Jae’lynn Chaney is going places.
From Hawaii to the Dominican Republic to trendy Portland hotels, this Vancouver-based travel blogger evaluates her experiences and enthusiastically reports back to followers on social media. While she’s at it, she models new clothing and touts a useful product or two.
Chaney has such an extensive and loyal following that she’s considered an “influencer,” or a person with the ability to persuade her fans to buy a product or service simply by mentioning it on her social media channels. High-profile companies pay her to review their products and services, not unusual for social media celebrities.
What’s extraordinary about Chaney is that she’s at the forefront of a new phenomenon: plus-size influencers.
“For so many years, the narrative we’ve seen is that, ‘You don’t fit into society’s standards of beauty, so you have to be miserable and don’t travel and don’t go places and wear clothes that you don’t like,’ ” said Chaney, 25. “A larger individual who’s found love and travels the world and who’s happy and confident and who helps others find those things is why people connect with me. I give them hope and inspiration that they can live their best life, no matter what their size.”
The idea that larger-bodied people should be afforded the same respect and opportunities as anyone else isn’t new. The current thinking about body positivity (celebrating all body sizes) and body neutrality (body size is neither good nor bad) has its origins in Llewellyn Louderback’s 1967 essay in the Saturday Evening Post, “More People Should Be Fat.” In 1969, Bill Fabrey, inspired by Louderback’s ideas, founded what became the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. In 1979, Louderback published the book “Fat Power: Whatever You Weigh Is Right.”
What’s new is that national brands are finally appreciating that power — namely, consumer power. Airlines, hotels, theaters, clothing lines and big box stores like Walmart and Target are getting the message that Chaney and hundreds of other influencers are shouting every day: Larger-bodied people will not be told that they can’t be fashionable, comfortable or just plain happy.
“When I get on social media, I see tons and tons of people working with brands, demanding change from brands, that they increase their sizes and accommodate their plus-size customers,” Chaney said. “I love it. I love seeing us get what we deserve and what we’ve deserved for a really long time.”
Chaney took a circuitous route to self-acceptance and advocacy, surmounting staggering odds to find success with her company, Jae Bae Productions. She said that she hasn’t always shared details about her background but now finds courage in her story because she’s “been through a lot of things and if I can make it, anybody can.”
She was born to teenage parents and raised in a family battling drug addiction. She was 11 when she first experienced true homelessness, she said, slipping in and out of housing for the next six years and struggling to stay in school. Nevertheless, she earned her diploma when she was 17, a few days after moving out on her own. A year later, she enrolled in college at Washington State University Tri-Cities. She graduated in 2018 with a degree in business administration and management.
“That was my ultimate goal — to have my own business,” Chaney said. “I really wanted to build something for myself.”
A few months after receiving her degree, Chaney became very sick. Her whole life changed, she said, going from a corporate job and international travel with her fiancé to doctor’s appointments and debilitating symptoms that kept her homebound. Health care professionals focused on her body size, she said, and told her they couldn’t help her unless she lost weight. It was a frightening and deeply discouraging time, she said.
“I was at a low point. I had all these dreams. I just wanted to share myself with the world and I didn’t want to hold back anymore,” Chaney said. “If I didn’t have a lot of time left, I didn’t have anything to lose. I just had to start learning how to love and accept myself.”
After 20 hospital visits, a heart catheter procedure and many trips to Seattle to consult with specialists, Chaney was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a rare lung disorder that causes shortness of breath, dizziness and chest pressure. There is no cure but it can be treated with medications and oxygen therapy.
When she felt well enough to travel, she documented it on social media. Her upbeat videos and posts immediately found an audience eager to hear about her experiences, with a focus on how airlines, hotels and other businesses accommodate larger-bodied travelers and travelers with disabilities. Visitors to her social media sites can find helpful information about everything from reserving airplane seats and vehicle rentals to seatbelt extenders. Followers connect with her message that everyone deserves to have adventures, regardless of body size or health challenges.
Chaney’s fans know that she’s paid to review products and services and Chaney herself notes when content is sponsored. The arrangement aligns with Chaney’s mission to educate companies about the needs of larger-bodied customers and to encourage people to advocate for themselves. Chaney has worked with high profile brands like Torrid, Lane Bryant, Google, Dove, McDonald’s, Crayola and Aaron’s Furniture. She’s produced content for Portland’s Jupiter Hotel and Hi-Lo Hotel, the recent Van Gogh immersive experience at the Portland Expo Center and the Winter Wonderland holiday light show at the Portland International Raceway. She’s reviewed products like Big Fig Mattress, ASOUT double-size sleeping bags and plus-size-friendly camping chairs.
Online and print media have also taken note of Chaney’s influence. She’s been featured on the Fat Women of Color YouTube channel, on the website Fat Girls Travel Too, in Queen Size Magazine and in PLUS Model Magazine. She’s written for Allure Magazine’s online Body Image column and was listed among 2021′s top plus-size travel bloggers on Insyze, a website offering clothes in sizes 12 through 5X.
Chaney also organizes body positive vacations for larger-bodied travelers and those with mobility issues. Chaney herself travels with oxygen and frequently uses a wheelchair, so accessibility is paramount. She’s planning — through TrovaTrip, a company that manages specialized group travel packages — an all-inclusive trip to the Dominican Republic from Dec. 5-9.
“We’re getting back to traveling again now that things are opening back up and the pandemic is slowing down. We have an upcoming trip to the Oregon Coast. We’re hoping to travel to Las Vegas this year, Canada, San Francisco and Northern California,” said Chaney, who has just returned from Hawaii. (She also acknowledges that travel is not without its perils. She and her fiancé tested positive for COVID-19 soon after they got back, though they’ve both recovered.)
Some body positivity influencers distance themselves from the phrase “plus size” because it implies that people with larger bodies aren’t normal (no one uses “minus size” as a descriptor, for example). Chaney, however, embraces it as a useful categorization. There’s more of her, and that’s just fine.
“We get one life and one body, and we shouldn’t spend it hating everything about ourselves. We get so caught up in thinking we won’t do something until we’re a certain size, but we deserve to love ourselves at every single step of our lives,” Chaney said. “We don’t have to wait to live until we lose the weight. We don’t need to shrink ourselves to fit into society. Society needs to expand to include us.”
–Monika Spykerman/The Columbian