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Why Travel Can Be Such a Nightmare for Plus-Size Women

Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist who has written extensively on a wide range of topics, from the art of revenge to the thrill of tracking polar bears in Canada's far north. When she's not writing, she's likely travelin...

Revealing the unknown perils & problems of a plus-size globetrotter

It should get easier, right? After visiting more than 70 countries, you’d think globetrotting would be a breeze after racking up so much experience. As a plus-size traveler, it seems to be getting tougher.

There’s anxiety aplenty about flying — beyond just hoping your flights are on time and you can get from point A to B without too much strife. For the obese and overweight, hopping on a plane is anxiety-inducing, largely because of ever-shrinking plane seats. They’ve gone from 18.5 inches wide in 2000 to shriveling down to as low as 16.7 inches on new aircraft. The last available data from 2002 put the average American hip width at 20.6 inches. That means there’s going to be spillage — an inch or two or three stolen from your neighbor or hanging in the aisle as much as possible or wedged against the window.

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I’ve been in the middle seat on long-haul flights (once famously from New Zealand to LAX) and felt the hatred and judgment simmering from my fellow row mates. I respond by clutching my arms across my chest for the duration of the flight and trying not to budge. Instead of blaming overweight passengers for tight seating, how about we call out the airlines for putting profits ahead of passenger comfort and health?

No one is keen to be seated next to an overweight passenger in such a cramped setting. You feel it as soon as you walk up the aisle to your row. That’s why I constantly jockey for a better seat — two empty ones together. I check for them online. I ask at the person at the check-in counter at the airport and again at the gate. On board, I keep looking for opportunities to move. When I hear the aircraft door close, I move my size 22 body at the speed of a gazelle to those empty seats.

Overweight passengers may have to ask for a seatbelt extension. That can be an ordeal. Flight attendants forget or they’re busy. Some flight staff is great at doing a quick, discreet handover of the belt. Others come with the extension dangling at full length. I’ve also seen screaming bright red or yellow ones. It seems to be an invite for some passengers to point, stare and giggle. If I could crawl into the back of the seat pocket and die, I would gladly do so at those times.

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Tray tables cause angst too. My heart sinks when I flip one down on a flight, a bus or a train and find that my belly won’t allow it to lie completely flat. When eating a meal with a glass of wine, this requires some deft management.

Transportation issues are just one aspect of travel that sucks as a plus-size person. Restaurants and bars are rife with potentially humiliating experiences, from flimsy chairs to ones designed only for wee butts. Whenever I go somewhere unfamiliar, I scan the venue to assess what chair hazards might await.

Plastic lawn chairs are the work of Satan in my book. They are liable to break and bend. if I have no choice but to use one, I lower myself gingerly like a robin perching on a nest of eggs and dare not move. Chairs with armrests can be uncomfortable. Those with solid sides all around are more problematic. I detested the bar stools, like the tiny U-shaped ones at a hip bar in Vancouver that cut off the circulation in my legs quickly. I ended up part standing and part leaning on them.

When I travel and there’s a need to wear anything that isn’t my own article of clothing, I get heart palpitations. Wet suits, thermal onesies for whale watching excursions, period costumes at historic attractions and even so called “one-size-fits-all” spa robes just don’t fit some plus-size travelers. I nearly froze to death doing a King crab fishing experience in northern Norway near the Arctic Circle — whipping along in a Zodiac in just a pair of jeans and a supplied ski jacket that didn’t zip up properly. “You’ll be fine,” said the boat driver. I wasn’t.

When it comes to particular destinations, trips to Asia are always interesting for larger travelers. A recent vacation to Myanmar was bizarre. I had an old woman come up to me and run her hands over my belly while in a market in Yangon. Perplexed, I asked the local guide about it. She said the woman was likely hoping some of my wealth and prosperity (evident because of my ample weight) would come her way because of my resemblance to Buddha.

There are some places where plus-size women are goddesses. In Jamaica, the men there say, “Bone is for the dog; meat is for the man.” They swarm to well-padded ladies like bees to honey. In Paris, Algerian and Moroccan immigrants, many of whom prefer zaftig women, chased me all over the city. In Kenya, a Maasai chief asked me to be wife No. 3. A wife of size was viewed as proof of his wealth.

In other places, too many to list, I am a convenient conduit for laughter. Being pointed at, accompanied by giggling, rips open every wound I’ve received since I was 6 years old because of my weight. I put on a brave face and pretend it doesn’t hurt me. I may try to disarm such judgment with a cheery, “Hello! How are you today?” Just a small reminder that I’m human too. Inside, I die a bit each time and wonder if traveling is worth it.

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