Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. About 30,000 people climb the mountain each year, and three-quarters of those reach the summit, according to Live Science.
Christa Singleton was one of those 30,000 people in 2016. As a plus-size hiker, she found the experience challenging, but not for the reasons you might expect.
“It was really mentally challenging and a big reality check,” Singleton told Glamour. “I was—by far—the slowest person, not just in our group, but on the entire mountain that week.”
On International Women’s Day 2016, Singleton made it to Stella Point, which is at 18.885 feet and just a few hundred feet below the summit. She didn’t make it to the summit, and that was okay.
“I realized I am a beast,” she said. “I got to Stella Point. That’s not nothing—that’s bravery.” The experience inspired Singleton to try again, this time with other plus-size women.
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The Curvy Kili Crew
Singleton, a plus-size travel blogger and group adventure for WHOA travel, found a lot of enthusiasm for her idea. The group of 20 women decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for International Women’s Day, 2019. This trip was also the first outing for WHOA travel’s new offering, WHOA Plus, which caters specifically to plus-size travelers.
One challenge for these plus-size hikers was the assumption of others that they were doing it for weight loss. They weren’t. They were doing it to show people that they could be fit and fat, according to Singleton.
“You can exercise and be athletic and be big,” she said.
Rather than focusing on summiting the mountain, the trip focused on personal summits. Singleton told Glamour, “My goal is for everyone to reach their own personal summit, wherever that is on the mountain.”
Jenny Bruso, a writer for Autostraddle, followed up with the women after their trip. Nineteen out of the 20 women made it to base camp, which is the last camp before the summit. Altitude sickness took a toll on many of the hikers, though, but two were able to make it to Gilman’s Point, the first of Kilimanjaro’s three summits at 19,000 feet.
All but four of the women told Bruso they would do it again.
Dismantling Myths Around Size and Health
Those of us who are living in larger bodies know that people often make assumptions about our health. Everyone from doctors to well-meaning family members may assume that we are less healthy than we actually are. And when we engage in any form of movement, there’s often an underlying assumption that our goal is weight loss rather than getting stronger, getting fitting or simply moving for the enjoyment of it.
These women of Curvy Kili Crew are just a few of many women who are combating the stereotypes and myths about what people in higher-weight bodies can and can’t do.
Research also supports the idea that fitness is more important than body size when it comes to health. According to Carl Lavie, MD and Medical Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Preventive Cardiology at Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, “If you factor in physical activity and fitness…it’s even more supportive of the fit person who’s metabolically healthy obese having a very, very good prognosis.” (Please note, the terms “obese” and “obesity” have been criticized as weight stigmatizing and imprecise. Although we use the terms to quote others’ work, “obese” and “obesity” are terms that Center For Discovery rejects.)
Another study showed that those who were classified as having healthy “obesity” (living in a larger body but not having high blood pressure, high blood sugar, or high cholesterol) had lower risks for diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
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Moving Past the Myths
It can be difficult to let go of the idea that we can pursue fitness for the sake of fitness, health and mental, emotional and physical well-being, without it being tied to weight loss or restriction. As a person in a larger body, I sometimes struggle with my own physical limitations when it comes to the activities I want to do.
I’m slowly moving past the myth that I can’t be fit at my current size. Here are some of the tools that have helped me:
1. Learning about Health at Every Size®
Health at Every Size, or HAES, is a movement that embraces body diversity and advocates for finding opportunities for joyful movement. If you’re someone like me who has felt obligated in the past, shifting from required movement to joyful movement can be a bit of a challenge. Joyful movement means there is always room to explore and find activities that bring you joy, rather than focusing on racking up a certain number of minutes on an exercise machine (although if that’s your joy, I’m all for it!).
2. Connecting with other people of size
Facebook groups and other social media outlets offer a way to connect with people in a variety of bodies who are pursuing fitness for the sake of fitness. It can be hard to find good groups among all the noise; I tend to look for groups that ban any mention of intentional weight loss or dieting to ensure I’m in a safe space.
3. Clean up your social media
One powerful tool for me has been social media. I took the time to unfollow groups or programs that encouraged restrictive eating. Instead, I sought out people and groups that reflect my beliefs about intuitive eating and movement. I looked for people in larger bodies who were active in a way that spoke to me. Some of my favorites include:
Social media can be a cesspool; cleaning it up has done wonders for my mental health.
Moving past our internalized ideas about what our bodies “should” look like is a process. It takes time, and that’s okay. When you’re struggling, as I so often do, women like those in the Curvy Kili Crew remind me that I can be brave. I can be bold. I can move.
Health At Every Size and HAES are registered trademarks of the Association For Size Diversity And Health.