Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this story attributed Tara Allison’s comments to the wrong person.
As the summer months approach, travelers daydream about their vacations. Beaches beat out amusement parks, national parks and mountain towns as the leading destination. Each year, Americans take more than 400 million trips to the beach. But plus-size tourists like Phillip Nicholson often feel unwelcome at pools or beach resorts.
When Nicholson went to the Canary Islands, he was excited to see the turquoise ocean and the white sand beaches. But he was not excited to be bullied for his body size.
It was difficult to relax and soak up the sun when other tourists in his hotel looked at Nicholson "like I'm a 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' because I'm carrying some extra weight. A young mother ushered her children away from me when I descended the pool steps. I guess she thought 'fat' was catching?"
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Body-shaming is an everyday reality at beaches
Nicholson is not the only plus-size person who has been shamed while on vacation.
The CDC describes 74% of adults in the U.S. as being "overweight." Of the Americans who consider themselves to be fat, at least 43% cope with body-shaming or harassment, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the University of Chicago.
The average American woman wears x-large shirts or a size 18-20 in pants. Considering yourself to be fat is more complicated than having a specific BMI or clothing size. A person who is a size 30 may encounter very different obstacles at a beach than a person who is a size 18.
Pervasive stereotypes – like being perceived as ugly, lazy and clumsy – can shake a plus-size person's confidence, explains Tigress Osborn, the Board Chair of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
"The idea that pools or beaches are only for certain types of bodies creates a lot of social stigma for fat people when it comes to being seen in swimwear, and internalized anti-fatness sidelines others who either don't want to risk ridicule or who have come to believe they are supposed to hide their bodies," Osborn says.
For Tara Allison, the creator of Fat Girl Fit, the beach can be unfriendly territory. She used to avoid shorts – and definitely swimsuits – because she was afraid of being mocked.
"I have been made fun of by people young and old for wearing a bathing suit at the beach or the pool. I've been called a whale, been told to dress my size, and been told to cover up," explains Allison. "I recently had a woman walking behind me at the beach say, 'does she have no shame?' I turned to her in my bikini and simply said, 'no, no, I do not!' "
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Choosing between a beach day and your dignity
It's a cruel irony that when a fat person can't access a beach or pool, they miss out on some powerful mental and physical benefits.
Swimming is an excellent exercise for plus-size people who struggle with joint pain. Medical studies indicate that plus-size individuals tend to lack vitamin D, and short sunbathing sessions can combat this deficiency. Furthermore, spending time outdoors can reduce stress and seasonal affective disorder – a much-needed respite since people who identify as obese have a 55% greater chance of developing depression.
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Every summer, plus-size adventurers face difficult choices. Some choose to stifle their wanderlust and stay at home. Many forgo the water and wear long pants or stomach-covering shirts.
"I avoided the beach as much as I could … if I had to go, I'd wear a baggy t-shirt or dress to cover up because I couldn't get past the thought of people calling me a 'beached whale,' " says Kirsty Leanne, who runs the Plus Size Travel Too newsletter.
A few beach-lovers, like Allison, try to focus on the scenery rather than the sneers.
Spaces for fat people to reclaim the beach
James King wanted to give plus-size beachgoers a new travel option. At first glance, The Resort in the Bahamas resembles many other upscale Caribbean vacation spots. But King designed The Resort as a private hideaway for fat visitors.
"The Resort was a 15-year project to create a safe haven environment that would accommodate anyone no matter their size, adapted to meet the needs of the Plus Size community," says King.
King has worked in hotels for years. He was inspired to create The Resort after he saw a plus-size hotel guest tumble onto the ground when her chair collapsed. Adding insult to injury, the hotel charged the mortified woman for the damages.
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When Nicholson visited The Resort in 2020, he did not have to fear flimsy lounge chairs or judgmental remarks about his body. The Resort has designed its facilities to accommodate people of all body sizes. There are towels long enough to wrap around plus-size bodies, wide seating options, and beds that can support 1,500 lbs.
Some tourist sites don't even have to do a complete renovation to accommodate plus-size people better. Fortunately, simple changes can make a huge difference for travelers. King teamed up with fat advocates to create a plus-size certification program. Plus-size certified businesses can provide guests with chairs, kayaks and swimming equipment in a variety of sizes.
The fat community celebrates every beach body
The beach should be a fun place for everybody (and every body).
"There is no guarantee that people will not experience anti-fatness when they're out in the world trying to enjoy themselves. But preparing for the practical aspects of fat adventures can help decrease the stress. Other fat people can help you with that," says Osborn.
Nicholson was blown away by the freedom he felt when he walked down the beach at The Resort alongside other plus-size travelers.
"It was fantastic. It definitely gave me a massive confidence boost because I could genuinely be myself for once without fear of rejection or snide looks and remarks," he remembers.
Meanwhile, Leanne has connected with thousands of other plus-size travelers through her newsletter.
"I am much more confident. I even wore my first ever bikini to the beach in 2020! It was scary, but the world didn't end, and I felt SO empowered afterward," Leanne says.
Fat-friendly beaches won't eliminate all of the prejudice that plus-size people live with every day. Tiny airplane seats, narrow bathroom stalls, and wheelchair-inaccessible pathways are some common obstacles that may prevent a fat person from getting to the beach in the first place. But when we can all feel safe putting our toes in the sand, we move one step closer to a more accessible future for plus-size travelers.
Laken Brooks is a fat freelance writer based in Florida. She writes about disability, tourism, fatphobia, and other related topics.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Body-shaming is an everyday reality at beaches for fat travelers