Megan Bieniek waited for more than a day before she wrote the words.
She wanted to do it sooner. Right after the confrontation, to be honest. But her thoughts in that moment bubbled and boiled.
Any sentence she had written right then would’ve been crafted solely to inflict harm.
But “that doesn’t solve anything,” Bieniek said Wednesday from her Beaufort home.
So she gave it a little time.
Then, when she was ready, instead of directing her words only at the woman — the unkind passenger who on Nov. 16 sat next to Bieniek before a flight to Wichita, Kansas — Bieniek decided there were actually other people who needed to hear her message as well: those who know what it’s like to be cruelly judged but don’t always know that they can and should stand up for themselves.
Since posting a nearly 1,000-word open letter on Facebook on Nov. 18 about seeing a stranger’s text that called Bieniek and her husband, Casey, “fat” and complained about her toddler son, Ira, Bienek’s sentiments have been shared hundreds of times, blogged about and aired on news stations.
They’ve been picked apart and litigated by internet commenters, all of whom are very sure of how they would’ve handled themselves in Bieniek’s shoes and how Bieniek should have handled herself.
The comments have been variations on a theme.
I wouldn’t have looked at a stranger’s text. She was wrong to do that and got what she deserved.
I wouldn’t have said anything. So, really, she’s the one who caused that.
I wouldn’t have put something on Facebook. She clearly just wants the attention.
Well, I wouldn’t have written THAT.
“‘I would’ve broken her phone. I would’ve done this. I would’ve done that,’” Bieniek recounted some of the comments, many in support of her. “Yeah, all of that went through my head.”
But her reaction to the woman was based on what Bieniek knew to be true and right at the time.
Her instincts were telling her that the woman who sat in the aisle seat and who immediately — without taking a second to notice the silence of the 20-month-old frequent flier sitting on his father’s lap by the window, or the parents who were prepped and ready with snacks and distractions for the flight, or the friendly face of a mom, not using the armrest, who greeted her and was about to promise “If he misbehaves, we will buy you a drink” — texted “SITTING NEXT TO 2 FAT PEOPLE AND THEIR TODDLER. PRAY FOR ME” in large type and in a conspicuous manner, did so because she had wanted Bieniek to see it.
And if that wasn’t the case, the woman certainly didn’t appear to care that Bieniek had.
When Bieniek, in a shaky voice, indicated to the woman that she could see what had been written and asked whether it was about her family, the woman confirmed it, and seemed proud of herself. She held up the phone even more for Bieniek to see.
“Yup,” she said to Bieniek.
No apology was offered.
No embarrassment expressed.
A flight attendant moved the woman to another row, but Bieniek was shaken.
Was the woman merely reacting in annoyance because she felt intruded upon? Was she simply having a bad day, as some commenters have suggested? Or was she yet another example of our ever-devolving manner of treating one another? Our new standard of behavior, brought low by politics, media and online worlds where angry opinions live in the former home of souls.
Bieniek has continued to consider every angle to her reaction.
Ultimately, she said, she decided this was an opportunity for her to pay it forward.
After Ira was born, Bieniek had postpartum depression and found hope in the words of Morgan Shanahan, a blogger from Buzzfeed who has written openly about her own experiences with it.
Shanahan’s willingness to share something personal and painful and imperfect helped Bieniek see that she was not alone.
And it gave her strength.
So she was going to do the same for someone else.
Since writing the post, she has received messages from people all over the country who felt inspired by her words and her actions, who shared similar stories of being called “fat” or being bullied at school, or overhearing a stranger negatively comment on their appearance.
“I just got done reading my post to your daughter. She said that you’re her new hero,” one message to Bieniek read.
“This shouldn’t have to be what a hero is,” Bieniek said of someone defending herself. “Some little girl shouldn’t have to think that she can’t stand up for herself.”
The woman on the plane didn’t call Bieniek and her husband fat in the traditional sense.
And any debate over whether the words were intended for Bieniek’s eyes is a waste of time because it happened anyway.
The woman did what so many of us do. She had a shallow, awful, fleeting and useless thought. Then she expressed it. For no good reason.
“SITTING NEXT TO 2 FAT PEOPLE AND THEIR TODDLER. PRAY FOR ME” was supposed to zip through the air and disappear into a scroll.
That the words were seen by the person they were about made them significant; it turned them into an action and gave them consequence.
It changed thin air into a long sharp knife.
There’s a deeper discussion that can be had about this, but really it comes down to kindness and how and when we practice it and how and when we don’t.
Bieniek has been criticized for including along with her Facebook post photos of the woman, taken when they landed in Wichita.
If you’re advocating for kindness, doesn’t this fly in the face of that?
“It wasn’t about ‘Who is this woman? She needs to be identified,’” Bieniek told me. “It was about ‘Maybe she will see this.’ Or maybe a friend of hers will see it and will reach out to her and let her know that this was a crappy thing to do to someone and maybe help her be a better person.”
Beyond that, the photos show a woman who does not look particularly unkind. She looks like anyone else.
Bieniek could have ignored the text. It was certainly on the menu of options she was considering.
But she decided to let the woman know that words aren’t nothing and that outside her small rectangular universe of an iPhone human beings do still exist.
Mostly she did it to stick up for her husband and son.
“My husband ... would do anything for anyone ever.”
She told me about the anniversary date they missed because a tree had fallen on a neighbor’s car and Casey helped them remove it and about the time he encountered a bicyclist in Beaufort who was far from home and experiencing mechanical issues. He drove home, got his toolkit and went back to fix the person’s bike for them.
Just before the Bieniek’s encounter with the woman on the plane, Casey without hesitation had folded up the stroller of a mom who was traveling alone with two young children.
That Bieniek and this man she loves were reduced to nothing more than “fat” in that moment killed her.
“For someone to say something about him ....,” her voice wavered. “Ugh ... I’m getting choked up about it.”