'It's not my fault there's not enough space': Plus-size travelers share struggles, show strength

·9 min read
Chubby Diaries founder Jeff Jenkins encourages plus-size travelers to "live life now" just as they are.
Chubby Diaries founder Jeff Jenkins encourages plus-size travelers to "live life now" just as they are.

Jeff Jenkins is used to getting looks from fellow airplane passengers as he makes his way down the aisle.

The founder of Chubby Diaries on social media said, "You can see it on their faces. You can see the sigh of relief sometimes as you walk by because people don't want to sit next to you."

Plus-size travelers like Jenkins can feel marginalized as they step out into the world, but they are far from alone. As of 2018, nearly three-quarters of the U.S. adult population was overweight, obese or severely obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flying is just one hurdle, according to Kirsty Leanne, who runs Plus Size Travel Too, an online community by and for travelers of size. "A lot of people get put off straightaway before even the rest of the trip is started," she said.

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'It's not my fault'

Kirsty Leanne recalls a particularly painful incident years ago.

"I was on a flight next to someone who clearly was not very happy to be next to me, and they kept digging the armrest back down because it wouldn't sit properly," she said. "They kept elbowing it back down, so I ended up with bruises all down my side."

With her headphones on, she pretended not to hear when her seatmate yelled to a friend across the plane, "I don't want to sit here anymore."

Looking back, Leanne wished she said: "Well, it's not my fault there's not enough space. You should be taking this up with the airline rather than blaming me."

Airline seats continue to shrink, according to Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, the nation’s largest nonprofit airline passenger organization. He said business class seats nowadays are the size of economy seats just a decade ago and that today's seats are designed for the average traveler of the 1960s, when Americans were considerably smaller.

Whether on planes, at theme parks, in hotels or on excursions, there are myriad ways plus-size travelers are overlooked, which can lead to uncomfortable situations.

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Planning ahead

"I think sometimes (friends) don't necessarily understand quite how much I need to research, so they'll last minute be like, 'Let's go bungee jump,' and I'm like, 'I can't do that,' " Leanne said.

Activities like bungee jumping, zip-lining and skydiving can have weight limits or size restrictions. Learning what those are in advance can help avoid disappointment.

Jeff Jenkins recommends "research, research, research."

When he wanted to go shark diving in South Africa and learned that wetsuits were required, but there wouldn't be a loaner that fit, he bought his own.

"I'm not being singled out because I don't have it or embarrassed getting there and realizing, 'Oh I can't do this,' " Jenkins said. Preplanning in this instance meant buying the wetsuit at home and bringing it all the way across the world.

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One size doesn't fit all

It's not always easy to just pick something up upon arrival at a destination, particularly when it comes to shopping for plus-size clothes.

"I just don't even go into stores sometimes," Jenkins said, recalling his first trip abroad to Japan. "I just remember going into the store. As nice as they were, I knew I couldn't fit anything in there."

Kirsty Leanne said she also found shopping in Asia tough.

"I remember going to a couple of market stalls, and immediately as soon as I walked up to the stalls, they were like, 'No, no, no, no, we don't have your size,' " she said, adding that many fellow travelers of size dread losing their luggage for that very reason.

To avoid that, she recommends always packing two or three extra outfits in carry-on luggage "because you never know what's going to happen."

Capturing memories

Annette Richmond encourages plus size-travelers to see the world and snap photos of themselves along the way.
Annette Richmond encourages plus size-travelers to see the world and snap photos of themselves along the way.

While uncertainty can dampen a trip, some plus-sized travelers have coalesced to share experiences and celebrate one another. Annette Richmond founded Fat Girls Traveling to create a safe space for women like herself.

"I personally felt like my size was a hindrance to me for so long," she said. "So many of us, we have been told that our size is going to prevent us from doing anything that we want – from finding love, finding a good job, finding respect, finding happiness – so many of us think that because of our size, we're not even worthy of going on a trip."

Richmond encourages her online community to step outside their comfort zones and not only travel but take photos of themselves along the way, despite insecurities that may predispose them to scenery snapshots instead of selfies.

"Members will say, 'I haven't shared these pictures on my own Facebook or my Instagram, but you girls are wearing your bikinis on the beach and this is the first time I've ever worn a bathing suit in my life, and you inspired me,' " Richmond said. "To create a platform (where) thousands of people can be an example for each other, that's a huge joy for me."

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'Don't be afraid to take up space'

Sarah Yenko, the creator of The Blessed Journey on social media, used to wear leggings and long sleeves to the beach, thinking she was "too fat to wear a bathing suit."

"I grew up not really having much confidence, and it was always 'Change this, change this, change this,' " she said. "So it wasn't like I just woke up (all positive) one day. It was more a constant mindset where I had to tell myself, 'You need to be kinder to yourself and stop saying so many mean things to yourself.' "

Over time, she said it became more natural.

"Now it's more about how can I be better? How can I love myself more?" she said. "It's not about anyone else."

When Yenko travels, she packs clothing that makes her feel confident and always tries to bring good energy.

"If you bring that energy with you I feel like either you will stop caring (what others think) or people will be drawn to it," she said. "Let them be mad if they want to be, but let's not stop ourselves from living our lives to the fullest."

A voyage of self-discovery

Chantel Loura will never forget the thrill of her first big solo backpacking trip.

"I had planned the entire thing: 14 countries, riding the train through Europe," she said. "And I remember standing under the Eiffel Tower and just being like, 'You got yourself here. You did all the work ... For me, that's the most positive thing to happen, to have this realization of how strong I really am."

Now she's one of many plus-size travelers helping others. She shares her own experiences in the blog Voyaging Vagabond and leans into fellow plus-size travel content creators.

"Who (has) already traveled to a location that I want to go to? What information have they already posted?" Loura said. "Finding out about waivers, requirements and limitations, it kind of takes all of that unknown away."

Loura notes there is a lot more helpful information and support available online these days than when she got started.

"There were no resources in terms of plus-size backpacking," she said "You'd have the straight-size girls that are like, 'Oh, you can pack six bikinis in your backpack,' and I'm looking at my one."

'Trolls are going to troll'

Even with the encouragement of their online communities, travelers of size can face hurtful fat-shaming on social media and in person.

Just this summer, Jeff Jenkins said a man in Croatia called him a pig.

"He didn't think I heard him," Jenkins said. "He was like, 'Oh look at that piggy.'"

On another trip to Thailand, he said strangers didn't just look.

"I don't know where this came from, but they thought it was cool to just come up to me and just touch my love handles," he said.

Annette Richmond said, "Trolls are going to troll."

But she sagely noted that usually has more to do with their own insecurities.

"Whenever someone's coming at you with negativity, when you're coming to the table with positivity, it's because they're going through something, and they're projecting it on you," she said. "That's none of your business, boo. If they're miserable and they're unhappy, you don't have time to unpack that."

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'We're humans, too'

It's Jeff Jenkins' mission to "humanize plus-size travelers" and encourage them to "live life now" as their whole selves.

He said a fellow traveler once cried after learning about Jenkins' own experiences with bias on flights.

"He was like, 'I've been traveling this whole time, for decades now, and every time I saw a plus-size person, I always thought about myself, my comfort, and I never thought about that person. ... I almost didn't treat him like a human in a way,' " Jenkins said.

"We're humans, too," he added. "And we don't have to let society hold us back from what we think we can or cannot do."

Plus-size travel tips

  • Before booking a flight, check seating configurations to find the most accessible option. Seat Guru may have more details than airline websites. If reserving two seats will be more comfortable, book both without worrying what fellow passengers may think.

  • If a seatbelt extender may be needed, ask for one either before or immediately upon boarding the plane to avoid having to ask in front of everyone while seated. Also, don't be afraid to use one instead of squeezing in and sitting in discomfort the entire flight.

  • For hotels, call or email ahead of time to request a room with a larger bathroom, particularly in Europe. For youth hostels, reserve the bottom bunk in advance.

  • Pack comfortable clothes that make you feel good. Use travel cubes to be able to fit more clothing into suitcases and backpacks. Pack two or three extra outfits in carry-ons in case luggage gets lost. Plus-size retail options may be limited depending on the destination. It's best not to have everything in one place.

  • Connect with fellow plus-size travelers online and look into their experiences in specific destinations for practical tips. Solo travelers can meet locals through sites like Bumble BFF.
    Sources: Plus Size Travel Too, The Blessed Journey, Voyaging Vagabond

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Plus-size travelers share their struggles, strength seeing the world