe the universe planted you in that seat just so he can look at what’s possible. Maybe when he got home he took another step in his journey or at least thought about it. Maybe he cursed you in his mind the entire flight. Thinking that you didn’t understand. Thinking you were so lucky to not need an extender. Either way you influenced him. What he does with the influence is up to him.

  10. Susie Duffy says:

    Maybe a good thing to discuss with Richard Simmons? I know NO one is like him but he is not always nuts he is and can be very serious. I’m sure he has faced this very thing and besides soon you will be as popular and notice as RS! And you won’t have a problem starting a convo! Your good kid David, keep it up

  11. andy says:

    i initially thought you could do what Richard did to you – just tell you that you can help, I’ve been there or something like that and give him your card and say nothing more. but ‘mom’ has a good suggestion – ask Richard for a suggestion. surely he’s had this discussion with other weight loss winners before.

  12. Savannah Smith says:

    I have lost over 100 pounds myself and struggle with the same thing. When I am presented with this type of situation, I find a way to bring up what I am doing and spin it around weight loss. Eventually, they ask how much weight you loss and how you did it. At that point, you could direct them to your blog.

  13. Susan says:

    David, I love you but…if I had been Al and your tall skinny self had started to talk about being a conquering former fatty I probably would have found a way to flush you into the blue water hole. I agree with all of the “don’t do it” people above who are nicer than I am. I think you did the exact right thing by being kind and obviously healthy. What you are speaks volumes! (PS I loved Leo Buscaglia too and I know we could all learn many lessons from the writings he left for us!)

  14. I love that you use your blog to help people, David. Do you also think that weight/eating struggles helps you to be compassionate to others? No, I don’t think you should have said anything. Although it could have changed his life, it’s a risk. Unwarranted advice (“look I did it and you can too!”) can be really hurtful or even offensive. I think the best we can do is to be kind and compassionate to others when they haven’t asked for our thoughts.

  15. amanda says:

    I agree with those who say just being kind and giving Al his space was enough. I as a big girl just appreciate people treating me like a normal person. I have lost some weight but I still need to ask for a seat belt extension. Depending on the flight attendant they can be really nice or just rude. The one I has last year was horrible she came down the aisle swinging the extension in front of everyone asking who this was for. I travel with my lean husband so invading his extra space is not a problem. But he has the other issue of being tall and has no leg or head room. I think just that you have been there you understand where he is coming from. Your kindness and compassion goes a long way. I think unless someone asks you I would not volunteer information on weight loss as you do not know where that person may be and if they even want to lose weight.

  16. Lisa says:

    I like the more friendly option expressed by others….thinking “Al” was uncomfortable enough, both physically and mentally, and had already asked for the seat belt extender.(Some flight attendants are so great about this, others not so much) Maybe the way to open the conversation was ” Hi-my name is David and I promise not to talk your ear off during this flight but I have to tell you I was you 18 months ago and I am happy to share my story with you. I have lost xxx lbs. And then just be quiet and let him talk or not. Too bad you didn’t have your business cards with you.

    Thanks for the motivation. Healthy eating continues here in the frozen tundra, I feel so much better when eat well.

  17. Coco says:

    Wow, this is a great conversation. I often share your story when people who tell me about their own struggles with weight. There’s no denying the power of your story and I think it absolutely should be shared. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how I would broach that subject with strangers. I like the idea of starting a conversation and introducing yourself as, among other things, a health and weight loss blogger. Then your new pal can ask about your blog or not, or you could just offer your blog business card. This seems like a respectful way for you to tell your story but only if asked about it. Or perhaps you should just start wearing a sandwich board around town printed with http://www.keepitupdavid.com? This reminds me, I think you should register as a leader/speaker with Prevent Obesity, a nonprofit network created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for fighting obesity, so you can share your story with even more people! http://www.preventobesity.net/register/leader

  18. Ok, here are my two cents. And just remember two things: This is just my opinion. And I’m from New York, which explains the brashness.

    You were absolutely right in not saying anything.

    One of your commenters stated that being severely obese is a delicate subject. I absolutely agree. It is a TOUCHY subject for a lot of people, including myself. At 271 pounds, I can tell you for certain that I would NOT have appreciated someone approaching me on a flight. Even though I could fit into the seat (barely.) It wouldn’t have mattered to me how good and sincere your intentions would’ve been. I wouldn’t have asked you for advice or for a kindred spirit connection, so please don’t presume that I would’ve wanted to hear it. I probably would’ve thrown you into the wall.

    There is no way to know what Al was thinking because we cannot presume to know anything about a total stranger. How do you know that Al wasn’t the large & in charge sort of guy? How do you know that he was already on a weight loss journey? What gives anyone the right to assume they know all about an obese’s person life or experiences for that matter just because they were formerly obese themselves? People who have lost a significant amount of weight DO NOT have all the answers. Former obese people still struggle every single day. And don’t tell me any different, because we all know that’s true.

    Being obese is extremely personal and emotional. If you had said anything, you would’ve just made an already delicate situation worse.

    (All said with love. Remember you wanted to hear it.)

  19. Nurse Karen says:

    You behaved in the appropriate, and respectful, manner. Your experience with someone offering their weight-loss advice was because of your association with The Ellen Show and that day’s subject matter. Al was not on a TV show, so there was no tactful way to broach the subject. Also, folks forget the values & morés of different cultures. In my mother’s people, being tall and full-bodied was desirable in females, for her voluptuous size reflected her vibrant status: it meant that she was honored: the warrior was a good hunter & provider for his mate & offspring. A potbelly on the male was considered sexy because, again, he was blessed to be well-fed. There are many cultures to this day who have largeness synonymous with attractiveness; unfortunately, not in Hollywood. Al may have been a closet Sumo wrestler, or The Big Kahuna for all we know, and you might have insulted him with any well-intentioned instruction, or sympathetic words. You also have to examine your intent: did you want to glorify yourself, get a pat on the back, {for which you absolutely deserve all that and more!!} or truly try to help an emotionally scarred individual? [if he is not The Big Kahuna, then most likely he overeats due to emotional issues, and rarely for a medical condition]. He may have had Cushing’s Syndrome, [or some other malady], cannot help how he looks, and been depressed further at mortification ignited by a fellow passenger. If you open up that particular dialog, then there is an inherent promise of ongoing relationship with the time and teaching commitment involved…are you willing to spend that amount of time upon a stranger? Can you be there to support that person emotionally & with adequate information?? I’m of the opinion that if you really don’t have the needed time and educated credentials [either with a genuine teaching degree, or in-depth study of safe, healthy, balanced lifestyle management] to teach properly & safely, then don’t initiate the topic. By the way, I think you know this material very well, especially the food/exercise aspects {Remember The Whole Foods Lecture you gave! More, Please!!} and, with your wonderful sharing of self-revelations in this blog, you seem to be diligently working on the emotional basis for balanced self-care; however, Al deserved his privacy and space. You did well, Jedi-Knight. Live Long & Prosper. ;-D

  20. Jodi says:

    I don’t think you could talk to him about your story unless for some reason health or exercise came up. Often, in the gym if I see a very morbidly obese person working out and struggling I will stop and tell them that they can do it because I did. I have never gotten a bad reaction when I have done this. I always make a point to do it because I wish someone had encouraged me like that and PROVED to me by example!

  21. Kenlie says:

    Okay, so I’ve been thinking about this for a week or so, and I’ve been desperate to come up with a scenario that would allow me to say “yes, sure..you could have said this or that.” But it’s not happening.

    I’ve even tried to imagine you sitting next to me (not knowing me, of course.) And I’ve considered what my reaction to any words about it (sincere or not) would have been as someone who is passionate about eating better, exercise, etc. And it wouldn’t have been good..here’s why…

    #1. If I were on a WL journey already (with my current numbers) I’d be reminded (as I have been, of course) that I haven’t gone far enough to look like the healthy, active person that I am. (I already know so confirming it would be discouraging.)

    #2. If I hadn’t lost weight and I heard that you did, I’d say “yeah, but that’s you…it’s just not possible for me. And Richard Simmons? Well, of course” or any other load of excuses I could come up with that kept me from seeing that I could have the same success.

    My dad used to say that if he could lose the weight for me, he would have done it already. He said it out of love, but it was one of the most hurtful things he ever said…It bred feelings of failure and uneasiness…

    That guy was uneasy already…I think all you could do is smile which would go a long way if I were that guy…

    You have an extraordinary heart Mister…but you can’t fix it for him…you can just not be a a-hole as so many others may have been…..

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