In August of 2017, I had the opportunity to visit BC and Alberta, Canada. Two Canadian provinces I had not yet set foot in. My best friend and her partner were living in Vancouver for school so when I found a cheap flight I jumped at the opportunity to explore western Canada with two of my closest friends.
I imagined a couple of weeks of outdoor adventures and water adventures. I got that, but I also got something that I didn’t bargain for; I was body shamed. Fat shamed. Whatever you want to call it. In what was, to date, the most humiliating experience of my life.
Fat Shaming, Humiliation, and Shredded Fingers
The incident took place at Sea Dragon Charters- a dive shop located in West Vancouver. They had a snorkel with seals opportunity that was included in my Vancouver media pass and, as a diver and ocean lover, obviously this was something I wanted to do.
My friend Chris joined me for the adventure. We rode the bus from their home in Kitsilano out to West Vancouver. To be completely fair, the bus ride was much slower than anticipated (a transfer bus didn’t show up) so we didn’t arrive early as expected which led to a bit of a scramble to get our gear before the boat left.
The woman helping us looked me up on down on my arrival before announcing that she wasn’t sure she had anything that ‘would work’ for me.
Now, let me be the first to say; as a plus-size woman, anything skin tight like a swimsuit or wetsuit can be embarrassing to deal with. But when you start adding in comments like that? Feelings of embarrassment and humiliation shoot through the roof.
She passed me one wetsuit and I scrambled trying to get it over my body.
So I tried another which, to me, looked even smaller. Again, I pulled and yanked the neoprene trying to get the thick material over my thighs.
Again- no go.
By this point, three things are happening.
- I am mortified and hyper-conscious about how I am the one holding things up.
- She is commenting non-stop on how nothing is working and maybe I can’t go
- My fingers have been absolutely shredded by trying to pull the ill-fitting neoprene over my body. Shredded to the point that I am literally bleeding and flaps of skin are dangling from my finger tips and knuckles.
I was in my version of hell and, to be honest, nearly came to the point of saying ‘fuck it’ and just leaving.
Thankfully, I didn’t. We ended up finding an oversized men’s suit that ‘fit’. As in I could pull it over my ass. Of course, it also filled with water which meant I was not warm at all while snorkelling in the Canadian Pacific Ocean. But, seeing fluffy seal pups quickly made up for it.
I will say, once the wetsuit incident was over I had a great day. My bloody fingers burned like hell in the saltwater but I didn’t let it stop me from enjoying my time. The staff on the boat were fun and informative and kept us safe; essentials for any dive school. But while I appreciated their kindness and had no issues onboard, the way I was treated while in the shop trying to find a wetsuit spoiled my image of the business and put a dark cloud over my experience.
In the time since I’ve found myself getting extra anxious when I visit a dive shop. I’m paranoid that it will happen again or, worse case, I will actually be turned away. Thankfully, I’ve had zero issues in dive shops aside from this one. But, the fear is still very much there.
Deciding to Speak Up
I’ve shared this story before, just not here. It’s not that I was embarrassed to share- that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, I wanted more eyes on my story. More people to know about the shame I felt. What happened to me was awful, but it also wasn’t unheard of. So I took my story to bigger publishers and more niche websites hoping to spread the word. Spread awareness. To let those in the dive industry, especially the wetsuit manufacturers, that I wasn’t wrong for having boobs and an ass. They were wrong for assuming that scuba divers and watersport were only of interest to women with slim, athletic bodies.
My story was first picked up by LiveStrong online magazine; a health, fitness, and wellness website. At the time they were one of the biggest outlets I had written for and I was thrilled that they wanted to share (and pay for) my story. Unfortunately, that article is no longer available on their website but it was there long enough to get the job done. It got the attention I needed.
When my story was published, my inbox started to fill up. Fellow female divers who would DM me on Instagram or Facebook letting me know they saw my story and wanted to share their own horrible experiences. I also had the owner of Girls That Scuba reach out and ask I would like to share my story on their site as well. It was unpaid, but it wasn’t about the money. It was about getting awareness. So I wrote an article for her as well. This time challenging wetsuit manufacturers to change their designs. To expand their sizes. To be inclusive.
My Story Got Noticed
My tactics worked. Within a month of these articles being published, I had two wetsuit manufacturers reach out to me. The first, California-based 7till8 Wetsuits offered custom wetsuits made to your measurements. They offered to send me a suit to try them out so I followed the online instructions and, a few weeks later, received my custom 5mm wetsuit in the mail. While the fit wasn’t perfect (I should have probably visited a tailor and asked for help in measuring), the fact was it DID fit. No bloody knuckles and shredded fingers.
The second brand to reach out was Truli Wetsuits which is a Canadian company that creates wetsuits specifically for women. The owner, Mia, indicated that she knew of the issues women faced when it came to wetsuit which are, traditionally, not made for women with curves. However, while she did take women’s body shapes into account, she recognized that she needed to expand her sizing and asked if I could help. Obviously, I said yes.
Meanwhile, the emails and messages from other women continued to stream in.
Well, firstly, my story was relatable. I was just one of hundreds of women who had a body-shaming experience trying to find a wetsuit at a dive shop.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, these stories that I wrote were the first thing to pop up on Google searches for plus size wetsuits. Which in one regard, is awesome. But, when you actually think about it, it meant that there were no actual options. People wanted a product, not a story. Yet my story was the first thing on their screen because- at least according to Google- it was the best match out there. Indicating that nobody out there was actually offering plus size wetsuit options.
Things are Changing
It’s been 3.5 years since I shared those stories and a lot has changed. I still get some messages, but not like I used to.
Which is amazing.
Not because I don’t love hearing from other women and offering a safe space for them to share their own horrible experiences. But rather because it means things are changing.
If you google ‘plus size women’s wetsuit’ now, my stories don’t pop up on the first page. Instead, there are brand pages who offer bigger sizes, reviews of plus size styles, and listicles offering advice on where to buy bigger sizes. Truli Wetsuits, who I love and is now an affiliate partner of mine, ranks several times on the first couple of pages for their products which after a successful crowdfunding campaign now come in 24 different styles for women of different body shapes.
I love that.
While I would argue that we still have a long way to go- not just in terms of size inclusivity for wetsuits-but for all types of clothing and gear. It feels pretty damn good to see that change is happening. Hopefully, nobody else will have to experience what I did.
*PS If you check out Truli Wetsuits, tell them Hannah from Eat Sleep Breathe Travel sent you 🙂