Friday, August 26th, 2016

Viewpoints: Traveling While Overweight with Pamela MacNaughtan

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Pamela MacNaughtan

Pamela MacNaughtan of Savoir Faire Abroad was the first person I met when I started traveling the world long-term: we met on my first day in Bangkok in 2010! Years later, she’s still traveling solo, with a particular love for Asia and Québec City.

But a few months ago Pam wrote a post that rocked the travel blogging world: Confessions of an Overweight Female Traveler. It’s a subject that is rarely discussed, yet Pam brought it into the open and received such a positive response, she decided she wanted to continue talking about it. I then invited her for a Viewpoints interview to share her experiences with my audience.

Thin privilege is very real, even in the travel space, and Pam has started a valuable dialogue that we need to engage in more often.

Beyond that, Pam, who hails from Canada, is one of the more adventurous solo female travelers I know. She has done things like taking a boat from Thailand to China (yes, you can do that!) and driving from Czech Republic to Turkmenistan.

AK: I feel like criticizing or mocking people based on their weight seems to be the last taboo allowed by society. People who wouldn’t dream of making a racist or homophobic joke sometimes don’t hold back in mocking overweight people. Do you feel this is the case?

PM: I don’t see it as much in Canada as I do when I’m in America. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, it does, I simply don’t encounter it as much. People who criticize feed off of the reactions of their victims, but also by the reactions of their peers. In society race and sexuality are becoming more accepted, and while discrimination is still prevalent, society is saying “Hey, stop being an ass, humans are humans and everyone deserves to be treated equally”. Society is fighting to stop discrimination against race and sexuality, and as such jokes are no longer tolerated.

In many ways criticism is about power and control, and the critic is fed by the reactions of not only their victims, but their peers. When their peers agree, the critic feels encouraged, powerful, it can be a rush. So, they continue criticizing in order to feel that power and control, but when their peers disagree with them, it takes that power away, the rush is gone.

Making jokes about race or sexuality is going to result in disagreement, and those jokes are silenced.

Being overweight is something we do to ourselves, it is usually within our control, and as such society is not likely to accept and defend obesity, or anorexia for that matter. It’s a critic’s dream come true. They can make jokes and their peers will laugh and encourage, they feel the power, the rush.

We’re not at a point in society where we’re saying “Hey, stop being an ass, sure she is overweight/underweight, but this person is human and they need our support”.

Pam in Zanzibar

How do you deal with hurtful actions from other people?

I’ve developed a thick emotional skin over the years. As an overnight person I am responsible for my current weight, and it’s up to me to find ways to lose that weight. Society cannot do that for me.

In some instances I will attempt to see things from their point of view and try to understand their motives, but there are times when I get angry. On those days I fight the urge to lash out, to find the one thing that they don’t like about themselves and throw it in their face. When I get like that, I walk away, I put some tunes on and go for a walk until I calm down. If the interaction happens online, I shut down my laptop and usually end up scrubbing everything in sight until the anger and frustration goes away.

Some times I tell myself I don’t care about what has happened, and I keep telling myself that until it becomes true, and I move on.

How do you deal with flying?

I fly a lot, and I have a system. I am almost always the person hovering at the gate, waiting to get on the plane. It’s not because I think we’ll leave faster, it’s because I want to get on to test out the seatbelt and the table tray before the plane is full of people.

There are some planes that have short seat belts, and I will ask for an extension sometimes to make the flight more comfortable — something I used to feel very ashamed about. I also have massive boobs, so I like to put the tray table down to see if I will be able to actually use it; see the food tray when it’s meal time. In most cases I opt to skip the meal and usually have nuts and water with me.

When I fly I am more concerned about the other passengers. I always take a window seat as it’s easier for me to try squishing myself into the side of the plane, in an effort to make the person beside me more comfortable — apparently as an overweight person I am one of those annoying traveler whose girth makes flying uncomfortable for others; according to some of the articles I’ve seen floating around online. Most people are fine, but I have had to sit beside a few who were visibly annoyed by my presence, which can make for a long flight.

There an inconveniences when I fly, but they are minor. I have a long haul flight coming up, so I’ve paid for a bulkhead window seat, not because I’m overweight, but because the premium seat is easier, I can stretch my legs and get up whenever I want. If I need an extension, I ask for it. If the tray doesn’t work well, I have light snacks and water. Airline food is rarely delicious, so I’m not really missing out.

(Note from Kate: I will always remember this line from Pam’s original post on her site: “Feeling uncomfortable sitting beside an overweight person, chances are they are just as, if not more, uncomfortable as you.”)

Pam at Great Mosque, Xian, China

You’ve spent a lot of time in China, where it’s common for foreigners to be stared at and photographed. It’s also common to comment on people’s weight, whether they’re Chinese or foreign. What was it like for you traveling there?

China is one of the hardest countries, mostly due to the difference in culture. I’ve had a few people stop me on the street and try to sell me weight loss pills, and I just smile and thank them, usually telling them that I already have some (which I don’t).

In China the attention is usually out of curiosity; it is rarely malicious. That being said, I am not a perfect traveler and some days can be harder than others. I’ve traveled through China enough to know that when I’m tired or feeling burned out, I should stay indoors until I feel better.

Going outside when I’m not at my best makes me more sensitive than usual, and there have been days when the staring, pointing, and the difficulty in finding a taxi driver has reduced me to tears.

It helps to walk around telling yourself that the locals obviously think you’re fabulous. It’s a fantasy, but I’m sticking to it.

China is challenging emotionally, but I’m enthralled by the history and beauty of the country.

You’ve traveled in destinations where obesity is very uncommon, like East Asia, and destinations where it’s more common, like Mexico and the US. Do you find you have an easier time in the latter?

I actually enjoy East Asia more. I obviously had a healthy relationship with bad foods to get to where I am today, but that doesn’t mean I have the same mindset today. In the US we have easy access to bad foods, and it can be hard to resist them. In some ways junk food and processed food is cheaper than fresh whole foods.

In Mexico I experience more acceptance for who I am as a human. I don’t feel as self-conscious there, as I do in the US. In East Asia the junk food and processed foods are generally found in western-friendly stores and can be quite pricey, so I avoid them and eat a lot of fruit and protein. I drop breads, soda, most sugars. I drink a ton of water due to the heat outside.

In many ways I live a more healthy life in East Asia, and I feel better physically and emotionally. (Note from Kate: I completely agree with this. Between the small plates, healthier and less processed food, and emphasis on massage for wellness in countries like Thailand, it’s much easier to live a healthy lifestyle in many parts of Asia.)

Bangkok Chinatown

How can people be more compassionate to overweight travelers?

I think remembering that we are human is important. 

I like to think that I am a good person. I try to be compassionate and kind. I can be fiercely loyal and usually a good listener. I’ve travelled through 38 countries as a solo female, walking everywhere I possibly can, and looking for different ways to push myself.

I stopped travelling for a year and cared for my Dad until his death, taking a job as a travel consultant when he was placed into a facility and we needed more funds. I’ve driven from Prague to Turkmenistan, road tripped through interior Mexico, traveled by boat from Northern Thailand to China.

There are so many things beyond my weight that make me, well, me, but if all you see is that I’m overweight, you’ll never know that stuff. You’ll never know what we may have in common, or whether we could become fast friends.

Look beyond the weight to the person inside. We all need kindness, understanding, support. What I need will not be the same as what you need, but that is not important, positive human contact can have a bigger impact than we realize.

Driving through Chiapas

You had one of the scariest travel experiences I’ve ever read about, when you drove through a protest in Chiapas, Mexico, and were attacked by a mob. Looking back, how do you feel about that experience?

That experience is forever etched in my brain, it was by far the scariest thing I have ever lived through. In the beginning I was done with Mexico, even though it wasn’t Mexico’s fault, it was ours. I wanted out and to forget about it. I never wanted to visit Chiapas again, ever. Now, I look back and realize I was being an asshat.

Chiapas appears to struggle more than other regions of Mexico, and at the time coffee plantation workers were upset over unfair treatment by plantation owners, and rightly so. In an effort to be ‘heard’, the barricaded the only major road they had, a mountain road that lead from San Cristobal de las Casas to Tapachula.

When we arrived at the protest we were tired, and frustrated as we were having difficulty getting through the border on the major highway to Oaxaca due to a lack of paperwork on the van we were driving. The mountain road was our only way home. Each of us got out and tried to ask the locals to pass through – talk about white privilege! Naturally, they said no. What happened after that still feels surreal.

They were standing up for their rights, it was of extreme importance to them, and our actions was basically telling them that we didn’t think their struggles were important. I regret that, and if I could go back and do things differently, I would try to interact with them, to learn about why they were protesting, to listen.

What kind of destinations inspire you as a traveler?

I have always been drawn to destinations that are considered more challenging. I go because I want to challenge myself, and when I arrive I discover the beauty of both the landscapes and the people, and I find inspiration in that.

Southeast Asia, and Asia in general, has a fascinating history; and the people, culture, and landscapes are fabulous as well. There is always something new and interesting around each corner. Life is simple, rustic, and it’s easier for me to go off the grid and enjoy the simple things in life.

In western culture life is high-tech and advanced, and as great as those things can be, I enjoy logging off and going back to basics.

Quebec City

Which destinations rank among your favorites?

Such a hard question! I have many favourites, but there are a couple that I gravitate to and miss terribly when I’m not there; Thailand and Québec City. Two completely different destinations, I know!

I have spent a lot of time in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and both feel like homes away from home. There is rarely a dull moment when I’m in Bangkok, and I still have so many neighbourhoods to explore. In Chiang Mai I can truly relax and get down to work. This is where I go to complete big writing projects, as well as to unwind. In my opinion Chiang Mai is more relaxing than an all-inclusive resort.

Québec City is full of history, yummy french food, and it feels like I’m abroad even though I am still in Canada. The city is gorgeous, no matter what time of year, and it is the only place in Canada where I actually enjoy winter. (Note from Kate: Québec City in winter is like a fairy tale! And this is coming from a fellow winterphobe.)

What is your favorite safety tip to pass on to female travelers?

Be aware and listen to your inner voice. I have never used a doorstop at a hotel because if I don’t feel safe when I am checking in, I go somewhere else. When it comes to safety, I don’t take unnecessary risks.

There is a hostel that I stay with in Bangkok, which I adore. I can take the BTS train and then walk about 10 minutes, but at night part of the route is very dark and quiet. It makes me nervous, so I take a taxi after dark. I don’t take a taxi because it’s known to be unsafe, I do it because it makes me feel safe.

If a man gets to close and you feel uncomfortable, walk away; if you can’t, start yelling at him, draw attention to yourself and your situation. In most cases they back off. As a woman with ginormous boobs I have done this a couple times, and it’s worked for me.

As a woman, I use my bra like it’s a safe. I keep my credit card and cash in a little pouch and stick it in my bra. I may not feel a pickpocket, but I sure as hell will feel someone digging into my bra!

My biggest tip though is to not become so fanatical about safety that you end up sheltering yourself to the point where fear overshadows your travels. 

Thank you, Pamela!

Do you know an independent female traveler with a unique story to share? Email me with the subject “Viewpoints.” 

Comments

35 Responses to “Viewpoints: Traveling While Overweight with Pamela MacNaughtan”
  1. Arianwen says:

    Gosh, that experience in Chiapas sounds horrible. I was there at the end of last year and didn’t encounter any problems, but we did cross a few road blocks in Guatemala on foot and then switch minibuses with other travellers. I felt pretty uncomfortable about it at the time. Thankfully they didn’t say or do anything.

    Pamela, you’re an inspiration. It baffles me why people are sometimes so hurtful. I get a lot of comments about being pale skinned. People openly laugh in my face because I don’t have a tan, or hand me sunscreen as a joke if my skin has gone red (due to the temperature, not sunburn). Thankfully, though, there are plenty of wonderful travellers out there who don’t judge others on their appearance. I pity the rest for their shallow-minded approach.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Really interesting point of view! I like hearing from people with different stories to tell, who are willing to share their experiences!

    Thanks, Pam (and Kate)! Totally checking out Pam’s blog now.

  3. Thank you for being so honest! Interesting read 🙂

  4. Such a refreshing and honest post. I’m carrying a few extra pounds myself so it really resonated with me. I love the line: It helps to walk around telling yourself that the locals obviously think you’re fabulous. Fab tip. I’m going to be stealing this one :). Thanks for the great post. Will definitely check out Pam’s blog.

    Gabby

  5. Great interview! I went over and read the Chiapas story. Wow. That would have been so scary. You must have been shaken up for quite a while after that. I know I would be!

  6. Jess says:

    Thank you for this point of view! It is all too easy to forget the person next to you on a plane is a fellow human.

  7. Edna says:

    I love that last line about not being “so fanatical about safety that you end up sheltering yourself to where fear overshadows your travels.” I met Pamela when I first moved to Paris and she was so lovely, it’s great to see her speaking out and reminding us that everyone is human and has feelings, whether overweight or of color or anything else perceived as ‘different’.

  8. Ally Fiesta says:

    Love this! I know if someone is overweight next to me on a plane I make sure to ask them if they are comfortable before we take off bc I like having that positivity when in the air.

    Also glad to know that I am not the only person who also uses my bra bank. Even when on a bus trip I tuck my ticket there so I have it quick when carrying other things.

  9. Joi says:

    Excellent tips for traveling and a very honest commentary about traveling as an overweight person.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  10. Kate ott says:

    Thank you Pamela for sharing your experience. I am from the US and was surprised to hear that you had judgement about your weight while in the US. From my perspective and statistics, the US has a very high rate of overweight people. Myself included.

    It sounds like you have had wonderful travel experiences and I am happy for you.

  11. I really like this Q&A and the fact that it starts a convo beyond the cliche solo female traveler storyline. I’m glad Pamela put herself out there and shared her story, although I also hope she doesn’t end up feeling pigeon-holed on the topic. I’d love to see more of these interviews!

  12. Megan says:

    When I first saw the link to this post my thought was “aww hell, not another post that thin shames.” I’ve read a lot of those lately, but I was so pleasantly surprised here! Pamela, you did an excellent job of telling your story without bringing others down, and that’s something I don’t see very often. I can get so defensive about weight issues because I get told to “eat a burger” on the regular, or that my muscles are manly (what do you want from me, world?!). It’s a good reminder that we can’t please everyone with our bodies, we sure as hell shouldn’t have to, and that body-type privilege does exist, even in travel. We can talk about this stuff without bringing *anyone* down, and this is an amazing discussion starter. Totally going to read more from your blog today!

  13. Lena says:

    Thanks for this. Interesting read. This comment is coming from someone living with PCOS and a bunch of other hell-ride health sicknesses. Women who live with PCOS very rarely look the way I do and it’s an incredible hard DAILY work for me, to continue looking like I do. Overweight women, should only loose weight if their weight is making them sick/unhappy in any way. And it’s not that hard to do… just don’t eat at least 5 hours before sleep, drink a huge glass of water with lemon juice or without before every meal and eat small portions. Our stomachs get used to the amount food we give it every time.. stomachs shrink in size, when we give them less.. 99% of the time, we mistake hunger for thirst. Have a full glass of water and wait for 5-10 minutes.. maybe you were just thirsty. Also when we drink a full glass of water before every meal.. we eat less…

    5 times per day of small portions is much better and healthier than 2-3 huge size plates.

    I love seeing curves on a woman, but if you have a hard time going up the stairs and have a hard time breathing, you should loose a couple of pounds.

    I do remember one time though, when I asked to give me another seat on a plane – I had a seat in the middle and the man who sat in the aisle was TWICE the size of this young lady.

    I mean, in America, they have fast food joints like “heart attack grill” where you eat for free if you’re 350 pounds or more! I find it disgusting and painful to know, what this society have become!

    I laughed reading about bra-stashing technique.. problem for me .. I don’t wear them )))

    Great read, great gal. Keep enjoying life the way you are if your weight doesn’t make you physically sick.

    Let There Always Be A Road…

    • Lauren says:

      I feel like this comment got real judgmental real fast under the guise of not being judgmental. I don’t think she was asking for weight-loss tips.

      • Lena says:

        Excuse me?? This comment came from a woman suffering an incurable illness – PCOS, illness from which women are unable to have kids (myself included), loose weight and a bunch of other life threatening problems. I go through hell every day! How was it judgement, to give an advice from a weight sufferer?? If you took it as a judgement, then that is your private perception of my words. You are the one with no compassion, here, not me.

        The advice I gave is something that has helped me a lot and maybe will help someone else.

        but good luck with that kind of attitude towards people, you know nothing about and their journey.

    • WEG says:

      Lose (loose = not tight)

  14. Ron says:

    Desiderata ( by Max Ehrmann )

    Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
    and remember what peace there may be in silence.
    As far as possible without surrender
    be on good terms with all persons.
    Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
    and listen to others,
    even the dull and the ignorant;
    they too have their story.
    Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
    they are vexations to the spirit.
    If you compare yourself with others,
    you may become vain and bitter;
    for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
    Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
    it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
    Exercise caution in your business affairs;
    for the world is full of trickery.
    But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
    many persons strive for high ideals;
    and everywhere life is full of heroism.
    Be yourself.
    Especially, do not feign affection.
    Neither be cynical about love;
    for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
    it is as perennial as the grass.
    Take kindly the counsel of the years,
    gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
    Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
    But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
    Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
    Beyond a wholesome discipline,
    be gentle with yourself.
    You are a child of the universe,
    no less than the trees and the stars;
    you have a right to be here.
    And whether or not it is clear to you,
    no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
    Therefore be at peace with God,
    whatever you conceive Him to be,
    and whatever your labors and aspirations,
    in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
    With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
    it is still a beautiful world.
    Be cheerful.
    Strive to be happy.

  15. Ron says:

    Whenever I feel beaten up by the world I find reading the above poem by Max Ehrmann really helps to put things back into the proper perspective. Thank you Pamela for sharing your story and best wishes always !

  16. Thanks so much for sharing your story Pamela. It’s always refreshing to read about different types of travellers and how we are all affected by each other. Simply put, it’s not always about what we do when we travel to another country or culture, but sometimes, what we do towards each other as fellow travellers too.

    I like the idea of putting “valuables” in your bra although I’ve never tried it. I’m more the “I’m-going-to-stuff-my-money-wallet-down-my-trousers-so-let’s-see-if-you-are-brave-enough-to-try-and-snatch-it type of girl. It worked quite well for me in India LOL!

  17. Puja says:

    Pam You are great. I do understand what you going through. Being overweight is always a taboo in the society, they just mock you, tease you but do nothing more than that. It is up to us to do what suits our health and this interview is very inspirational. Many people who are overweight turn out to be not social but look at you!!!!!!!!!!!! you did a great job Pam.I am just so proud of you.
    http://www.bharattaxi.com

  18. Andrew says:

    thanks for this interview – it’s very interesting. you girls are both inspirations!

  19. Zascha says:

    Pamela, thank you for sharing your story – it can’t be easy all the time.
    I think you’re a very brave girl and thanks to this article, I’ve now discovered a new blog to follow 🙂

  20. “There are so many things beyond my weight that make me, well, me, but if all you see is that I’m overweight, you’ll never know that stuff. You’ll never know what we may have in common, or whether we could become fast friends. Look beyond the weight to the person inside”

    This is something I think everyone should read!! Thanks so much for sharing.

    Happy travels 🙂

  21. Ron says:

    I must admit I’ve been one of those annoyed people when in the presence of an overweight person. I get pissed off because some people (All sizes) are not as self aware as I am. I’m very concerned about my body position, attempting to NEVER intrude or disturb others. I will explode before sneezing or coughing in tight confines. I attempt to always behave in a respectful manner. Never having body odors and making every effort to present my best appearance while in public (being the dripping wet with sweat Farang on a packed BTS train is challenging) If I bother to be this self governing I expect everyone else to do the same. It’s nice to hear that others are as concerned about their fellow humans comfort! I know there are always good and bad examples of people but it’s all too easy to focus on the superficial and present prejudges…Thanks for sharing your story and I promise to catch myself the next time the thought enters ” Oh no please not the fat one” when I see a fellow Human being looking to claim a spot near mine

  22. Steph says:

    Wow.

    This is one of the most interesting and powerful travel interviews I’ve read since I can remember! The questions are great as well as the answers, and so thought-provoking.
    I’m chesty and the sharp comments “You too big! No fit!” when glancing at clothes in streetside markets in Bangkok always made me feel soooo bad about myself, and ashamed, that I stopped looking altogether… it’s awesome to read how Pamela deals with comments, etc.

    Pamela you are awesome!!! Kate you too! Thanks for sharing this.

  23. Beatrice says:

    I enjoyed this read which brought light to a new perspective for me.
    Thank you!
    Great poem Ron!

  24. lifeagain says:

    I find that traveling is a great weight loser activity especially internationally. I have gotten food and water bugs in Vietnam (twice) Mexico 6 times over the years. South of France, The UK, China, Brazil, Cuba…and each and every time i could not eat regularly and had to change my eating habits tremendously. Bottled water, fruits and vegetables and other stuff that went down easy and also came out easy. I always return from trips 15 to 20 pounds lighter and a whole new attitude about food consumption. In this greatly varied community and world we have all body types and that is just the way it is. No big deal…..your friends are your friends.

  25. Sophia says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while, Kate, and I have to say I really, really like the Viewpoints series. I feel like sometimes privilege isn’t really talked about in travel circles and I’m really glad to see you addressing these issues head-on. And thanks to Pamela for the great writing (and shout-out to a fellow Canadian)! I’ll admit I never really thought about what it would be like travelling while overweight (skinny privilege right here!), so this was a great and thought-provoking read.

    I found it interesting that Pamela brought up the difficulty of keeping weight off in the States. My boyfriend went there recently for the first time since losing a lot of weight, and he was quite shocked at the portion sizes and food options available, even compared to what’s offered in Canada (which is still pretty bad compared to much of the world). He felt he’d find it hard to keep his current weight if he lived in the States, which seems to be similar to Pamela’s experiences.

  26. Brooke says:

    Hello Kate,
    I’m so glad you’re doing these posts with perspectives of different travelers! It’s so important to get many different perspectives.

    I’m also glad you picked this subject to address. I have a couple of friends who are heavier, and they constantly tell me, “We’re not surprised guys like you and flirt with you because you’re thin.” They also talk about losing weight before they join dating sites. It breaks my heart, because if people knew them beyond their weight, they would see how amazing my friends are. I don’t ever look at them and judge them because of their weight–they are wonderful people!

    My favorite part of the post was the very end, “My biggest tip though is to not become so fanatical about safety that you end up sheltering yourself to the point where fear overshadows your travels.” Great words of advice for all female travelers, including myself. 🙂

  27. Lauren says:

    Kate, this series is both interesting and important. It’s really wonderful to see such a great example (intentional or not) of intersectional feminism in the travel world. I think it’s really important to remember that not everyone has the same experience traveling or can do it with the same ease. Actually, this series and my own experiences inspired me to write a post about how it’s different just traveling as a woman. I don’t believe a lot of male travelers realize the many things we have to deal with as women in foreign places. It’s always helpful to get a new perspective.

  28. Kassy says:

    Hi Kate. I am in Italy right now with a friend. We are both overweight. This is my 2nd time in Italy and I do not remember it being as bad as it is this time around. I am sad, there isn’t a day where one of us hasnt been stared at or talked about. We dress nicely and are respectful. I have family, friends and a boyfriend who LOVE me. So why does it hurt when complete strangers stare or speak about me/us, thinking I don’t understand. I wish I didn’t.

    • I’m so sorry to hear that, Kassy. People can be awful. Especially in Italy, where men assume that women’s bodies are currency.

      Thinking of you both and hope you’re able to enjoy the rest of your trip. <3

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