SIZE 20 PROUD AND OF IT

Proud enough to take part in an in­ter­na­tional beauty pageant. Win­ning the crown helped her find her voice to be an ad­vo­cate for body in­clu­siv­ity.

Herworld (Singapore) - - WOMEN NOW - HOE I YUNE PHOTOIF

Fiona Tan turns up at our photo shoot nurs­ing a ter­ri­ble cold, but is de­ter­mined to make things work. Her body may be un­der the weather, but her spirit doesn’t flag – talk­ing to her, you feel that this is a woman who gets you, and is in your corner.

Fiona, 31, stands at 1.70m tall and weighs in at 102kg. At her heav­i­est, she was 106kg. A self-taught makeover artist who offers beauty and styling ad­vice, Fiona is proof of her ethos: If you feel good and make an effort with your dress­ing, you’ll ex­ude con­fi­dence in the body you’re in. She runs a makeover busi­ness that op­er­ates on body in­clu­siv­ity; 10 per cent of her clients are plus-sized.

Fiona knew she wanted to spread a mes­sage of body pos­i­tiv­ity, but what re­ally cat­a­pulted her into the public eye was when she won the in­au­gu­ral edi­tion of the in­ter­na­tional beauty pageant, Ms Top of the World Plus Size, in 2016. It was the plat­form she needed to build a com­mu­nity of like­minded peo­ple.

It be­gan by chance. Fiona was ap­proached to au­di­tion for the pageant, which was open to women of a UK size 16 and above. See­ing it as an op­por­tu­nity to share her story, she trav­elled to Latvia, where the pageant was held. She was the only Asian par­tic­i­pant, but she bonded with her fel­low con­tes­tants. The group was close-knit, shar­ing sto­ries about bul­lies who fat-shamed them in their child­hood. She even­tu­ally walked away with more than just the ti­tle and a tiara – she also got a sis­ter­hood.

HER OP­TI­MISM SAW HER THROUGH CHILD­HOOD BUL­LY­ING

But Fiona hadn’t al­ways cham­pi­oned her size. She bal­looned at the age of eight, when her con­cerned grand­mother kept en­cour­ag­ing her to eat af­ter a bout of chick­en­pox. Her weight gain was also down to ge­net­ics – she comes from a fam­ily that puts on weight eas­ily (case in point: one of her broth­ers gained 5kg in as many days while on hol­i­day).

Her wellinten­tioned fa­ther feared her weight would jeop­ar­dise her fu­ture, be­liev­ing peo­ple would look at her size and as­so­ciate it with lazi­ness. He came up with an ex­treme daily rou­tine of tread­mill run­ning, mak­ing her kneel on the stairs when she fell short. It wasn’t easy in school ei­ther, where she had to join the Trim and Fit (TAF) club for over­weight stu­dents. Some of her school­mates cru­elly called her names like “pork chop” or “fat woman”. “It was hurt­ful be­cause peo­ple were body sham­ing me,” she re­mem­bers. “I would hide and cry.” Teach­ers, too, were not al­ways sup­port­ive, and she had to fight for her place on school hik­ing trips. When she con­fided in her aunts, they told her that the so­lu­tion was to lose weight.

It would have bro­ken any young child’s spirit, but Fiona found re­silience within. “When I felt low, I would sit on the stair­case at home and think about how I was feel­ing,” she re­counts mat­ter-of­factly. “And I re­alised that there were big­ger prob­lems in the world I was lucky not to be fac­ing. I had a nice place to live in, I had my par­ents, I wasn’t go­ing hun­gry.” A nat­u­rally op­ti­mistic per­son, she re­minded her­self to find things to be grate­ful for.

SHED­DING THE WEIGHT DID NOT BRING HER HAP­PI­NESS

But even the most pos­i­tive of peo­ple strug­gle oc­ca­sion­ally with self-doubt. Through­out her teenage years, Fiona os­cil­lated be­tween feel­ing con­fi­dent and long­ing to be skinny, spend­ing thou­sands at slim­ming cen­tres and tak­ing diet pills. She ar­rived at a cross­roads when she was 20 and a stu­dent in Mel­bourne. “A friend pointed out that I was al­ways spend­ing so much on slim­ming treat­ments,” she says. “With the amount I spent, he said, I might as well spend it all at one go on li­po­suc­tion.” Think­ing he had a point, she un­der­went li­po­suc­tion in Thai­land. Af­ter the surgery, she em­barked on daily work­outs and popped herbal slim­ming pills. At first, it seemed to work – she lost 23kg.

She re­ceived heaps of praise, but her mood took a turn. “I was so un­happy. I wasn’t my bub­bly self any­more. I felt like I had lost what was unique to me,” she ex­plains. She felt she needed to try “five times as hard” to main­tain her weight, and the diet re­stric­tions frus­trated her. When she was plus-sized, she felt mo­ti­vated to get cre­ative with fash­ion, some­thing she’s al­ways loved. But at her small­est size, she didn’t like how she just looked like every­one else. Slowly, she put the weight back on.

It woke her up. “If, ge­net­i­cally, your body is meant to be a cer­tain way, then forc­ing it to be­come a third of its size is way un­healthy,” she be­lieves.

BE­ING A PEO­PLE PER­SON SET A FOUN­DA­TION

Even af­ter com­ing to this self-re­al­i­sa­tion, it took her a while to truly find her place. Fresh out of Swin­burne Univer­sity in Mel­bourne, and armed with a de­gree in busi­ness, she took up a se­ries of sales jobs. “I’ve al­ways liked talk­ing to peo­ple – it’s just some­thing that comes nat­u­rally to me,” she says. “Peo­ple feel com­fort­able around me and trust that they will get good ser­vice.” Sales was the area she ex­celled in – while study­ing, she man­aged a bou­tique, and af­ter grad­u­a­tion, she was pro­moted to team lead at a job with a pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tute.

In 2011, Fiona re­turned to Sin­ga­pore ac­cord­ing to her par­ents’ wishes (she was 24), and started an e-com­merce cloth­ing store called miss:fi:t to marry her love for fash­ion and for sales. Af­ter some trial and er­ror to find the best busi­ness model (“I’ve never been afraid of mak­ing mis­takes”), miss:fi:t even­tu­ally evolved into a beauty ser­vice that now sees Fiona giv­ing clients makeovers and styling tips, re­gard­less of their size.

THE ASIAN STEREO­TYPE OF BEAUTY NEEDS TO CHANGE

So when the founder of Ms Top of the World Plus Size Kris­tine Lin­den­blate ap­proached Fiona to be the direc­tor of the 2017 pageant held in Sin­ga­pore, she leapt at the chance. With the pageant grow­ing in size (it had dou­ble the num­ber of con­tes­tants from the 10 in 2016), Fiona was re­spon­si­ble for scout­ing for spon­sors and venues, and was also a judge on the panel. She pulled it off af­ter just six weeks of prepa­ra­tion.

The fact that Sin­ga­pore was the lo­ca­tion also meant a greater pres­ence of Asian faces. Given that the Asian stan­dard of beauty tends to favour slim­ness, this was a huge achieve­ment for Fiona. “Ex­posed to main­stream me­dia, we’re all caught up in want­ing to look our best, and when we think of our best, we think ‘skinny’,” ex­plains Fiona. Or­gan­is­ing the pageant here was her way of re­defin­ing what it means to be pretty. In the process, she was heart­ened to dis­cover how many peo­ple were open to sup­port­ing body pos­i­tiv­ity.

Part of her role in­volved find­ing a par­tic­i­pant to rep­re­sent Sin­ga­pore in the pageant. It wasn’t just about find­ing a woman who was the right dress size – it was more im­por­tant that she should be some­one who be­lieved in em­pow­er­ing women to feel good about them­selves. Fiona ap­proached 12 Sin­ga­pore women be­fore se­lect­ing free­lance makeup artist and plus-sized model Priscilla Boh, who had a strong on­line pres­ence in the plus-sized com­mu­nity. Priscilla even­tu­ally placed as the first run­ner-up.

IT’S NOT ABOUT SIZE, IT’S ABOUT HEALTH

To­day, Fiona’s be­lief in her­self is un­shake­able. She’s happy with the way she looks, but is aware that her health comes first. “The year I won Ms Top of the World Plus Size, some­one com­mented on my in­ter­view with The Straits Times, crit­i­cis­ing me for en­cour­ag­ing others to put on weight,” she re­calls. But that’s far from the truth. “I’m not say­ing that be­ing plus-sized means you should gain weight and not ex­er­cise. You can still be healthy.”

She prac­tises what she preaches by work­ing out weekly with a per­sonal trainer. She’s swopped the dreaded te­dium of run­ning for zumba classes, which she prefers. An­nual med­i­cal check-ups, tak­ing vi­ta­mins and at­tend­ing well­ness talks are also non­nego­tiable for her.

Since the pageants, more women in cir­cum­stances sim­i­lar to Fiona’s have been reach­ing out to her. They mes­sage her pri­vately to com­pli­ment her on her brav­ery, say­ing that through her, they feel less alone. It’s also brought more clients to her makeover busi­ness, which she runs along­side beauty e-com­merce site https://sg.shop.com/ ev­ery­thinglah.

The ad­vice Fiona gives her clients is meant to see them through real life. Plus-sized client Stephanie* let her in­se­cu­rity af­fect her per­for­mance dur­ing job in­ter­views. Af­ter an im­age con­sul­ta­tion with Fiona, she learnt how to dress for her fig­ure. The com­pli­ments she has re­ceived since then have boosted her con­fi­dence.

For Fiona, who is now fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent and rent­ing a place with house­mates, the con­clu­sion of last year’s pageant is only the be­gin­ning of her mis­sion. She’s writ­ing a book about her jour­ney, and is look­ing to col­lab­o­rate with body pos­i­tiv­ity ad­vo­cates. “I want body pos­i­tiv­ity to be about em­brac­ing ev­ery shape,” says Fiona. “No one should feel left out.” *Name has been changed.

As part of the pageant, Fiona took part in swimwear photo shoots.

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