The aeroplane seat belt wouldn’t fasten.
I stole a look at the other two people sitting in my row. A middle-aged couple. Maybe elderly.
She wore a floral print dress—a dress that spoke of children, Sunday roasts, and little gingham-topped jars of strawberry jam.
He had a checked shirt and a smile that denoted years of backyard cricket. They were both reading books and spoke sporadically. They had reached the age where silence was comfortable.
Had they noticed anything?
Trying to be surreptitious, I pulled the belt harder. I sucked my stomach in. I sat up taller. I took my jumper off. I held my breath; I expelled my breath. Nothing helped—the seat belt wouldn’t fasten.
Face aflame, I pressed the call button for the stewardess.
She bustled down the aisle with a “what now” expression on her perfectly made-up face.
I’d already caused her bother when I swapped my seat with the little boy in the row behind, so he could sit with his family. It didn’t matter that it was at the family’s request—I was labeled a troublemaker.
From my window seat, I mumbled across my fellow passengers, “I can’t fasten my seat belt. Could I have an extension please?”
I mumbled too much, and she couldn’t understand me. She stood there, comfortable in her figure hugging uniform—waiting impatiently. I had to repeat my request, while loudly proclaiming my shame to the world.
Did I just imagine the looks of contempt on the faces around me?
What should have been a mildly embarrassing incident assumed epic proportions. I know now what people mean when they talk about going “hot and cold with horror.”
It was my second plane trip of the day. The first had passed without incident, so this calamity had taken me unawares.
I was on my way home from a wonderful family Christmas. Without giving it a great deal of thought, I’d been feeling good about myself. I loved my family and my work. I had a beautiful home to go back to, great friends, and two gorgeous cats, waiting patiently for me to walk in the door. No matter, thanks to the seatbelt, my world turned dark.
I spent the trip regretting every meal, every mince pie, every glass of wine as if I could identify which particular one had been my undoing.
The passengers in my row seemed oblivious of my disgrace. They chatted intermittently to each other and to me. They treated me as if I were normal, but I knew better—I needed a seat belt extension.
Weighty issues aside, I was content with my lot. I thought I liked myself.
Over the years, in between diets, I had paid lip service to the stupidity of the bathroom scales. Why would I allow an inanimate object to dictate how I should feel about myself? I asked. Throw them away and let your self-worth come from within. Sure, a great philosophy—unless you meet a seat belt…
The plane landed. Hating myself, I stood up, tugging at my clothes to try and hide the unacceptable bits of me.
Who was I kidding? It was all unacceptable. Fervently wishing for an invisibility cloak, I braved the walk of shame to the baggage carousel.
A woman approached me as I waited for my bag. “Excuse me, dear, I just wanted to say, you have the most beautiful smile. I watched as you gave up your seat so that family could sit together. Your smile lit up the plane.”
Walking on air, I grabbed my bag and went out into the night air to my waiting friend.
Since that day, I’ve accidentally lost 30 kilos.
I’d love to say that—thanks to the seat belt—I discovered hitherto unsuspected reserves of willpower and rid myself of the kilos through my own heroic efforts, but that would be a lie.
I lost my appetite, due to a drug I was prescribed for a medical condition, and the kilos quietly and undramatically melted away. I am more consciously aware of and grateful for my many blessings, and so my equilibrium is less threatened by the vagaries of inanimate objects. Otherwise, weight loss hasn’t made a great deal of difference to my life except, of course, that I have lost my irrational fear of seat belts.
Recently I caught another plane. As I walked down the aisle to my seat, I saw a large woman struggling to fasten her seat belt. She pulled the belt harder. She sucked her stomach in. She sat up taller. She held her breath; she expelled her breath.
Nothing helped, and my heart broke for her. I smiled, but she couldn’t meet my eye.
I read on her face the shame, the humiliation, the crushing self-hatred I remembered so well.
As I continued on to my seat, I hoped that she, too, could be restored to herself by kind words from a stranger.