Jeff Jenkins dreamed of becoming a travel blogger.
But as he scanned social media, magazines and websites for inspiration, Jenkins noticed there were very few bloggers who looked like him.
So two years ago, he decided to pave his own road by building a brand that would give advice and a voice to other people who may be hesitant to travel because of their weight.
“My mission is to redefine what it looks like to travel, and what that means is marginalized groups being represented in the travel space. My field or my sector of that is plus-size travel. In America alone, there are 128 million people considered overweight and obese,” Jenkins, now 34 years old, told the Austin American-Statesman, which is part of the USA TODAY Network. “I’m not here to promote obesity, but I want people to live life now. With there being that large of a market and brands still not making things accessible, I feel like there is a gap in the industry.”
Austin, Texas-based Jenkins founded the website ChubbyDiaries.com and quickly attracted a nationwide following of people eager for his candid and upbeat perspective. He now has more than 20,000 followers on his Instagram account, @chubbydiaries_, and been featured in articles from The New York Times to Travel + Leisure.
We recently chatted with him about everything from his life as an influencer to what post-pandemic travel could look like.
How did you get into travel blogging?
I wanted to be able to set my own hours and get into entrepreneurship. I did a water well project with friends in Rwanda and I’m not an engineer. I didn’t know how water came out of the ground, but learning how to do that and being in Rwanda is when I had the thought that I would like to go around the world, help people and get paid to do it. That’s where that initial thought came from.
What initial steps did you take?
First I had to commit to it, that was the main thing. I started looking up any and everything on blogging. I started doing courses just to learn. Even in two years, I’m finally in a place of knowing how I can consistently make money from what I’m doing.
You grew up in Orlando and your dad was a chef at Disney World. Did you travel much as a child?
I definitely went on some trips, but it wasn’t until I was 20 and out of the house that I went on my first airplane.
What are some of your favorite places you’ve visited now?
Japan hands down is my favorite international country. The first time ever going on a plane was actually to go to Japan. Being there, the culture and tradition and the food is just incredible. My favorite city is New York City out of the whole world. There’s something about New York’s energy and the bright lights and the people. And I love Spain, I love Italy and Indonesia.
What’s one place you’d still like to visit?
Antarctica. It is so on top of that list now. I heard how there’s no noise pollution there and the silence is so loud you can hear your heartbeat.
Prior to the pandemic, how often were you traveling?
I was gone three weeks out of the month. My wife was able to go on some of the trips with me, but not all of them. But she’s a super introvert, so me getting out of the house sometimes is great (to her).
How has the pandemic impacted your career?
At first I thought it was on the brink of ending, but luckily I did a business accelerator called DivInc for minority- and women-owned businesses. Staying in that and learning more about business, about pivoting, that actually helped me out a lot. Even during this pandemic I’ve grown in audience and in recognition and in being a thought leader, but that was because I had to pivot, and I pivoted more to food blogging compared to in the past. But international travel has just ceased at this time.
Have you taken any domestic or local trips during the pandemic?
My first trip was back in July. We did this big road trip — North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and up to Montana. We got to go to Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Tetons. That’s sparked everything, and I’ve been traveling since. I went to Disney World in Orlando to visit family and also to see what Disney World was doing and how they are keeping people safe. And I’ve been to Louisville and Memphis.
Opening day at Disney World:Small crowds, short lines, social distancing and COVID-19 merch
How have you been received as a Black travel blogger?
When people see me a lot of times, they don’t just see my size. They also see Black. I think me being able to do what I’m doing in the field that I’m in still helps with representation as a whole. I advocate for Black creators, and I’m also one of the founding members of the Black Travel Alliance. Our mission is amplification and accountability within the travel industry.
What’s it like to see the success of ChubbyDiaries.com?
It’s mind-blowing and mind-boggling at the same time. I was a school teacher before this, and I’m constantly in this place of, “You can’t have this, this is somebody else’s life.” To know that I made goals, I set out and dreamed really big and to see the dreams and these goals being fulfilled, it’s all a blessing. And it’s happening faster than I thought.
What are your favorite travel tips?
Google is your friend. I always love looking at people’s blogs and looking at their itineraries and making my itineraries from there. For plus-size people, Southwest is one of the friendliest airlines for plus-size travelers. Also, because I do budget travel, I don’t let dates dictate when I travel. I go by the discounts. I let the discount dictate when I go somewhere.
How did you decide that plus-size travel should be your focus?
It happened when my wife and I were on an airplane. I mentioned something about the seat. We were talking about window or aisle seats and then the seat belt extensions and I was like, “You don’t think about this? You don’t think about the weight restrictions, the size restrictions? Yo, that is crazy.” In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking about that. Even getting on the airplane, the anxiety that a lot of plus-sized people have felt comes from making other people uncomfortable. They don’t want to be uncomfortable and they don’t want to make other people uncomfortable.
Have you met people who felt like they can’t or shouldn’t travel until they are a certain weight?
I just did a post the other day, and I got people all through my DMs like, “This is exactly how I feel!” I didn’t actually know how many people felt the same way until I started posting about these things that I was feeling as a travel blogger and influencer. I was being transparent in my thoughts. I was very naive to think I was the only one that was thinking like this. There’s thousands of people that actually think like this.
Have you ever felt discriminated against as a plus-size traveler?
I definitely have been stared at at times. And I’ve had people come touch me, like try to touch my stomach. That happened in Thailand and it bothered me so much; I had three or four older men come and grab my love handles. There were times where I felt embarrassed and isolated because everybody else could get on (a ride) and I could not. I try with Chubby Diaries to help eliminate those feelings of isolation and embarrassment by just teaching people the tools and tricks they need to know ahead of time to determine if they can do something or if they can’t.
Do you think there is a misconception that plus-size people can’t be active?
There’s a lot of misconceptions when it comes down to being my size that I can’t go climb mountains, I can’t go swim with sharks. I know I can swim circles around people. I’m a good swimmer. I don’t mind climbing. I want people to get out there and be able to experience it, as well. It gets people off their couches when they see other plus-size people in media and on Instagram and in magazines and newspapers.
When it’s safe to travel again, what would you say to someone who has been putting off a big trip due to their size?
Live life now. Don’t wait until you get to your ideal weight. Do your research, follow me, and let’s live life now. That’s usually my main thing I always tell people. Don’t get caught up in where you’re going to be later. Do it today. Make that decision today.