Author: Pamela MacNaughtan

Overweight Travel: Empowering Everyone

When I began writing this article my intention was to write about overweight travel. It’s not a topic I write about very often, nor anyone else for that matter, but when I wrote about an article on travelling as an overweight person a few months ago the responses I received were both inspiring and heartbreaking.

Sure, there were the trolls who implied that if I stopped eating and exercise, the pounds would melt off, but for every troll there were ten people offering encouragement. And then came the messages and emails from people who desperately want to travel, but fear that their weight will make things too difficult and uncomfortable.

“…I came to the realization that I shouldn’t be writing about overweight travel, I should be writing about body image.”

It was with these people in mind that I began to write this article, wanting to encourage and show them that travelling while overweight can be tough at times, but it’s possible. I looked for “fat” travel blogs and articles that I could reference, and in doing so I came to the realization that I shouldn’t be writing about overweight travel, I should be writing about body image.

Body Image is Subjective

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Why the switch in topic? Because being ‘overweight,’ or ‘fat,’ is subjective, for some it’s a dark thought that takes hold and feels as though it will never let go, for others it’s not merely a state of mind, it’s physical as well.

For those who are physically obese, travel will have it’s challenges, and those challenges will vary depending on your weight. When flying you may need to ask for a seatbelt extension, or perhaps choose to buy an extra seat to make things more comfortable. When you’re exploring a city, you may need to take breaks to catch your breath – I suggest pretending to take an interesting photo, or check your phone for an important text message.

In some countries, like Asia, you will be stared at, and possibly laughed at. Asia is the land of the little people, and if you’re not less than a size 8, you are considered fat, something Diana Edelman of D Travels Round wrote about on her blog:

“After awhile, those, “You’re fat,” comments begin to take a toll.

Skinny is everywhere in Thailand. If you’re above a size 8 (and I think I’m being quite forgiving when I say that) you won’t be able to find cute clothes. I’m a size 10 or 12 (depending on the day) and yeah, shopping at the department stores leaves me feeling defeated when I look at a pair of pants that I can’t even fit an arm through the leg, let alone my ass.

The only place I can shop is Tesco Lotus, and then it is clothing that is more like a tent than anything cute and form-fitting.

I’ve always battled with being overweight, and here in Chiang Mai, it is a constant reminder of those battles.”

Body Image & Culture

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In these moments, when locals stare and point out that you’re fat, you’ll struggle with feelings of hurt and anger, but it’s important to remember that in most cases the locals are not being malicious, it’s that their culture is different, and they are simply ignorant to the fact that they are being rude. Still, the stares and giggles can sting, and if you haven’t developed a thick skin before arriving, you will have challenging days.

“…it’s important to remember that in most cases the locals are not being malicious, it’s that their culture is different…”

Body image is a serious issue, around the globe. It’s not solely about weight, it’s also about skin color as well. In Asia, where they stare and giggle at anyone who is bigger than a size 8, they struggle with skin color. Many Asians believe that having lighter skin means you are somehow better, richer, more desirable.

They put whitening agents in everything from face wash to body lotion to soap. The ads on TV will almost always feature an Asian person with lighter skin. In Asia, this is the type of body image issues they deal with on a daily basis. Anyone with dark skin is seen as less desirable – until they figure out that you’re American, then they may treat you slightly better.

I recently read an article by Brooke Harrell Berry entitled Black and Living Abroad in Thailand: I’m An American, Too, which gave an interesting insight into life in Thailand as someone with darker skin.

“I also can’t ignore the privilege that seems to come with my association to America. Even if the Thais don’t completely believe me, cab drivers take note that my condo is in extreme proximity the U.S. Embassy and that my accent is very American.

I am definitely treated better when Thais believe I am not African, as if there is a hierarchy to blackness.

I went to buy some bread from a bakery in my neighborhood and the woman behind the counter was quite rude and refused to help me, despite me pointing to the rolls I wanted and showing her my money. I went back to the bakery with my Thai maid, Kuhn Daeng, who explained to her what I needed and her whole attitude changed. She even spoke in English to me. On the silent walk back home, Kuhn Daeng patted me on my hand and said, “Madame, I tell her you not African. Everything ok.””

Strategies for Coping

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Should your weight, size, or skin color keep you from travelling the world? No, never.

One of the most important things you need to do is to learn how to accept you, for you. If you haven’t learned to love yourself the way you are, traveling the world will not help you, in fact, it can make you even more insecure if you chose to travel in places like Asia.

A good first step is to travel in countries that are more accepting, and similar to your home environment. Start off with destinations in Canada, the United States, Mexico, or Europe. All of these countries and regions are fairly accepting of people of different shapes, sizes, cultures, and skin colour. Use these places as a jumping off point, gain your travel confidence, then venture into places that are a little more challenging.

“It’s not a body image thing, it’s a mental health thing.”

Will every travel day be perfect? No, it won’t. If you wake-up grumpy and want to stay in and read, do it. You don’t have to travel like everyone else, there is no need to compete and keep up with the other backpackers. This is your trip, and if you need to take a day off to keep your spirits up, go for it. Believe me, you are not alone, many travelers have days when they don’t want to go out. It’s not a body image thing, it’s a mental health thing.

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you go; they merely determine where you start.” Nido Qubein

Fear should never keep you from doing the things you dream of doing, nor should public opinion. It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone, I get that, but when you can learn to not care about the opinions of others, life gets better. Not caring will be hard, in the beginning you may only be able to do it for a few hours at a time, but eventually you’ll get to a point where you won’t care as much.

It’s easy for someone to be a judgmental jerk, it takes a little more to be empathetic and supportive. Traveling the world is an amazing experience, and one that everyone can have, should they want that. Losing weight to please other people doesn’t work, just as traveling will never solve your problems.

“The first step to kicking fear in the ass, and achieving your dream of traveling the world, is to learn to be happy with yourself. “

The first step to kicking fear in the ass, and achieving your dream of traveling the world, is to learn to be happy with yourself. When you learn to be happy with the person you are right now, everything else gets easier. Happiness is a process, but it’s worthwhile. You can travel as an overweight person, as an underweight person, as a person of color, and have great experiences. Don’t let fear, or the judgement of others dictate how you live your life. Live your life for you.