I Went Zip Lining as a Fat Girl
Writer: Alysse Dalessandro | When my boyfriend first told me back in August that he had booked us a Western Caribbean cruise for spring break, my first thought after shock, awe and extreme gratefulness was: I want to zip line. I’ve been fixated on zip lining because it was one of the things I’ve been told for years that I couldn’t do and I hate being told I can’t do something. Rules are meant to be broken after all.
And it turns out that the so-called rules for zip lining were much more imaginary than I thought. I knew the general weight limits for zip lining but I didn’t even have any idea what I weighed when I found out about the cruise. I don’t weigh myself because knowing my weight doesn’t help me buy clothes so I know my measurements and that’s about it. I don’t have a fear of my weight; it just doesn’t matter to me. It’s a number that controlled me for so long that I now enjoy the freedom of not needing to know. That is, until I decided to go zip lining. While some companies list a waist measurement restriction, the majority of them list a weight limit.
I learned that the weight restriction isn’t actually about whether or not the ropes can hold you, it’s about fitting into the harness. And finding that out surprised me because in that case, using measurements would be a hell of a lot more useful because someone who is 5’1” like me probably has a much larger waist than someone 6’1” who weighs the same thing. A simple Google search upon my return confirmed that the cables themselves can hold up to 5,000 pounds but that the companies don’t offer harnesses to fit people over their designated weight restrictions. It shouldn’t surprise me that something I had feared I was restricted from was actually just an accepted fatphobic practice but it actually did.
I went for a physical right before I went on the cruise. I needed a prescription for motion sickness patches so a physical seemed like the way to go. Without me asking, the nurse told me what I weighed and while I wasn’t sure what the exact weight limits were for the zip lining excursions on our cruise, I had a feeling that my current weight was much closer than I had thought it would be.
The cruise finally came. The trip was organized by a friend of my boyfriend’s from college. Nearly everyone on the cruise knew her but not too many of us knew each other. Everyone turned out to be really great. We didn’t book any excursions in advance so when we got to our room on the first day, I immediately grabbed the book and started reading the descriptions of all of the activities. I looked at the weight limits on each zip lining excursion. They ranged from a weight limit of 200 to 275 pounds. I noticed that there was one staff favorite pick that didn’t list a weight limit. I made a mental note of it and the others where I was under the limit.
Ironically a few days later, the organizer of our group brought up that a few of them were going to book a zip lining/cave tubing combo excursion for our stop in Belize. Thus far on the trip, we had mostly all done our own thing during the day and met up as a group at dinner, but I wanted to do this activity with the group and I knew my boyfriend did also. Upon the mention of zip lining, I was immediately nervous that the weight restrictions would put me in a position where I wouldn’t have a choice about participating regardless of my weight size. I read online later that some companies actually weigh you when you get there which again seems just like unnecessary shaming given they just don’t stock large enough harnesses.
In each port, there were multiple zip lining excursions organized by the ship so I made sure that someone from our group directed me to exactly the excursion they were all booking. And much to my surprise, it happened to be the one I had mentally made a note of earlier that had no weight limit listed. It seemed like fate, but I was still nervous that something would go wrong.
I wasn’t really in the business of dropping $100+ and taking a one-hour bus ride into the middle of the jungle only to sit and wait for everyone else to zip line so I went with my boyfriend to the shore excursions desk and I said, “Is there a weight limit for this excursion? I don’t see one listed and I know the other zip lining excursions have them.” The guy behind the desk looked straight at my boyfriend and says, “He should be fine.” I kind of laughed to myself because while my boyfriend is physically taller than me, he weighs less than me and didn’t need to worry about any of the weight restrictions. I replied that I was the one concerned.
I was only slightly taller than the counter but I was still a little taken aback when he asked me to step back and pull my shirt tight over my body so he could see my waist. The one zip line excursion that did a waist restriction was 44 inches and my waist is 42 inches but he didn’t ask for that measurement. In fact, no one asked for my measurements at any time during this process. He did ask loudly what my weight was and in front of the entire line of people, I told him. He repeated it loudly to his manager for a second opinion. When I recounted this story to a friend who is thin, she said that someone screaming her weight out loud in front of a group of strangers would have made her die of embarrassment. And even a year ago this would have made me uneasy too but I really just wanted to know if I could zip line. The manager confirmed that I would be okay and I confirmed that I would get my money back if I happened to be turned away when I got to the zip line facility itself.
As I exited the ship the next day, I prepared myself to be turned away as soon as someone from the actual zip lining company saw me. Each person I encountered said nothing but that didn’t calm my nerves. I hesitantly rented water shoes and a locker and waited for the woman behind the counter to say, “I don’t think so. You’re staying behind with me.” Instead, she said, “What size do you need?”
I will be the first to admit that if I wasn’t fat, I’m sure my attitude towards zip lining would have been as nonchalant as everyone else in my cruise group. Even when I learned that the ropes could physically hold my weight, I still wasn’t sure if I could do it. When we got dropped off at the foot of the steep hill that would take us up to where we would start our zip line excursion, we met our guide for the day.
Again, I thought for sure that he would take one look at me and tell me to get back on the bus. But he didn’t. He fit me for my helmet and as I huffed and puffed to the top of the hill, he told the group about the natural healing abilities of plants we encountered along the way.
When we reached the top of the hill, we were greeted with a team of people fitting us for our harnesses. The logical side of me knew that this was actually the part of the trip where I would get turned away if I was going to. I watched as a few of the fellow chubby people in other groups were fitted for their harnesses. It was then that I realized that this harness needed to also fit around my thighs which are the largest part of my body especially in comparison to my waist. But I didn’t have much time to worry about that, as I stepped into the harness, it fit around my thighs with a little room to spare and around my waist, too. They added an extra harness around my shoulders and told me that this for extra support. I was elated to just be in the harness at all.
As we sat and watched the five-minute demo, I confronted the fact that I would now be zip-lining through a jungle at pretty high heights and fast speeds. I don’t think it hit me until just then what I was actually about to do. I gained a little bit of ease as I watched people from other groups with the “extra support” harness make it successfully across. I asked to go first.
I stood on that platform and I knew that if I was last, I might just back out. I fought against every voice in my head that said, “You’re not supposed to this” and I said to myself, “But you can.” Because physically, I could. I fit in the harness. I was certainly not 5,000 pounds. I could zip line.
And so I did. I would like to pretend that I glided through the air with ease and loved every minute of it but in fact, I screamed, “I hate this!” almost the entire way across until I landed at the end not-so-gracefully only to have a camera shoved in my face. I would’ve totally been fine to have been done then after completing the first line but there’s physically no way down from the platform except across the next five lines so I couldn’t just say I tried it, I had to finish it.
By the third platform, I realized the real challenge of zip lining as a fat person: my height. There’s a set of two pulleys that are attached to your harness that a guide on each platform helps you attach to the cables so you can get on the next line. The problem is that there’s no give on those pulleys and little give on the cables which meant that as a short person, I had to physically jump for them to link my pulleys to the cable. Mind you, if you’ve never jumped on a 4-foot-wide platform high above the jungle, I wouldn’t suggest it.
The guides at each platform were extremely patient and each of them believed much more than I did that they could get me onto that cable. I wanted to give up but that physically wasn’t an option. There was no way down and only a way across so I had to get onto that cable. I had to finish. They let me stand on their feet for a few extra inches. They let me take longer breaks. They listened to me freak out. They helped me pull down the cables as much as possible and when my zip line stopped me shorter than the platform, they came out on the line to rescue me. If this all sounds dramatic, it was.
There was nothing calming or freeing about this experience, but I certainly enjoyed being on the cable much more than making it to the platforms which was exactly the opposite of how I expected to feel. Once I realized how difficult it was for me to attach to each cable, I was absolutely terrified for a reason my anxiety hadn’t prepared me for. I had worried so much about being fat, I forgot all about being short.
I tried to think about why they didn’t just have step stools or some sort of extra platform when they have shorter guests. Then I realized that they are probably used to just lifting up people who are too short because they aren’t usually short and fat; they are usually just short. No one in my cruise group was short so none of them really shared my experience but when I discussed it later with my assistant who is around my height but a size XS, she said she wished they had step stools too before I shared a word.
I don’t think about being short nearly as much as I am forced to think about being fat. Society usually makes it so being short is an inconvenience while being fat becomes people’s justification for why I don’t deserve to exist. But I exist as a person who is both short and fat and I finished that damn zip line excursion.
The cave tubing experience was kind of a blur. I was still high on the mixture of fear and adrenaline. When we got to the restaurant where we would be having lunch, I had a fresh change of clothes and a new perspective of myself and my own abilities. When I said I wanted to zip line, I think I was mostly bluffing but as I sat there eating the best coleslaw of my life, I realized what I had just done was pretty damn remarkable.
I went to look at the images they had taken of all of us after we had reached the first platform. The man loading the images stopped upon mine and I immediately recognized my large body amongst the trees. The woman standing next to me scoffed said, “That’s not me.”
She didn’t want to be the fat person on the zip line. But as I looked at the pictures I had just been fat shamed for, I couldn’t feel the same disdain and disgust this stranger felt for my fat body. In fact, I looked at those pictures and I felt proud. Because sometimes breaking all the rules isn’t cute or graceful; sometimes it’s just badass.