Natalie Hage of Dallas, Texas, is a full-time student, plus-size model, and social media influencer. She's built a platform on promoting body positivity and health at every size — but on Friday, Hage's message was put to the test when she came face to face with a body shamer on an American Airlines flight to Los Angeles.
Hage, 30, had paid nearly $70 for extra leg room, and boarded to find only middle seats remaining. Upon sitting down, the welcome she received from the man to her left was less than warm. "I could tell from the second I walked up that he was bothered," she told TODAY. "He was making it very clear — jerkily arranging himself in his seat, slamming his seat belt — obviously distressed that I was alive next to him. I almost asked him if he was OK, it was so dramatic."
Then she noticed him putting his phone between his knees, with his finger near the camera button. She suspected he was taking pictures of her — and when she glanced down at his phone, she saw a stream of derogatory comments that the man didn't even seem to be trying to hide.
"Hopefully she didn't have any Mexican food," said whoever was on the other end of the text message.
"I think she ate a Mexican," the man had responded, later adding, "If the news reports a DFW Airbus A321 leaving the runway without rotating, that would be my flight."
Hage was shook. "I mean, I have a body-positive platform ... even I, in that moment, felt an inch tall," she told TODAY. "On a computer, you can delete it or scroll past it, but to have it happen in front of my face was surreal. The whole flight, I wanted to disappear."
But as Hage thought about the message she spreads online, "I knew I needed to practice what I preach," she explained. "If I didn’t say something, I’d regret it forever. I’d be a hypocrite ... I’ve made a platform to make people feel good about taking up space in the world, and this dude wanted to make me feel bad for existing."
Hage decided to address the man at the end of the flight, so as not to cause a disturbance and allow for a quick exit if necessary. She filmed the interaction and posted it to Facebook, where it now has more than 1.2 million views.
The man, named Eric, first denied the comments, but then apologized when Hage quoted his words back to him and revealed that she had photographic evidence of the exchange. As she challenged him, though, he lashed out again, asking her if she felt that she should be sitting in an exit row where she might need to help others in an emergency. Hage said she kept her composure, explaining that she in fact works out five times a week and that she was a model on her way to a photo shoot. He apologized again and, oddly enough, offered to buy her dinner "for the trouble."
Hage told TODAY that Eric's assumptions were unfortunately consistent with her experience as a plus-sized woman. "I've gotten crap at work — people saying that I looked messy or dumpy or wasn't trying hard enough — even though I put money and time into the way I would dress," she said. "I've had people yell stuff out of their cars, make comments about things in my grocery cart ... little microaggressions, like people huffing and puffing trying to get past me."
She hopes people who hear this story will feel inspired to treat others with kindness, but also to check their assumptions about larger bodies. "You don’t know anything about somebody by the size of their body. You know the size of their body," said Hage. "You don’t know what they eat or don't eat, if they exercise or don’t, how they got that way, if they’ve been much bigger and this is the smallest they’ve been. Out of the cool opportunity to get to know people in this world, you miss out on the chance to connect with another person because you decided to judge them instead."
She added, "We're all in this life together ... Learn how to be a kind spot in someone's day."