The body positivity movement has made significant strides in the last decade, but even as size-inclusive fashion and marketing have become more mainstream, the travel industry is still lagging behind. For plus-size individuals, just the thought of squeezing into tiny airplane seats may be reason enough not to travel. Then there’s the anxiety about how they may be perceived in another country, especially at the beach. A new tour company aims to address the concerns of travelers who might be struggling with their body image.
“Your size shouldn’t be an impediment to having an incredible holiday and an incredible Italian experience,” says Zoe Stella Shapiro, founder and CEO of Stellavision Travel, a boutique tour company launched in April 2021 that organizes trips in Italy for self-identifying women. That’s why Shapiro, who identifies as plus-size, teamed up with fat fashion advocate Christina Winkelmann to organize their inaugural size-inclusive tour of southern Italy, which will kick off on July 16.
A self-described outspoken feminist, Shapiro recognizes that women have a different set of needs when it comes to safety and community than solo male travelers. As she tells it, her strongest relationships are with women and she’s on a mission to support women in the travel industry. For that reason, she plans to continue focusing on women while also making Stellavision more welcoming for non-binary individuals.
“I think there’s a lot of travel anxiety when it comes to occupying a larger body,” Winkelmann says. “I have immediate family members who have put off traveling their entire life because of their body size, because of the anxiety of getting on a plane, being criticized or judged, and then having to minimize themselves as much as possible.”
With this tour, Shapiro and Winkelmann are trying to eliminate the hurdles—both physical and psychological—that often trip up larger travelers so that they can fully immerse themselves in all the sensory pleasures that Italy has to offer. On the physical side, that means refraining from activities that might have a weight limit or would prove challenging for people with larger bodies, such as the Vespa sidecar tour of Rome included on Stellavision’s flagship Secret Southern Italy tour, and being upfront about what exactly the tour entails so people with mobility issues can gauge their interest.
“The travel industry has not historically been friendly to people with bigger bodies and we wanted to make sure we’re totally transparent. So we designed a walking tour that’s based on depth, not distance, and it’s on the theme of women and secrets,” Shapiro explains. The bespoke two-hour walking tour will cover the compact area of the Jewish Ghetto, Campidoglio, and the Forum while highlighting female figures in Roman history, like the Vestal Virgins and Livia, wife of the emperor Augustus Caesar.
This month’s eight-day “Secret Southern Italy: A Size Inclusive Trip to the South” is a modified version of the Secret Southern Italy tour, which Shapiro describes as the road trip she would take her best friend on. It kicks off in Rome with the aforementioned walking tour focused on the city’s much lesser-known female history and then continues south to Basilicata, Puglia, and Campania. Highlights include a vineyard tour with a female vintner in Basilicata, a guided tour of Matera’s ancient sassi, a cheese tasting in the forest of Altamura, a beach day and private boating excursion in Puglia, lunch at the restaurant voted best pizza in the world near Naples, and a visit to the Reggia di Caserta, known as the “Versailles of Italy.” Plus, travelers on the size-inclusive tour will be serenaded in a private concert by opera soprano Courtney Mills.
“We’re going to take you places that are harder to reach independently, we’re gonna connect you to people you would never ordinarily meet,” says Shapiro.
The reason Shapiro knows exactly where to take her clients is that she moved from Toronto to Italy in 2019 and spent her first six months as a nomad, driving all over the country with her miniature Australian Shepherd Chutney. A marketing and branding professional with experience working with hotels and lifestyle brands, she originally planned to take a year-long Italian sabbatical, but when the pandemic grounded her, she ended up putting down roots in Rome and pursuing her dream of launching Stellavision.
According to Shapiro, that first summer in Italy was crucial in transforming her relationship with her body. As she wrote in an op-ed for The Globe And Mail, she began to embrace Italian beach culture and the come-as-you-are mentality prevalent on the seaside, where it’s common to see people of all ages, shapes, and sizes sunbathing and swimming. And though she admits that it’s subjective, she feels this attitude is especially common in southern Italy.
“The south has a magic and that absolutely extends to the beach culture. Everything feels relaxed in a way and that makes some of the swimming experiences so enjoyable there, so without judgement, so without a particular gaze on our bodies. It’s like an intangible factor that takes experiencing it to appreciate it,” she muses.
She believes that anyone who struggles with their body image can benefit from experiencing the pure joy and relaxation of a beach vacation in Italy, but for plus-size women who might not feel comfortable donning a swimsuit in front of a group of people they just met, knowing that everyone signed up for a size-inclusive trip adds a layer of comfort and ease.
“This trip is essentially for anyone. Every single person has body issues. Every single person can struggle with their mental ideas of what their body means to them,” Winkelmann adds. “And I think this trip is that space to say, ‘Hey, it’s okay, come as you are, no judgement, we’re gonna be here together, we’re gonna be a support group for each other.”
For Shapiro and Winkelmann, it’s been especially exciting to see the enthusiastic reaction to Stellavision’s inaugural size-inclusive trip. And Shapiro in particular plans to use it as a learning experience to see how she can continue to serve the plus-size community on future trips. In addition to two more size-inclusive trips in 2023 she has some exciting expansion plans for Stellavision, including a new route through Sicily, private trip planning services, and ways to tap into her vision even without going on an eight-day tour. Travelers interested in learning more should follow Stellavision on Instagram and sign up for the newsletter, as subscribers will receive announcements first and get exclusive access to early bird rates.