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My name is Jenny and I’m a plus-size skier. I grew up in Ohio and learned to ski when a friend took me to Boston Mills near Cleveland when we were in high school.
Without any formal lessons, I snapped into some rental skis and got out on the hill. I remember being terrified and then absolutely exhilarated. Flying down those steep, icy slopes and trying to stop before I slammed into the fence at the bottom of the runout, I felt immediately alive and happy in a way few other sports made me feel.
I was a multi-sport athlete growing up, so when I initially picked up skiing, I fit the mold for a typical patron: white, athletic… well that’s pretty much it isn’t it? Though we weren’t wealthy. In fact, I could not afford to ski often, so it was a special treat rather than a habit. When I went to medical school and began my residency, I lost my connection to the sport for many years. I have no time and no money to dedicate to skiing. In that time I also blew out my knee and had my ACL reconstructed and had a difficult recovery requiring repeat surgery. I also gained 100 pounds over the years of my medical training.
Fast forward 12 years. I was a “grown-up” full-fledged physician with the time and money to ski again—yet I was extremely hesitant. This time, I was in my mid-thirties and obese. I didn’t know anyone else who was obese and skied or snowboarded. I had never seen any pictures or evidence that obese people could do these sports. I was so afraid to try skiing again even though I loved it so much. What if I couldn’t do it? My bum leg was shaking in my very tight rental ski boots (my right leg never regained its full strength after many years of rehab and training). I got on the tiny bunny slope at Perfect North in Indiana, took a deep breath, and skied down.
I skied. I was still a skier. I felt the love for the sport instantly return; it was like coming home. Yet my weight continued to increase over the next four years, which became an even bigger barrier to me doing the sport I love so much.
Here’s the thing about skiing while fat: before you even see snow, you get the distinct impression you aren’t wanted. Trying to find ski gear is completely demoralizing. It’s recently gotten just a smidge better, but four years ago when I tried to find gear for my 250-pound body, I came up empty. I could not find clothes made for larger-bodied skiers. I ended up using non-specific plus-size clothes that fit my body but were not meant for the slopes. This meant tight pants that didn’t move with me, buttons that popped when I would squat down lower in my ski stance, jackets that got soaked through because they weren’t meant to be out in snow and wind. Gear with no vents that got me sweating only to end up chilled later. Not only was it uncomfortable, but it was also dangerous. Without the proper gear, I was putting myself at risk for hypothermia.
The most difficult piece of gear to find as a larger person is ski boots. I have small enough calves that I fit into my men’s boots in the widest setting. My husband has to help me close them, but they fit. For many plus-size people, boots are the limiting piece of equipment. If you are going to try skiing before buying gear, there is an extremely low chance rental boots will t fit you. Not only that, but you will likely find yourself in a humiliating situation whereby the rental staff cannot find anything to fit you, and you, therefore, have to be given a refund and go home. This is sadly what happens to many fat people who try to ski or board, and the experience can put them off the sport altogether. Considering a custom boot fitter is similarly intimidating, and most don’t have much experience with plus-size bodies.
These are the barriers just to getting on the mountain. Once you are there, you’ll likely be the only obese person recreating. In the last four years since I returned to skiing, I’ve skied over 100 days at nearly 20 resorts across five states. (I’m still working as a full-time doctor, so my goal is 30 days a year on skis.) During that time, I’ve seen maybe a dozen people of larger size. I remember because I always look—and keep track—which isn’t hard because the number is so small. Besides visually being an outlier, people will also assume you can’t actually do the sport you are trying to do.
While skiing at Alpine Meadows in Tahoe recently, a chair full of men on the lift above me screamed down, “Go fatty, go!” as I was going down a run. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been given the side-eye when getting on a chairlift with strangers, who are seemingly amazed they will fit into the seat next to my big ass or that I’m going up a lift with access to only intermediate or expert terrain. Yes, fat people can be good athletes at sports that try to exclude them. This type of treatment also put me off from taking a lesson. I wanted to get tips on how to fine-tune and improve my form, but the fear of being dismissed by a straight-sized ski instructor stopped me. Only recently, after forming a Facebook group for Plus Size Skiers and Snowboarders, did I find a plus-size woman ski instructor and get to have an amazing lesson without fear of being shamed.
I have very happily noticed many organizations trying to diversify their customers in the last couple of years. Organizations like She Jumps and Ski Like a Girl are getting more girls and women into the sport. Women of Winter and Edge Outdoors are doing the same, with a specific focus on BIPOC skiers and boarders. There are many more doing amazing work, but I have yet to see any snowsport organizations that are focusing on or inclusive of body diversity. Fat people are active too: We want to participate and feel welcomed in these spaces.
Fixing this issue starts with gear companies. If we cannot get appropriate clothing and equipment, we cannot safely or comfortably ski. A few brands, like Columbia, Outdoor Research, and The North Face, have been increasing the size range of the technical gear they offer. The North Face even has a technical pair of bibs (the Holy Grail of ski clothing) with vents that go up to 3XL this year, available in a color other than black. (Outdoor Research to expand its line for Fall and Winter 2021 to include up to XXXL, and went even further with its Spring 2022 line, launching a plus-size collection featuring 1X-3X and 16W-24W with proportionally more room at the bust and waist.)
We want to see every winter brand improving its size range offerings. We want to see a plus-size bib and ski jacket from every company that makes them straight-sized. We want to see technical features like pit and leg vents and powder skirts, not just basic shells with the bare minimum of features. We want colors and patterns. We want to ski and snowboarding boots that fit larger calves. We want to be able to fasten our boots just like everybody else. We just want the same options that straight-sized human beings have
As a doctor, I encourage all my patients, no matter their size, to get more active. Obesity increases the risk of having other health conditions, but so does being sedentary at any weight. We should all try to increase our physical activity, no matter what our body size. It then becomes kind of a cruel joke when we try to branch out into new activities but cannot due to barriers of unavailable clothing or gear. The hostile environment we step into as plus-size people entering a sport where we feel unwelcome is also a major deterrent. This has improved in many other areas: I have no problem finding plus-sized hiking gear options; general athletic wear comes in a variety of sizes, colors, and styles.
Plus size athletes like Mirna Valerio who runs, bikes, and skis; surfers Kanoa Greene and Elizabeth Sneed; Ashley Manning who runs rivers; and climber Megan Banker are making sports more accessible to people of all different body shapes and sizes and that’s what I want to see for snowsports. I want to see myself in other skiers. I want people who’ve been historically excluded to be included and welcomed. To make this happen, we need support. We need people who manufacture gear to include us. We need to be made to feel welcome when we hit the slopes. We all deserve to feel the freedom and exhilaration I felt when I first tore down a run all those years ago. We all deserve to keep chasing that feeling.
Dr. Jenny Hartsock is a physician in central Oregon. You can find her on Instagram as @fatcrazydoctor where she frequently posts about her experiences as an obese person who loves the outdoors.