“Uh-oh, I can’t see any chippies around here,” says contestant Russell on the first episode of Channel 4’s controversial new travel for weight loss series Around the World in 80 Weighs. Russell, 36 and from Kent, is gazing out from his seat on a luxury coach into the neat suburbs of Tokyo – the capital of a nation with an obesity rate of 4 per cent, compared with Britain’s 25 per cent.
Insurance worker Russell and five other Britons – Russell’s 31-year-old wife Marisa; south Londoner Therryi-Jay, 32; empty nester Susan, 57; Leeds dad Lee, 34; and 24-year-old Tiffany – are in Japan on what the show’s voice-over calls a “fact-finding mission” to “shed some timber” by discovering how slim-waisted Tokyoites go about their daily lives, diets and exercise regimes.
In the four-episode series, the group will also travel to Tonga, where obesity rates are soaring since the introduction of Americanised junk food; to a weight loss clinic in Texas; and to Mumbai, where the contestants will enjoy a week of yoga and vegetarianism at the world-renowned Yoga Institute in Santacruz East.
Yet with the first episode featuring uncomfortable scenes including the “plus-sized pilgrims” (in the show’s lingo) Tiffany, Marisa, and Therryi-Jay being pointed at by locals in a food market, and contestant Lee being too ashamed of his stomach to strip off for a traditional onsen (hot bath), some plus-sized travellers have slammed the television show as “retrograde” and “fat-shaming”.
Kirsty Leanne, a 31-year-old travel blogger from Shropshire who runs the plus-size UK group tour company Plus Size Travel Too, said she thinks the reality show peddles the notion that overweight travellers are fair game to be shamed. On the first night in Japan, she notes, the contestants are introduced to the Japanese concept of eating in harmony, or washoku, and are served small meals of balanced vegetable and fish dishes to eat with chopsticks by their hosts and Japanese food bloggers Mr and Mrs Eats.
“The contestants are told [at that first meal] that fat people destroy the ‘harmony’ of Japan because they don’t ‘look right’,” Leanne says, adding: “Saying people ‘don’t deserve’ to be somewhere that encourages fatphobia, and we already face plenty of that in the world.”
In recent years, plus-sized travellers have begun to speak out against travel policies they say are discriminatory. These include shrinking airline and train seat dimensions, attraction weight restrictions and some airlines’ policies of charging passengers on the basis of their weight, or for extra seats if they require these (Samoa Air has charged passengers in the past for their combined body and baggage weights and in 2015 Uzbekistan Airways announced it would weigh all passengers to “ensure flight safety”).
It was the absence of plus-sized people in glossy travel brochures that made Leanne postpone her dreams of travelling the world. “Literally the only time you hear of plus-sized people travelling is when they are being shamed on planes for taking up space, or photographed without their permission in swimwear,” she says. “So I kept telling myself: ‘I’ll travel when I’ve lost weight.’”
Today Leanne, who began travelling with gusto after a trip to Paris in 2017, is part of an emerging ecosystem of plus-sized travel experts. They include the US travel YouTubers Jimmy Lierow and Amanda Ervin who run travel agency Chubby and Away, which books bespoke tours and cruises for plus-sized travellers, and US “fat travel activist” Annette Richmond. Richmond’s Fat Camp, an upbeat and outdoorsy riposte to traditional weight loss holidays, has 2024 dates in Finger Lakes wine country in New York state and the Scottish Highlands. Her Fat Girls World Tour is a more formal group trip, with 2024 itineraries exploring the UK locations of Bridgerton, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast, and Loy Krathong, or Thailand’s “Festival of Lights” in November.
Leanne’s Plus Sized Travel Too has tours for 2024 including Plus-Sized Soeul and Plus-Sized Bali. “I ensure that accommodations have sturdier beds, restaurants have suitable chairs (no arms, not made of plastic) and that activities have high weight limits on the tours,” Leanne explains. “I also plan activities that empower plus-size people and encourage them to love their bodies.”
Leanne’s plus-sized friendly map of the world reviews nations that accommodate larger people (Australia and the US get top billing), as well as those where plus-sized travellers face stigma. She says her own worst experience was on a cyclo tour in Vietnam, where she had double-checked the weight restrictions for the man-powered cycle trip before she set off. “Twenty minutes into the 45-minute experience the person cycling made me get off and said that they couldn’t cycle me anymore and pointed towards their knees,” Leanne recalls. “It was mortifying and dangerous as I had no idea where I was and no one else would pick me up.”
Not everyone is receptive to Leanne’s online tips to help plus-sized travellers bag more space (by looking for “neighbour-free” and “customer of size” policies on airlines, for example). “Why can I only take 23kg of hold luggage but if I weigh 120kg I can get a free seat and also the luggage allowance?” moans one commenter called Alan beneath one of Leanne’s Instagram posts. But for Leanne, the joy of helping plus-sized travellers experience the world for the first time eclipses a world of Alans. “I see people come out of their shells and do things they couldn’t do if they weren’t travelling with other plus-sized people, such as wearing a bikini to a beach club,” she says.
Halfway through the first episode of Around the World in 80 Weighs, Russell crumples into tears as he gazes out over a landscape of lush rice paddies. He admits he’s come on the show in memory of his father, a jolly and obese pub landlord who died suddenly of a heart attack when Russell was just 19.
Russell and his wife Marisa are desperate to lose weight, he confides, so they can have their own children. The moment is a touching reminder of the life changes that can be wrought in all of us by the open skies and broadened perspectives of travel, but alas Around the World in 80 Weighs is no Eat, Pray, Love for overweight Britain.
Or as Leanne puts it: “Let’s forget about all the shaming, shall we, and just be a little bit nicer to the plus-sized person sitting next to us on an aeroplane.”
Around the World in 80 Weighs airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Tuesdays and can be watched in full from February on All 4