Photo: Jeff Jenkins

Traveling While Fat: How I’m Changing the Narrative

Narrative Lifestyle
by Jeff Jenkins Oct 10, 2019

I was compared to a sumo wrestler the first time I went to Japan when I was 20 years old. It was the first time I’d been anywhere outside the US, and I quickly realized I was bigger than the majority of people in the entire country.

Since that first trip, I’ve been to 34 countries in the past 13 years and have lost count of the number of times I’ve flown across the ocean. I consider myself a seasoned traveler, but I’ve gotten my fair share of questions about whether I’ll be physically fit enough to make it up that volcano in Guatemala or be able to ride on that horse in Belize. Last year, I started a new venture — a travel blog that helps chubby people travel around the world. This was inspired by a conversation with my wife on an airplane.

My wife taught me I think differently about travel.

Photo: Jeff Jenkins

Boarding a plane to Italy, we realized it was a full flight and my wife was going to have to sit in the middle seat. To my surprise, she took the seat without hesitation.

I asked if it bothered her to sit in between two people, but she said she wasn’t concerned about it at all and hadn’t even considered it an issue before. Skeptical, I asked her if she ever worried about weight limits, and she responded with complete confusion, as though the thought had never crossed her mind.

In disbelief, I asked her if she was ever concerned she wouldn’t be able to fit in a seat in an airplane or amusement park ride. She had never even thought about it before. I sunk into my seat as I looked out the window into the clouds. It’s not an exaggeration to say my mind was completely blown.

I realized I approach travel in a completely different way from most people.

When I’m preparing to take a trip, I have to do extra prep work. I have to research my destination before I make travel plans to make sure I can fit on the attractions I want to go on. I find out how much intense physical activity I should expect, and I increase the intensity of my workouts beforehand so I can walk around and enjoy my trip. When I book flights I make sure I can get either an aisle or window seat. And because I wear larger clothes, I have to pack in a unique way so I can fit everything I need into my luggage.

I had an epiphany at that moment. There aren’t that many plus-size people who travel overseas like me, and most people, like my wife, just don’t think about travel the same way I do. More importantly, the travel industry doesn’t see plus-size travelers as a marketable audience.

Current American travel narratives are not inclusive.

Photo: Jeff Jenkins

The US travel industry is a $1.1 trillion industry with a tunnel vision problem. Plus-size, fat, or chubby people are largely excluded. Typically, travel industry social media marketing posts feature slim, fit people who visit immaculate destinations barely wearing any clothing at all. In fact, flipping through the pages of Resonance Consultancy’s 2018 Future of US Millennial Travel Report, every image is of airbrushed physically fit people traveling through cleanly curated scenes.

It’s not just visual representation, though. The report is filled to the brim with statistics about who is traveling (adults between 20 and 36 years of age), where they’re going (40 percent are traveling to major cities), and what they’re doing (56 percent regularly enjoy fun attractions). However, it doesn’t mention any aspect of the plus-size traveler’s experience at all. And the marketing isn’t the only place where we’re excluded. Travel destinations, airlines, and tourism boards rarely provide accommodations relevant to chubby travelers, such as larger seats for airplanes and amusement park rides or accessible harnesses for zip lines and other adventurous excursions.

Consequently, plus-size travelers can experience embarrassment as we board planes, unsure if we’re going to fit into the seat, and trying to fit as the attendant voices their concern that it’s not going to work and other passengers watch. We feel isolated as we walk down the aisle of the plane, knowing other passengers are hoping we won’t sit next to them. In order to avoid some of this embarrassment, we often need to spend extra money to accommodate our size by buying an extra seat on the plane or buying plus-size equipment for excursions.

Because we don’t feel welcome in the travel community, we’re afraid to travel. I’ve experienced fear that I’m not going to enjoy myself as much as a skinnier person would or fear that I’ll be stared at or made fun of in the countries I visit. I’ve been afraid I might not be able to finish an excursion because of my size, even if I’ve worked hard to increase my conditioning.

The current travel narrative doesn’t address these concerns in any way, so plus-size people feel excluded from the conversation. It makes us not want to travel when we have to spend a lot of mental and emotional energy considering whether or not we’ll be accommodated while traveling.

As this changes, I hope we see representation for plus-size people in marketing campaigns. I want to open up my social media apps and see travel advertisements featuring plus-size travelers and sponsored trips from plus-size influencers. When I visit a destination’s website, information useful to plus-size travelers should be easy to find and excursions more accommodating.

Inspiring a new narrative, one story at a time

Photo: Jeff Jenkins

Knowing there’s a lack of representation, I made it my mission to be my community’s representation. My goal is to share not just my story but also others’ experiences. The purpose of my work isn’t to promote obesity but instead encourage and inspire underrepresented and marginalized people to live life where they are right now. Plus-size people need to know they don’t have to wait until they’ve reached a certain imaginary physical ideal to go on adventures all over the world.

My website, Chubby Diaries, features firsthand accounts from plus-size travelers as we overcome obstacles. For example, one of the stories I featured on my blog was about one man’s experience with taking his shirt off in public for the very first time while on vacation in Jamaica. He talked about how he had been fearful of what other people would think of his body, but on this vacation, he decided not to allow the opinions of others to stop him from enjoying himself and living his life the way he wanted to. I hope my readers felt inspired by his story to confront their own personal fears, specifically the fear of public opinion and judgment.

Another recent post was by a woman who talked about her experience riding a camel in Egypt. She discovered anyone can ride a camel because a camel can carry up to a thousand pounds on its back. Knowledge of this simple fact helped her feel free to enjoy the excursion without anxiety or fear of embarrassment. By sharing this liberating experience with the rest of the community, she’s helping others open up to new travel possibilities they might not have considered before.

Aside from personal stories like these, I also post practical travel tips to help my readers prepare for their upcoming trips. I’ve discussed skiing tips, packing for extreme temperatures, and how to prepare for a long airplane flight, as well as destination-specific information based on personal experiences.

I want members of my community to feel empowered to travel and to know they have more options than they may have previously considered. When I think about how many countries I’ve visited and cultures I’ve interacted with, I realize how much my travels have enriched my life. It’s painful to confront the idea other plus-size people would miss out on experiences like mine because they feel like they’re not welcomed by the travel industry. The industry’s been missing out by not opening up its narrative to include the curious and adventurous people who haven’t been represented until now.

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