The Uneasy Truth About Traveling While Fat

Fatphobia, tiny plane seats, and size limits can deter large travelers, but it doesn't have to be this way.

In 2019, on a trip to the Bahamas with my mom and sister, my flight turned into an uncomfortable ordeal. My seat belt wasn’t long enough to fasten, and a fellow passenger's visceral reaction added to my discomfort. I repeatedly asked the flight attendant for a seat belt extender and was ignored until takeoff, leaving me feeling disregarded and disrespected.

And this wasn’t the first time I’ve dealt with this particular kind of travel stress. I went to Paris in 2014, and found the city cramped and unwelcoming. Narrow staircases, tiny chairs, and compact showers were just the beginning. Throughout my time there, I endured constant staring, rude comments, and fetishistic remarks about my body. But these types of roadblocks aren’t limited to Paris or my flight to Nassau—Society has an anti-fat bias, and you can encounter it anywhere.

Living in a world fueled by fatphobia creates unnecessary barriers, from limited clothing options to discrimination in medical care, employment, and relationships. According to the NIH, more than two in five adults live in a large body. And yet despite this fact, we continue to face daily challenges—including in travel, where inequities like the ones outlined below so often deny us access to the same life-changing experiences available to others.

group of women posing on beach
Photo by Deon Tillman

It starts with planning

Travel prep can be exhausting for anyone, but if you're in a large body, it's even more taxing. We tend to lay out our packing lists extra carefully because once you’re out there, lack of sizes and availability can make it very difficult to replace anything you’ve forgotten.

Megan Ixim, a social strategist and entrepreneur, emphasizes the importance of considering these limitations when getting ready for a trip. “I have to think about packing every item I could possibly need, because the chances of not being able to find something as simple as a swimsuit, raincoat, or boots in my size are high,” she says.

Southwest Airlines airplane seats
Photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Flying the not-so-friendly skies

Pre-travel prep doesn’t stop at the suitcase. It also includes quelling anxieties around other inevitable aspects of travel—namely, flying.

For inclusive content creator Leah V, pre-flight self care is crucial. “In order to deal with my flight anxiety, I try to hydrate, rest, stretch, and make sure I don’t eat anything that’s going to upset my stomach to avoid using airport and plane bathrooms,” she says, pointing to the tendency for onboard lavatories and multi-stall public restrooms to err on the smaller side.

Bathrooms aren’t the airplane components that fail to accommodate large bodies. Seats—and seat belts, as I learned on my flight to Nassau—can also be a problem. This issue can come into play as early as booking, as many airlines require large travelers to purchase an extra seat—an added expense that can seriously alter travel plans.

man looking at phone on selfie stick
Photo by Jon Kroll

According to National Geographic travel host and award-winning content creator Jeff Jenkins, airlines can definitely do more to make flights accessible for everyone. “We are still waiting on the FAA to give dimensions for standard seat sizes for each aircraft,” he says. “We hope that they listen to us and make seats wider.”

Throw in additional ableist and racial biases, and these roadblocks can escalate substantially. “Whenever I've visited Chicago, I've observed a recurring issue where Black disabled individuals, myself included, are left waiting for assistance for extended periods,” explains Jervae Anthony, artist and founder of Fat Black Liberation. “The available wheelchairs don't cater to those with infinifat bodies, typically above size 32. It's a struggle to survive a form of violence that often goes unnoticed and unaddressed."

However, some airlines are stepping up to the plate. Anthony and others prefer to fly with Southwest, championing the pioneering discount airline as the number one option for people of size.

“Southwest’s popular open seating policy creates the opportunity for customers to have an empty seat next to them without purchasing an additional seat, though we do allow for the purchasing of two seats,” a Southwest representative tells Thrillist. “Safety and comfort are paramount and we aim to always provide the best experience for all customers.”

Woman ziplining
Photo by Natalie Robinson

Taking part in experiences and excursions

Getting there can be tough, but an entirely different set of obstacles can await fat folks once they’ve reached their destinations.

“I booked an ATV and zipline excursion in Yucatan and purposely called in advance to make sure they would have things to accommodate me,” Ixim says. “The ATV was perfectly fine. But once I reached the zipline, they said that they had one plus-size harness and somebody was using it, so I wasn’t allowed to participate.”

V experienced a similar issue while paragliding in Ohio. “They didn’t have harnesses to properly accommodate larger sizes, so I was half in and half out of a standard harness and had to position myself in a certain way to prevent falling,” she says.

Theme parks also present the problem of not being size-inclusive. V, who loves roller coasters, recalls an upsetting experience where, after waiting in line for two hours to ride a coveted Cedar Point coaster, the park’s staff told her that she wouldn't fit. “I was mortified,” she says.

And V is far from alone. Universal Studios Hollywood recently faced criticism when visitors deemed the Super Nintendo World’s Mario Kart ride fatphobic due to its 40-inch waist limit. When Los Angeles-based television station KTLA pressed the company on this, Universal Studios replied with a statement highlighting their intention to listen to their customers’ needs while emphasizing overall safety. “We have a company-wide task force actively working with this community to make changes that can help them safely increase access to our experiences,” they added.

Group of women laughing
Photo by Deon Tillman

Building toward a more inclusive future

Despite the challenges faced while traveling in a large body, there have also been many strides. Just this past May, New York City passed the groundbreaking Anti-Height and Weight Discrimination Bill, which seeks to improve access to public accommodations for bodies of any size and in turn, lays out the welcome mat for visitors of all sizes.

Community members are also coming together to create more size-inclusive travel experiences. Take travel blogger Ashley Wall and attorney Natalie Robinson, the duo behind travel company Fat Girls Travel Too. According to Robinson, the company seeks to “empower and encourage other plus-size women to travel the world and live their best lives.”

Chastity Garner Valentine in the snow
Photo by Matt Alves

Inspired by her experiences traveling in a large body, influencer and entrepreneur Chastity Garner Valentine launched the now-88,200 member strong Traveling While Plus Size Facebook Group “to give personal tips and tricks on how to navigate travel in large bodies.” And then there’s Jenkins, who hopes that his new series Never Say Never With Jeff Jenkins will inspire and motivate people of size to go on adventures and try new experiences like ziplining and other activities.

Other size-inclusive travel trailblazers include Rebecca Alexander’s AllGo, a service that surveys the fat-friendliness of restaurants, theme parks, and other public spaces, and Everybody Can Surf, the world’s first body-inclusive surf coaching business.

And while this all makes for a good start, in order for things to truly change, we still need to acknowledge and honor the humanity of all people living—and traveling—in large bodies. “We shouldn’t be invisible,” says Wall. “We’re here. We’re fat, and we are going to show up—unapologetically.”

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Cheyenne M. Davis is a contributor for Thrillist.