Chubby Girl Abroad: My Life As A Plus-Sized World Traveler

Photo: Brian Douglas / Courtesy of Michele Sponagle.
The world is a fascinating place. I’ve been exploring it voraciously for the last 15 years through my work as a journalist. I’ve visited more than 65 countries (so far). In each, I am treated a bit differently as a plus-sized girl, an unapologetic size 22. It has been a mixed bag of experiences — insulting, embarrassing, uplifting, and downright puzzling.
There’s a bit of fear that always strikes me before I go to a new place the first time. I think about what might happen if my luggage doesn’t arrive. Shopping for plus-sized clothing is challenging, nearly impossible, especially in many parts of Asia.

I worry about going to a place like Japan, where obese people are quite rare — less than 4% of the population. (By comparison, it's almost 35% in the U.S.) Good luck finding XXL panties there. I remember how a size-14 friend was shooed out of a store in Japan after being told, “We have nothing to fit a big girl like you.” Luckily, my bags have always shown up.
Flying poses its challenges. When I was 40 pounds heavier than I am now, I had to ask for an extension for the seatbelt so that I could fasten it properly. It is embarrassing — even more so when fellow passengers point, stare, whisper, and laugh. Some flight attendants understand. They bring the extension rolled up tightly and pass it to me discreetly. Though one flight attendant did walk down the aisle with a screaming bright-yellow one, dangling at full length to the floor as she came my way. If I could have crawled inside the seat-back pocket, I would have.

Because of shrinking seat widths on planes, I prefer the armrest to be raised. I have silent battles with seatmates over that precious two inches of space. I’ve had armrests slammed down and pushed into the top of my thigh angrily, plus dirty looks that would wither a rose. If they are really adamant about not lifting it, I give in and try to stay within the borders of my space, squeezing my legs tightly together and folding my arms over my chest for the duration of the flight. It’s uncomfortable, but I just deal with it because I sense the disapproval of others if my body should encroach, even slightly, on their domain.

On land, I feel just as judged. While I was visiting the Caribbean island of St. John, a cab driver said, “You’re a big one,” as I got into his taxi. “I have to charge extra because I’m going to use more gas with you in here.” I was stunned, but I wasn’t going to let it go: “You can’t just make up rules as you go along. Charging according to size is prejudice. I’m not paying more,” I said. As he drove, I fought back tears of hurt. When I paid him (no tip), I said, “I was looking forward to seeing your island for the first time, but now what I will remember about it is how rude you were to me.”

Going to spas presents its share of amusing moments because I need an extra-large robe. I can’t count the number of times I’ve squeezed myself into a robe and had to duckwalk to a treatment room because I was trying to keep the gaps in the robe closed with my hands, so I don’t flash my lady bits to the world. I loved the time when a spa therapist handed me a robe and said, “This one should fit. It’s huuuge!!” Gee. Thanks.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered great places where people appreciate my chubbiness; where it’s not only attractive, but a sign of wealth — a clear indication that you can afford to eat. When I was in Myanmar in December, my local guide would run into people she knew as we explored the country. “Dorothy, you’re getting so big!” some would say. Her reply? “Thank you!”
Photo: Brian Douglas / Courtesy of Michele Sponagle.
In Scott Market in Yangon, a woman approached me, I thought, to sell me something. She reached out and rubbed her hands all over my belly. She stroked her face, put her hands together in prayer, and then left without a word. I was shocked. I had seen monks do this with ancient statues at temples in Mandalay, as a means of ensuring good luck. Was she seeking that from my Buddha-like belly? If so, I wish her all the best.

Meanwhile, in Morocco, I was a man magnet. I had guys following me all day. They waited for me outside restaurants and shops. I felt like the Pied Piper with a parade of men. I commented to one shopkeeper that I didn’t know why these guys kept persisting and asking me out. “You’re fat,” he said matter-of-factly. “Men here find that very sexy.” I had no idea, but apparently that's true in many parts of Africa, including Kenya, where I felt like a goddess.

At a Masai village, just outside of the Masai Mara, the country’s most famous nature reserve, I met the chief — a handsome fellow adorned in beads and wearing traditional red-and-black tartan. He took me by the elbow to an area where members of his tribe sold souvenirs. As we walked, he repeatedly squeezed the fat on my upper arm. While I was negotiating prices with vendors, he stood close, scanning me from top to bottom (especially bottom).

“Maybe you should stay longer,” he said. Of course, I would have loved to because I adore Kenya. He had something different in mind. “You could be my No. 2 wife. We could make fat, healthy babies.” He proudly showed me the mud-and-dung hut where we’d live in wedded bliss. I was flattered, but it was time for me to depart with my tour group. He squeezed my arm one more time. “You’re so beautiful. I know you have to go now,” he said sadly. “Remember me.”

And I do — fondly. It's one of the sweetest memories I have as a chubby girl traveling the world.
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