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Living large in Mexico

Sunday, June 8, 2003

TANKAH, Mexico -- In a world enthralled by thin, perhaps no place is more slanted toward the slender or more daunting for the double-chinned than the beach.

No more. The beach is being made safe for the amply built with the opening of what claims to be the world's first "size-friendly, all inclusive beach resort." At the Freedom Paradise resort south of Cancun, the motto is: "Live Large, Live Free!"

The resort, which formally opens June 15, targets people afraid to go out on the sand with a few extra pounds, or a few extra dozens of pounds. No more enduring cruel jokes on the beach, or wisecracks from the staff.

"We have hired personnel of all sizes, and have specially trained our slim staff, because there's a lot of discrimination in everyday life," said Jurriaan Klink, commercial director of the resort, about 85 miles south of Cancun. "There are a lot of people who put off vacations, saying 'I'll buy that bikini when I lose 15 pounds.' We say, why wait to lose weight, when you can enjoy life now?"

That sounds good to Angel Alonzo, a rotund 28-year-old from Cancun frolicking in one of the hotel's four pools, which boast wide steps instead of flimsy aluminum pool ladders.

"It's marvelous because it's not just for one size. Everybody fits here," said Alonzo, one of the few pre-opening guests.

Alonzo's biggest gripe about regular hotels are the flimsy beach chairs: "I don't know why they make them out of such cheap plastic. They just collapse under you."

Furniture to size

Freedom Paradise has big, wide benches made of tree trunks, four-foot-wide chaise lounges, and 26-inch wide dining room chairs. All the furniture is reinforced and made of wood.

No more getting stuck in a chair with armrests, because there are no armrests. No more getting stared at on crowded beaches, because the hotel's Tankah beach is 250 yards long and relatively secluded.

Cindy Sabo, spokeswoman for the Sacramento, Calif.-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, NAAFA, said the beach can be both a place of anxiety and freedom.

"One of the most empowering things I ever did was when I turned 40, I bought a two-piece bathing suit and went out in it. My husband thinks I look cute, and I feel good," said Sabo, who places herself in the "oversize" category at around 400 pounds.

She recalled a less pleasant experience on a recent vacation in Hawaii.

"We had some terrible experiences with some other tourists," she recalled. "Especially some people from Asian countries would walk right up to you on the beach, poke you in the belly and make some rude joke."

At Freedom Paradise, the staff pledges that nobody is going to look at you funny if you ask for second helpings. Klink says that many of the front-desk staffers are what Sabo would call "our slim allies."

The 112-room property has plenty of places to eat as part of its $150 per-night double-occupancy rate. The owners expanded from two restaurants to five, each with a different theme: international, Italian, Mexican, a steakhouse, a Hawaiian-style seafood room and a snack bar.

"Who better to understand the problems of heavy people than heavy people, to make guests feel at ease without being surrounded entirely by skinny people, or be all self-conscious," said resort sales representative Enrique Lopez.

Other vacation spots bill themselves as "size-friendly." For example, Juno's Stables, near Yuba City, Calif., advertises riding classes using draft horses, saying it is "dedicated to putting big beautiful women on horseback."

Lopez says other resorts for large people exist are oriented toward weight loss. "Here, we don't care. We accept all weights."

"The tendency toward overweight adults is increasing, they're now a majority in the United States," Klink said. "But this is something many businesses are refusing to accept. People are getting bigger, and products are getting smaller."

So if we're all getting bigger, why battle the bulge rather than enjoy it? "There's a lot of pressure about the health advantages of losing weight, but what about mental health?" Klink asked. "Isn't it just as important to be happy?"

Sabo said that Freedom Paradise "is talking the talk" of size-friendliness, but asked, "Can they walk the walk?"

"Speaking of walking, that's not as easy for some of us as it is for other people," she said. "Is the place all spread out?"

Check, says Klink: The hotel's "big" rooms are on the ground floor, with ample walkways. Railings and access rails on pools and in showers? Check. Extra large, reinforced beds and doublewide doors? Check.

Whatever the wrinkles that remain to be worked out, there's no doubt it's a large step ahead for big people.

"At our conferences, we have pool parties," Sabo said. "A lot of people come out who haven't put on a swimsuit in years, and it's so great to just be out there, and be comfortable and be ourselves."


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