For one week in April, Jeff Jenkins’s Instagram went dark. The Austin-based travel influencer’s job is to document his global adventures with multiple posts per week—which, because of COVID, had turned almost exclusively to statewide getaways since early in the pandemic. When he dropped off the grid earlier this month, his last photo showed him in Beaumont standing in front of the rainbow Frida Kahlo mural. But after a long year on local highways, Jenkins finally left Texas. He was a nine-hour flight away, across the Pacific Ocean in Maui with his wife and four close friends—their longest trip since the beginning of the pandemic. He didn’t log in to social media, and he didn’t check email. Instead, he went scuba diving for the first time. He stargazed early one morning in Haleakala National Park. He watched whales bobbing in the ocean. And he indulged in lavish culinary experiences, including a ten-course dinner that included Korean-style beef and the most tender stone-seared tuna he’d ever tasted. While his friends scrolled on social media, Jenkins savored the moment. They joked about how the person at the table with nearly 30,000 Instagram followers was on his phone the least. But that’s how Jenkins works best. He gathers stories and basks in experiences as they happen. Then he returns home to write.
Jenkins, 35, is the penman behind the blog, Instagram account, and growing online community Chubby Diaries, which he created in 2018 to help other bigger-bodied people as well as people of color navigate the challenges that come up when they travel. He publishes posts headlined “The Best Theme Park for Plus Size People” and “Can Chubby People Ski?” based on the barriers he faces while visiting new places. He’s also a board member of the Black Travel Alliance, a nonprofit network of Black travel professionals. “I’m a fat, Black guy,” he says. “It’s my experience, and nobody else was talking about it.”
For people who are fat, curvy, round, or plus-sized, the travel and outdoor industries can be prohibitive. There’s the blatant discrimination, as when some hotels and restaurants only hire people under a certain weight. And then there’s the subtler inequality, like pool towels that aren’t big enough to wrap around your body and in-room robes that come in just one size. Airplane seats are shrinking. Amusement park rides, skydiving, zip lines, and other adventure excursions enforce weight restrictions. Life jackets, wet suits, and other gear rentals often go up to only size large or extra-large. As a professional traveler, Jenkins knew he had to spend an additional $100 to buy his own wet suit to dive with sharks in South Africa, and he wants to prepare his similar-bodied readers for the realities of vacationing while fat—and to advocate for change in the travel industry.
Jenkins has been drawn to adventure since he was a kid growing up in Orlando, Florida. He eagerly anticipated eighteen-hour road trips to visit extended family in New Jersey, especially the stop at the highway landmark in South Carolina called South of the Border. He took his first airplane trip during college, when he worked for a program that hosted summer camps on American military bases across the world. He visited seventeen countries, including Germany and Japan. “That’s where I got that travel bug. I was bit hard,” he says.
After graduating from Florida A&M University, Jenkins worked as a high school choir teacher for nearly ten years, the majority of those in Austin. Feeling unfulfilled, he quit in 2017 to look for a new calling. At first, he toyed with the idea of ministry work, which led him to Rwanda on a mission trip to build clean water wells. There, surrounded by the vibrant green topography, Jenkins got another idea. “I just remember looking out on top of one of the hills and being like, I want to travel the world, I want to help people, and I want to get paid to do it,” he says.
Jenkins has now traveled to 39 countries. He has climbed to the top of Pacaya, a volcano in Guatemala. He has dug his toes into the white sand beaches of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. He has seen the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone erupt into a dense mist. And he’s still wowed by the rolling hills and diverse cuisine of Texas. On his quest to visit all fifty states in the U.S., Jenkins has only four more to see: Utah, Idaho, Alaska, and Maine. Hawaii was fifth to last. Right after Maui, he packed his suitcase again for Colombia. As readers and followers of Chubby Diaries know, everywhere he goes is the most gorgeous place he’s ever seen.
It’s hard to scroll through Jenkins’s Instagram feed and not smile. His wide grin beams under round, gold-rimmed glasses. There’s a video of him in a downtown Austin park, dancing for the first time in public, and one of him flexing at Planet Fitness. Then there’s the frequent “dose of positivity” clips of him shaking his shoulders to pop music or showing off some tropical scenery. Jenkins is naturally positive and loves bringing joy to others, he tells me. But not every post is upbeat. He writes about racism at resorts, being the only Black man in a national park, or how he used to be ashamed to take off his shirt at public pools and beaches. “I could see the extraordinary hospitality given to white or white passing guests, but when it was my turn to receive the same service I wouldn’t receive the same kind hospitality,” he wrote in January. “I don’t blame them … I blame systemic racism.”
Not only is he providing positivity and practical travel advice for other people of his size and skin color, he’s also taking formal consultation calls from companies and brands to offer recommendations on how they can accommodate all types of people—not just the size 2, white, well-off, jet-setter. Improving the in-flight experience is at the top of his list. “[Companies] hire an expert like me to talk through the nuances of creating new experiences or enhancing the travel experience for a plus-sized person,” he says. In Texas, he has worked with Whataburger, the parks and wildlife department, and some of the state’s tourism boards to increase representation and visibility of plus-sized travelers. Consulting is just one part of his income; the rest is made up of sponsored content on TikTok and Instagram, paid press trips (where he’s paid to visit a destination), speaking engagements, and advertisements with brands.
“A lot of the time, people think something might not be accessible for us,” says Genaveve Davis, one of Jenkins’s social media interns, who identifies as chubby. She started working with him last July after meeting him at an online-startup symposium. “But I think with the proper tools or training, or just not assuming people’s background, people are like, ‘Wow, [plus-sized people] are capable of traveling and adventuring.’”
The problem runs so deep that the travel industry doesn’t have much data on the plus-sized market. Existing research provides compelling evidence that businesses should do better in reaching this underserved community. The plus-sized clothing market was valued at $481 billion in 2019, and it’s predicted to reach $697 billion by 2027, according to Allied Market Research. The average clothing size for an American woman doesn’t fall between 0 and 12; in fact, it’s closer to 16. And when Jenkins conducted a poll on Instagram, 87 percent of 800 respondents said they would take an extra trip during the year only if travel were more accessible.
Change is happening, albeit slowly. Outdoor apparel brands like Columbia, Patagonia, and the North Face have extended size ranges. Backpack manufacturer Gregory will soon release a collection of specially designed packs—available at REI—that properly fit hikers who wear sizes 2X to 6X. The Resort, a fat-friendly getaway featuring reinforced beach furniture and spacious bathrooms, opened in 2015 in the Bahamas for vacationers who want to feel safe from body shaming. Southwest Airlines, lauded by Jenkins as the best airline for chubby folks, refunds the cost of an additional seat for customers of size. Ultimately, these changes cost big bucks. Why would an airline give away an extra seat when it can charge for two? Because it’s the decent thing to do, unfortunately, isn’t a sufficient answer. “I would prefer that it be compassion that moved them, but at the end of the day, I want to see change,” he says. After three years running Chubby Diaries, Jenkins knows that dollars and data are the most motivating catalyst for improvements.
“My whole mission is to redefine what it looks like to travel and get people to go live life now,” he says. “There’s so many other platforms that tell people to lose weight or get to your ideal size so you can go travel the world and live your best life. And my thing is, why can’t they just do it now?”