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Why Can’t I Find Clothes As a Plus-Size World Traveler?

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No matter where I am in the world, one thing is for sure: I won’t be able to buy serviceable garments.

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Photo: Marek Stepan

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A week before my 42nd birthday, I launched my lifelong dream: I handed my keys to the landlord, sold 95 percent of my belongings, stored nine boxes, took two bags, and headed to Croatia. All of this was the start of an ambitious plan to travel solo for five years.

Looking at my 290-pound, size 22/24 body, your first reaction wouldn’t be “Now there’s a world explorer!”

But I am. I went full nomad and have no intention of stopping.

Eighteen months into my dream, I’ve lived in 13 countries. I’ve been huff-puffing it to the top of the Acropolis in Athens and wheezy stair-climbing ancient Roman coliseums in southern Croatia and Zapotec ruins in Mexico. I’ve navigated the cobblestones of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile while whiskey-tasting my way to the castle. It’s been tough with my size and health problems, but nothing’s beaten me yet.

Except, that is, my wardrobe. My adventuring couture includes ill-fitting flowing peasant blouses, saggy plus-size jeans, and jackets that simply don’t do what a world traveler like myself need them to do.

See, designers, they’ll sell me a muumuu or a tent-like peasant blouse, but they don’t think I need a rain-proof, wind-proof, breathable coat that’ll keep me dry in Edinburgh’s sleet and Mexico’s monsoons. (I do. Badly.) Instead, I’m forced to carry a demoralizing tourist-y plastic foldable poncho. Nothing says “shelter” like a 2-millimeter-thick plastic poncho sold from a tchotchke shop by a guy who knows he’ll never see you again.

I did once find a hardcore all-weather jacket in Canada, but it was for a giant man and had sleeves six inches too long for me. In bizarrely bad luck, it was stolen from me literally eight hours into my life as a nomad. That was $225 well spent. Luckily, some London friends helped me find a glorious purple jacket online, with one-day delivery promised. Curses! The jacket never came. Instead, four months of arguing with the British postal service ensued. I received half the coat’s value in shipping insurance, was now out $325 USD, and never wore either coat. I resolved to never risk "guaranteed delivery" again.

But that’s life as a heavy girl in the world today. Relegated to shopping on the internet, power is denied to us. We can’t try clothes on, see how they look. We don’t get the three-way mirror experience. Instead, it’s about receiving parcels in the mail. We try things on at home, no fancy mirror, no salesperson to help us think the process through, no fellow shoppers to go “Oh! I love that color on you.”

No, we’re stuck as a party of one, embracing our shunned, shamed bodies in secret. Worse still, we’re forced into guesswork. Sizing guides vary from site to site. Is a size 20 right? Maybe an 18. Could be a 22. So instead of just buying what’s needed, many of us go overboard and buy multiples, with the plan of sending the wrong-fitting ones back.

But my life has no fixed address. Most of my “homes” have a shorter shelf life than yogurt. I parachute into a country and I’m at a loss for language, loss for systems, don’t know how things work. Hell, I barely trust my own Canadian postal system, and you want me to put faith in the Albanian or Greek or Mexican system, in countries where government services can be, shall we say, unreliable? Hell, no.

My clothing life goes two ways. One, I get lucky and find a seamstress to custom-make me some garment in an inexpensive country, or two, I wait for a return to Canada, do a bulk order ahead of time, and ship it to friends or family, so new clothes await me when I arrive. Then I commit shame-laden trying-it-on-in-a-poorly-lit-room shenanigans before sending the multiples back. Instead of a wardrobe that should cost me under $300, I pay out $600 or more for expedience, then hope a large corporation refunds me efficiently once I make the return.

In my 18 months abroad, my clothing has routinely morphed from “nice-ish but ill-fitting” to a little torn, a little hole-y, and a little stained, because I wear the same five shirts for six months as I navigate foreign countries. The sad fact is, plus-size clothes rarely get made in quality fabric. No, we get poly-blends and low-thread-count jersey, because, hey, we should just be happy we’re getting clothes at all, right? These are not fabrics intended to be washed and worn weekly for months on end.

Recently, a major health turnaround has me hopeful I might lose some weight and have an easier time finding clothes, but should it really come down to that? A hope and a prayer? In a world where the average woman is size 14-plus, why do we still need to clamor for special treatment on the internet? Why is it that our walking into stores to buy clothes anywhere in the world results in the side-eye from half the staff, as if the mere notion of our shopping there is folly? Size 22? Surely, you jest.

Honey, my ample ass has walked the streets of Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Scotland, the UK, Greece, the Azores Islands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, Croatia, Albania, and Morocco. But the biggest challenge I face is simply finding a waterproof coat that fits my heavy, pear-shaped, butt-hauling, world-traveling body. To this day, there isn’t a rainfall that doesn’t see me return home soggy on the outside and bitter on the inside, no matter where in the world I am.