“I’m here for the snorkeling-with-seals tour.”
I watch the woman look me up and down as she takes me in, and I know what she sees. Kinder people would say I’m curvy or voluptuous, but I have no doubt that her first thought when she looks at me is ‘fat’. My thighs have cellulite and rub together when I walk. My arms are somewhat flabby. I have big boobs and a big booty to match. It’s clearly not the type of body she expected to be leading on an adventure day tour snorkeling and kayaking in the rough Atlantic Ocean.
She leads me to the back and rifles through a selection of wet suits. “This might do,” she says, emphasizing the word ‘might’ as she hands me a women’s size large.
I try not to let her tone rub off on me — the tone that says, “You’re too big for this” — as I start to squeeze myself into the suit. I get it on just below my hips before it’s stuck. She stares at me, pressuring me to continue to try, even though it’s clearly going nowhere. Finally, she concedes that it’s a losing battle and hands me another: a two-piece with an extra-large bottom and a large top. I squish myself into the bottoms, easing the neoprene up my chubby thighs and over my thick hips. The bottoms fit, but the top doesn’t. Once again, she just watches as I yank the too-tight material over my torso, struggling to make the zipper line up. By this point I’m hot, sweaty, uncomfortable and embarrassed. Not to mention I’m now holding up the boat because I can’t find a wet suit that fits.
In a last-ditch effort, she hands me a men’s suit. I pay no attention to the sizing as I pull it on. Thankfully, it rides up my body much easier than the first two, but as I try to straighten the bulky, excess neoprene around my ankles, I feel a stinging pain in my fingers. I glance quickly at my hands and notice that I have literally shredded my skin; several of my fingers are gouged and bleeding. As if the shame and humiliation wasn’t enough, I have now physically injured myself. All because I’m a plus-size girl who craves adventure; a combination that seems mutually exclusive in the world of adventure travel.
Despite the physical injuries and embarrassment, I enjoyed my day. Spending a day snorkeling and kayaking with seals on the coast of British Columbia, Canada, is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I loved every minute of it. It was seal pup season, and I all but forgot about my stinging fingers as I watched the fluffy little seal pups shuffle on the rocks beside their mothers. However, I can’t help but think that while I may be stubborn enough to persist despite the shame, many other curvy women aren’t. That many other plus size women, despite wanting to partake in these types of activities, are too afraid of the embarrassing repercussions to give it a go. And so they stay behind — all because of the prevailing attitude that adventure travel is only for the fit and slim.
I’ve never been slim or fit, but I do my best not to let it hold me back. Over the past six years I have backpacked around the world in search of adventure. I’ve trekked through the muddy rice terraces in the hills of Sa Pa, Vietnam, and climbed the abandoned temples of Bagan, Myanmar. I’ve hiked up the 1,400 crumbling stairs to Kotor Fort in Montenegro and gone scuba diving through the shipwrecks of Coron, Philippines. I may not be the fastest or the fittest, but despite the sometimes shocked looks or comments, I refuse to let the fact that I don’t look like a typical hiker, trekker, climber or diver get in my way.
But I can only go so far. As much as I am unwilling to let my size determine what I can or can’t do, adventure companies and travel gear brands are quick to put those limits on me. In a world where the normal size for North American women is now a 14/16, most companies still refuse to carry or make larger sizes — not considering, or perhaps not caring, that there are plenty of plus-size women who genuinely enjoy physical activity.
But I refuse to give up. I will shove, yank and, yes, even bleed if I must to do what I love. I will fight off the tears and suffer though the humiliation and the embarrassment. I know that I will stand out, but it’s OK. By standing out I’m making a point. My only hope is that when I make it to the top of the mountain or the bottom of the ocean and continue to share my story, people start to take note so that adventure travel will become more accessible for all shapes and sizes — including for shapes and sizes like mine.