Jeffrey Jenkins dances to Shaggy's "You're My Angel" like nobody's watching in a Boston nightclub at TravelCon. His confidence is something to which we all should ascribe.
"I realized that there were not people my size traveling as much as I was."
Jenkins, who lives in Austin, Texas, has been to 34 countries in 15 years. But it wasn't until he got married four years ago that something piqued his curiosity.
"I found out that she actually didn't think about stuff that I thought about while I was traveling--'can I fit in this? Can I sit in this seat? Is this a better seat to sit in?' Weight limits, and stuff like that--I've realized I've just been able to find ways to accommodate my size. It was me, getting the seat belt extender, at that time, and she didn't mind sitting in the middle seat, which like blew my mind, I was like 'Wait, what you don't care sitting the middle seat?'...and that's how our plane ride went for almost an hour-and-a-half...that's when I realized I think about stuff that you never think about because she's a smaller person."
"The main thing is fear of isolation, feeling singled out, or I'm not going to have as much fun as a smaller person, and the main thing is the infamous plane rides like not being able to fit, or you fear your body might touch somebody else while you're on the plane."
That made him want to encourage plus-sized people to travel. So he started Chubby Diaries, initially as a blog, though now they sponsor trips--the kind where everyone can go and feel comfortable in their skin.
"People need to see other people doing stuff, and I hate bring up race...but when it comes down to growing up, I never saw a lot of black people traveling. But since Instagram came out, I've seen more black people travel, and I've heard that that is one reason why now there's an influx in African Americans in America traveling the world now because they've been able to see the representation. So same thing now when it comes down to plus-sized travel...that's how my theory is...if there's a representation, and they see pother plus-sized people traveling, they may muster up and actually go travel."
One of the most monumental moments on his journey thus far takes him back to December of last year while vacationing in Belize.
"When I took my shirt off in public for the first time ever, and I was like 'I actually just did this,' and then I actually posted it on social media, which I was ready for all the fat-shaming and stuff like that," he said. "I actually have super models that are my friends and actors and stuff like that, and they still have negative body image issues. I realized we're still in the same boat, and if I can take my shirt off, I'm just going to take my shirt off."
He remembers the minutes before he had the guts to go for it.
"I had a raging war in my head...I saw the water, I was around a group of people, and I was just like you know what, play it cool, just take it off, like it's normal like 'oh I'm just going to take my shirt off.' But I could see myself like shrinking even as I took it off, I was looking around to see if anybody was like looking at me."
The swim-up bar at the resort was in the water.
"So it was super cool, beautiful, blue water, and I went into the water and just sunk down so nobody could see my body, and after awhile I just got used to it and came out more, and actually even told the people I was with that this was the first time I did this, and they felt so honored. They were like 'Dude, yes, yes! You're doing it! you're here! I'm not judging your right now.' So that did something and it changed a lot for me."
After mustering up the courage to show and tell his story, he learned he's not alone, and Chubby Diaries could be an outlet for them as well.
"I found out that there's so many people who have the same experiences I had, and I've only been sharing my story. Now I share a lot of people's stories, especially via Instagram; we highlight a diverse group of people all the time that plus-sized, and it's tons. My DMs, or I get emails, I've gotten a letter before from people just saying how much they've been impacted by Chubby Diaries, and to hear their stories is going to a deeper place of feeling not accepted in the travel space."
Jenkins, too, has grown with his blog.
"When I started I didn't know much about body positivity, and how loving on your body and stuff like that was a thing, and I've dove into that a lot more. As Chubby Diaries grow, I'm growing, and I've made myself love on my body more, but even other people, I've found out that I have my own biases towards fat, and I will say this but it's one of the biggest phobias--fat phobia--people actually have a fear of getting fat."
He said like the fashion industry has embraced plus-sized people, he wants to see the travel industry do the same. But they're not there yet.
"Not even close. Make small, but safe, accommodations like talking abut zip-lines...there's parachutes and zip lines that can hold thousands of pounds, but most of them don't when it comes to recreational. So if they were able to find ways to make harnesses that can actually accommodate a plus-sized person I think that would actually be kind of cool, too."
"I can't ever get upset with people on airplanes, while the seats are small, it's the airlines. It's an issue with everybody. Everybody is like these seats are uncomfortable, they keep getting smaller, they keep shrinking for some reason, but we're not...there's [got to be] a way to shake up that industry."
Jenkins points to Disney for being plus-size friendly.
"Disney is definitely like one of my favorite places, I've been going there ever since I was a little kid because I'm from Orlando; my dad is actually a chef at Disney, and I've been going to Disney my whole life, and never had to pay to get in, which is a blessing. But I wasn't this size growing up. The larger I got, the more I still felt I could still fit on all of the Disney World rides...but I've been to other amusement parks where that was not the case...there's other theme parks that have not been as accessible."
He said federal ADA compliant rules have made some things easier for plus-sized people, even if that wasn't the intention.
"What helps is the wheelchairs. Like, if a wheelchair can fit, it actually is wide enough, so it actually helps a plus-sized person.
But in other countries, it can be harder, he said.
"America's the young country. We're taking about being in Rome...their walkways and structures that have been there for thousands of years...that what can you do about it? It's interesting like actually going to stores and shopping in other countries--that's definitely a no-go. You really can't find anything there. Asian sizes too---there's like three or four sizes--they say it's an extra-large, and it's really a small."
Since starting the blog, Jenkins has had some critics. He calls the experience humbling.
"He asked me why did I do it? 'Why don't you just tell people to lose weight, and you don't actually have to do Chubby Diaries?' I was like there's thousands of other people that are telling people to lose weight. That's not our site. We're here to be where people are right now. Even if you're trying to get to the weight limit that you want to get to, that can take years. Do you just stop living? And that's not what I want. I want people to embrace where they're at right now...you can go travel you can go see the world."
To help folks live in the here and now and see the world, Chubby Diaries has launched group trips. Their first one is next month in Bali, and it's sold-out with 21 people attending.
"Every excursion that we do, a plus-sized person to a certain weight could do, like 350 lbs. would be able to actually do it. It was something that I wanted to do, nobody else is doing it."
For Jenkins, it's been a journey to get to this point. He remembers being one of the bigger kids in school.
"At 12 or 13, I was the size of an adult man, I could still fit in seats. I remember when I actually became chubby, or that thought came in, I was like 6 or 7, I've always had this internal feeling of like rejection...or more so the isolation part of it because I am a big person. Kids are mean, especially middle school, aw man. They did the whole scoliosis test for the whole seventh grade class when I was in school, and they made all the boys take off their shirts like in the middle [of the gym] in a circle, and so we were all facing each other. And we had to take our shirts off. Guess what I did? I hid in the PE room because I knew for a fact somebody was going to pick on me. I've always struggled with it in a way, but when I got older, I embraced it in some ways, but I embraced it in the sense of just cutting it off, so it's not like I was truly embracing it."
That moment of true embrace came in Belize, where the first time, Jenkins truly felt comfortable in his own skin--a feeling he's now trying to get others to experience.
"It's been an amazing journey because I have a really good friend, who if it wasn't for her, and her book she's reading which is called My Body is Not an Apology, and I feel like I've said sorry so many times because of my weight, to people, like 'I don't want to make you comfortable, let me just apologize.'"
Now, Jenkins is no longer apologizing for his being.
"It is what it is, you can have your own views on it, health-wise, I still eat healthy, and stuff like that as well. Me and my wife took our grandmothers to Paris, and my grandmother was like 'you're so big how do you move like this?' It's a grandma, she's old, but I'm limber, I can move, I move and groove like I travel all the time, I can walk 56 miles in a week, being in Paris or London."