Shame, seatbelts, and shrinking women

The sun was just starting to rise as I walked down a narrow runway to board my first flight. My eyes were bleary from too little sleep and not enough caffeine, a combination of my seven-month-old having woken up at 2:30 in the morning and needing to leave for the airport by 4. In the weak morning light, I swung my green carry-on bag over my shoulder and made my way towards the plane headed for Toronto, a brief 45-minute flight and my first stop during a day of travel out to the west coast.

The first thing that struck me was how tiny the airplane was. A single seat on each side of the aisle, the plane only went about 15 rows back, which was fine, I suppose, since there was just a handful of people on the flight–seven, maybe eight passengers in all, myself included. There weren’t even any overhead bins on board, so passengers were checking their roller bags at the last minute once they realized they wouldn’t fit under the seat in front of them. A quick glance at my boarding pass revealed my seating assignment as 11A. I squeezed my way towards the back of the plane, sat down, and stuffed my duffel underneath the empty seat in front of me. I draped my coat over my lap and glanced around. Not only was the plane tiny, it was also ancient. Everything looked worn and outdated, from the small tears in the seats to the discoloration of the carpeted aisle. I sighed a little and comforted myself with the fact it was a quick flight and would be over soon enough.

The pilot had the engine running, and I could tell we were getting ready to begin taking off, so I reached for my frayed seatbelt to fasten myself in. Only it wouldn’t buckle. I loosened the strap a little bit to accommodate my wide hips, and tried again. Still no. A mild panic began to rise up in me, and I looked around nervously to see if anyone was watching; the woman across the aisle from me was just starting to settle into 11B and was more concerned with trying to shove her bulging carryon bag under the seat in front of her than watching me struggle with my seatbelt, thank God. I loosened it again, this time as far as it would go, scolding myself for gaining that last 10 pounds during pregnancy and replaying the words of my OB who had warned me extra weight can be quite difficult to shed during that postpartum period. I held my fully-loosened seatbelt in sweaty palms, said a little prayer, and attempted to buckle it one more time. It simply Would. Not. Click. Shut. I felt hot tears behind my eyes.

In that moment, I felt more embarrassment, more shame than I think I ever have before. I felt enormous, and flushed, and ugly, and disgusting. I imagined what I must look like should anyone be watching: fleshy and frustrated and big, too big. Insecurity after insecurity came crashing down, and I felt nearly suffocated beneath them. If only I had worked harder to lose the baby weight. If only I hadn’t eaten dessert last night. If only my figure was more like those I had seen in the Glamour magazine I’d purchased from an airport convenience store. If only I hadn’t battled my weight since I was 13. If only I was smaller. If only my hips were more narrow. If only I didn’t take up so much space. If only.

An angry “Damn it!” brought me out of my self-pity and back to reality. I glanced at the woman across the aisle from me; she had been the one to utter those two angry words into the atmosphere. She was pretty, about ten years older than me with short, dark hair and glasses. She was thinner than I was (isn’t it tragic that this is what we women do, compare ourselves to others?) and dressed in blue jeans and a thick mulberry wool sweater. “Damn it,” she swore again. I looked down and saw she, too, was having trouble fastening her seatbelt. She’d fully extended it and was furiously trying to force the clasp together, but it just wouldn’t quite make it. She caught my eye and her cheeks flushed. “These old planes,” she said. “They’re too small! I always have trouble with the seatbelts on them.” The fact that she had blamed the plane while I had blamed myself for the exact same set of circumstances was not lost on me. I smiled at her and told her I was having a hard time as well. A look of relief washed over her face, and she laughed, nervously. I found myself wondering just what her inner monologue might have been up until that point. Did it echo my own, brimming with shame? Had she berated herself for being too big, too full, too much? Our world has too many shrinking women, women who suck it in and hold themselves back try to be smaller, inhabit less space.

It was then that I heard a gentle whisper in the secret chamber of my heart, a place where so often truth and healing wait for me. “Who told you?” it asked quietly. “Who told you you needed to be ashamed?”

 I remembered reading Jon Acuff years ago and his tragically funny exposition of Genesis 3:11. As he says, that scripture is “one of the saddest and most profoundly beautiful verses in the entire Bible. Adam and Eve have fallen. The apple is a core. The snake has spoken. The dream appears crushed. As they hide from God under clothes they’ve hastily sewn together, He appears and asks them a simple question:

‘Who told you that you were naked?'”

Who told you that you were too big?
Who told you that you were too small?
Who told you that you were too full?
Who told you that you’d always be empty?
Who told you that you were too much?
Who told you that you weren’t enough?
Who told you that you were, metaphorically, naked?

“There is hurt in God’s voice as He asks this question, but there is also a deep sadness, the sense of a father holding a daughter that has for the first time ever, wrapped herself in shame” (Acuff, J.).

Shame was attacking me on that tiny plane that early morning, and I was pretty sure it was preying on the woman in 11B as well. “Who told you?” the voice repeated. You see, God still asks the question because he wants us to see it wasn’t him. The voice that made me cry embarrassed, angry tears that morning wasn’t God’s. It wasn’t Truth.

The woman and I talked in hushed whispers about what to do. “I might just leave it unbuckled,” she confessed. “It’s a short flight; I can’t be bothered with this bull(insert expletive here).” I nodded, tempted to do the same myself, tempted to hide under the coat I was carrying on my lap and pretend none of this had happened. But one thing you should know about me is that I don’t go down without a fight, so I took a deep breath, sucked it in, and decided to try just one more time.

That seatbelt clicked loudly into place.
I started to laugh, under my breath at first, then a little louder as I realized the depths of everything that had happened there that morning. The woman across the aisle chuckled a little bit too, then reached out and touched the flight attendant’s arm and asked for a seatbelt extender. “Of course,” the tall blond woman smiled. “I know; the belts on these old planes are just never big enough, are they?”

Who told you?

(I am happy to report that on my connecting flight and during my flights back home a few days later, my seatbelt fastened with ease every time.)


Photo from Creative Commons


  • Libby
    March 4, 2017

    Isn’t that how we do. Straight to shame. Straight to fear. I’m proud of her for asking for a seatbelt extender. It’s terrifying to speak right up sometimes but I’m glad you found camaraderie.

    • Elena Delhagen
      March 5, 2017

      Yes! We are so programmed to default to shame, to self-condemnation. It breaks my heart.

      I love that the woman asked for an extender, too. And I loved that the flight attendant was so casual about it, like it must happen all the time!

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