Editor’s note: This piece is part of a collection of stories on fat travel, curated by guest editor, author and activist Virgie Tovar. It’s the first in a series at the intersection of travel and inclusion, published by Airbnb Magazine.
Have you ever boarded an airplane wondering whether your hips would be too wide to walk down the aisle? Or dreaded the idea of being gawked at while on vacation? We often say size doesn’t matter, but sometimes it does. The size of our bodies can affect the things we do or the speed at which we do them. Traveling while fat is a unique experience with nearly no positive representation.
Fat Girls Traveling (FGT) is an online community I created to bring awareness, acceptance, and community to plus-size travelers. Over time I’ve noticed my readers were asking a lot of the same questions, so I picked the top 10 and answered them.
1. What are the most fat-friendly travel destinations?
This is the question I get asked the most. The honest truth is that fat acceptance and fat stigma are not destination-based. It has more to do with the people you experience and the activities you do in those places. However, some destinations have a story behind why their beauty standards are more accepting of larger bodies.
For example, the South Pacific and French Polynesia are known to appreciate an ample body type. In Tahiti, the ritual of ha’apori (“to fatten”) was practiced in high-ranking families. The well-rounded silhouette is still celebrated in places like Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji.
Other Fat Girls Traveling members have reported feeling most accepted in western Caribbean countries like Jamaica, along with African countries like South Africa, Kenya, and Morocco.
2. I’m afraid I’ll be too fat to fly! Are there any size-friendly budget airlines?
Federal law requires all passengers to wear a seatbelt. So if your concern is the seatbelt fitting around your waist, know that you can discreetly request an extender as you board the plane. Still, the seats on most U.S. airlines just don’t measure up. Most major airlines have seat widths ranging from 16 to 18 inches for short-haul flights in economy. The same flight in first or business class would give you four to six more inches of space for four to six times the price.
Many fat travelers swear by Southwest because of their Customer of Size Policy, which allows you to request a second seat and free priority boarding. You can either pay for a second seat and get a refund after travel, or request a second seat when you arrive at the airport. If there is space on the flight you will be “accommodated with a complimentary additional seat.” Another budget option is JetBlue, which boasts 18-inch-wide seats and the most legroom of any U.S. airline.
If Southwest or JetBlue won’t get you there, head to online database SeatGuru, where you can get airline seat details by the inch. That’s where you’ll see it’s not really about the airline as much as it’s about the airplane type. Airbuses are more spacious, while Boeing’s narrow-body design makes its planes more constricting.
3. My favorite airline doesn’t fly to the place I’m going, so my only options are a first-class seat or buying two. Do you have any recommendations?
First class and economy aren’t your only choices. Many airlines offer Premium Economy and Business Class options, both of which are more spacious than economy. If you want to know which seats have a tray table inside the armrest, which seats have a privacy door, and which aisle seats have a movable armrest, check out SeatGuru. All the best advice is in the comments section, so be sure to read it for even more details on the plane you’re traveling on.
4. My mobility has decreased and I’m anxious about asking for a wheelchair. Help!
All airlines must legally provide free wheelchair access to any travelers who ask. Make sure you request it 48 hours before your flight, especially at larger airports. I suggest calling the airline right after you book your flight to arrange a wheelchair. Once you’ve checked in, ask your gate agent to have a wheelchair or cart available at your destination.
5. Why do I always have to go through an extra security screening at the airport? It’s frustrating and humiliating.
Not only is there societal size stigma, there’s a flaw with the technology. TSA body scanners can’t read through our rolls. So, sadly, the bigger you are, the more likely the chance you’ll have to have a secondary screening. I always have a secondary check because of my long braids.
Fat Girls Traveling members have admitted to being groped to the point of discomfort. One member wrote: “It never fails that I will get an extreme pat-down, and yesterday flying home was the worst one yet. They literally pulled the waistband of my leggings away from my body all the way around and looked inside my pants. They made me lift my breasts and my apron stomach, they felt up my thigh, and touched my labia. It’s always really traumatic and I just want to know if I’m alone in this.”
You shouldn’t have to pay for TSA Precheck or Global Entry to be treated with human decency. Although the responsibility is not on you, here are a few tips that might help speed up the process.
- Wear pants or jeans in case a secondary screening is required.
- When you enter the scanner, spread your legs as wide as possible so that your thighs don’t touch.
- Try to prevent your clothes from bunching up by tucking tops into your waistband or wearing form-fitting clothing.
6. I’m going on my first long-haul flight and I’m nervous about blood clots. Do you have any suggestions on how to pass the time?
Deep-vein thrombosis is a risk for everyone on longer flights, but there are ways to reduce your risk. During the flight, wear compression socks to help increase the circulation to your legs, and be sure to stand up and stretch as much as you can to help keep your blood flowing.
To help the time fly, try not to fall asleep right away, because you’ll probably miss the inflight meal and wake up midflight while everyone else is snoring. Bring noise-canceling headphones or earplugs for when you want to sleep. Check ahead to see if your airline offers in-flight entertainment. If it does, remember to download the apps you’ll need before your flight so that you have access, and if it doesn’t, bring a book or download some podcasts or movies.
7. I’m not comfortable flying, but I’d love to visit different countries. What other ways can I travel internationally?
Cars and trains can only get you so far; boats can take you all over the world. I think cruises are an underrated way to travel affordably. Cruises have everything you need: food, drinks, events, and entertainment. I mean, where else can you wipe out on a surf simulator after you’ve enjoyed a buffet breakfast?
Royal Caribbean, one of my favorite cruise lines, has a private beach with a brand-new water park. Not only was I able to lounge on the sand and enjoy undersea sightings while snorkeling. I was able to get my adrenaline going on the tallest waterslide in North America.
8. I’m going on a road trip and will be tent camping for the first time. I’m nervous about fitting into a standard-size sleeping bag. What are my options?
Feeling suffocated by your sleeping bag or being too wide for your sleeping mat will ruin any chance for relaxation. But the truth is, outdoor gear is not one-size-fits-all.
The easiest thing would be to forgo the sleeping bag altogether and opt for an air mattress and some bedding. There are indoor/outdoor air mattresses and air beds with rechargeable pumps, so you don’t have to worry about a power source. If you’d prefer a sleeping bag, get a double or queen size and have all the wiggle room you need.
9. What are some plus-size international travel essentials?
A few things will be more difficult to find abroad for fat travelers, so I’ve listed the essentials.
- Pack extra undies: Finding larger sizes in clothing can be complicated wherever you go, so whatever number you were planning on packing, double it.
- Take your own towels: Have at least two that cover you, a bath towel and a beach towel.
- Prepare for chafing: Chub rub is just a cute way to say thigh chafing; both are excruciatingly painful and can instantly ruin your vacation. My favorite chafing-prevention product is Zone Naturals Chub Rub formula; I never travel without it.
- Stay cool and dry: If you want to avoid looking like your face is melting off, pack some cooling towels (towels that turn cold when wet) or a fan you can plug into the USB port on your phone. Throw one in your bag to help you stay cool during a day of sightseeing.
10. I’m going on an active group trip and just don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up. Do you have any advice?
I think it’s important that we have realistic expectations of our bodies. If you’re planning on hiking to the top of Machu Picchu but don’t hike regularly, start training before you go. Weight is not a determining factor when it comes to fitness. But size does matter when it comes to certain outdoor activities like ziplining, kayaking, and parasailing, which typically have weight or measurement restrictions. So you’ll need to investigate and advocate for yourself while planning your trip.
Call the tour companies and ask about restrictions like weight limits, gear sizes, or kayak cockpits. If they can’t accommodate you, tell them why they’re losing your business and that they should consider offering more size-inclusive options.
Getting these details before you travel can help you create an itinerary that’s inclusive of everyone’s abilities and respectful of everyone’s time. Self-advocacy can seem scary or even selfish, but you’re truly only asking for what you’ve paid for and giving feedback on why these businesses aren’t getting your money.
Everyone grows by trying new things and getting out of their comfort zone. But you have nothing to prove to anyone, ever. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being the last one to reach the summit, or watching the sunset from the valley. Remember that some tall people can’t play basketball and some fat people do run marathons. The most important thing is that we’re kind to our bodies, no matter the size.
For my fellow fat travelers, I hope this answered some of the questions you’ve been too shy to ask, or at least helped shine a light on some of the most common obstacles faced while traveling in a larger body.
If you aren’t a fat person and have never faced these barriers, travel can be an excellent opportunity to practice being an ally. Speak up when you see fatphobia happening around you. If you see someone filming a fat traveler or overhear someone fat-shaming, let it be known that you will not tolerate that treatment. Size doesn’t have to prevent anyone from having the travel experience they’ve always dreamed of. Recognizing and attending to our unique needs can make travel at every size a reality.
About the author: Annette Richmond is an award-winning content creator, writer, and advocate. A globetrotter and goal-digger, Richmond is the creator of the body-positive travel community Fat Girls Traveling and Fat Camp, as well as the editor-in-chief of Fat Girls Guide. The native Californian got her start in the fashion industry and has used that experience to create a platform that is inspirational and aspirational for people living life in marginalized bodies. As a digital nomad, she’s constantly on the move. After two years and twenty countries, Richmond hopes to continue to inspire people of all sizes to see the world and be seen.
About the artist: Lucila Perini is a freelance illustrator based in Buenos Aires. She graduated from the University of Buenos Aires with a degree in Graphic Design, and now works as a designer and illustrator for leading brands in fashion, gastronomy, and lifestyle.