The Hongkongers not afraid to challenge stereotypes and say big can be beautiful

Mainstream media pushes the ‘slim equals beautiful’ line, but some plus-size Hongkongers are defying the convention that openly criticising and ostracising fat people is socially acceptable

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2016, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2016, 12:04pm

Standards of beauty that emphasise a slim and sleek look are being challenged by plus-size fashion models such as Tess Holliday and Ashley Graham. Celebrities including comedienne Amy Schumer and actress Jennifer Lawrence have spoken out against the body image ideals promoted by Hollywood, starting a cultural conversation about the issue.

That’s in the West. In Asia, however, the “slim equals beautiful” standard remains firmly entrenched, although Hong Kong is not without people willing to challenge convention.

Bertha Chan is a marketing manager by day and a fashion blogger by night. Weighing almost 82kg, she may not fit the mould of a typical stylist, but dressed in a colour-block romper suit, she exudes style and confidence.

In her blog, The Curvasian, she shares advice on fashion, where to buy plus-size clothing, and her personal story. The blog has evolved over a decade into a platform championing body positivity, but Chan says it’s a difficult message to hammer home.

“I think it’s part of Chinese culture for people to openly discuss your physical appearance,” she says, “especially if you are fat. It will easily make you a target of verbal abuse.”

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Chan was a chubby child and was teased by family and friends. As a teenager, she searched for clothes at wholesale stores, because they were the only places she could find garments that fitted her, and just wore baggy skateboard apparel to hide her size.

Under mounting pressure from “fat shaming”, Chan became anorexic in her early 20s. She started eating less, lost almost 14kg in six months, and ended up in hospital for two weeks. “I thought if I slimmed down, more people would like me and my world would become a better place,” Chan says.

A photo taken after she left the hospital shows Chan with a slender figure and leaner face. “When people see the picture, they often say I looked quite pretty when I was thin. But they never understood what kind of life I was leading and how unhealthy my mental state was,” she says.

The incident made Chan rethink her life, but it took another 10 years for her to come to terms with herself. Nowadays, her design ideas are bold and creative, including crop tops, off-the-shoulder blouses and jumpsuits – garments beefy people often shy away from. She lives a healthy lifestyle, working out three times a week.

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However, Chan says she still encounters haters who accuse her of promoting obesity or just being lazy. “They think it’s not right for someone to be fat yet leading a happy life,” she says.

John Wu, a big guy at 104kg, has been poked fun at for his weight. As a teenager, when he tried clothes on in front of a mirror, his brother would say: “You’re so fat. No matter what you wear, you won’t look good.”

Wu refuses to be stereotyped by his large build, and aimed to prove his brother wrong.

“People tend to think fat people have body odour, are dirty or sweaty. Actually that’s not true,” he says.

“We can eat more than normal people. That’s the only difference. We also have the right to be beautiful, to be stylish and to choose our own clothes.”

Most clothing stores in Hong Kong sell trousers with a waist size no larger than 36 inches, so finding chic clothes that fit is difficult. Wu chanced upon a pair of 42-inch Levi’s jeans in Japan 10 years ago, and has since been importing and selling quality clothes for other plus-size men.

He now has three specialist XSXXL stores in Hong Kong. The jeans in his shops range from 38 to 50 inches, while voluminous T-shirts are displayed on 60cm, tailor-made clothes hangers.

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Wu appears to have made an impact. He says he now sees far fewer customers who are self-conscious about their appearance and reluctant to try on clothes that might attract other’s attention. They are becoming increasingly picky and trendy.

“In the beginning, they’d only choose black or other dark colours, but now they’ll also wear fuchsia, pink, mint green or royal blue.” He has found himself spending more time on the lookout for items that are in vogue, including culottes and jogger pants. He’s happy that his customers are also developing their own tastes, because ultimately he wants to let people know that anyone can be stylish, no matter what their shape or size.

Professor Anthony Fung Ying-him, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s school of journalism and communication, says while obesity rates in developed countries such as the US have stabilised, they are soaring in China in tandem with growing wealth.

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A slimming discourse has flourished, targeting the rising number of overweight people. “It used to be pushed by the government, for physical health reasons, but it’s now driven by the entire commercial industry,” Fung says. “And it is happening across the region. In Japan, popular pharmacy and beauty stores that used to sell medicine and make-up now sell predominantly diet pills,” he says, adding that he sees the same in South Korea.

The discourse was fuelled by a Chinese social media storm earlier this year over internet users competing to show off how thin they are, which featured people showing off “A4 waists”.

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In Hong Kong mainstream media, including television, regularly glorifies slim characters and shames people who do not conform to stereotypical beauty standards. In public, it remains socially acceptable to comment on others’ appearances to their face, and remarks about weight gain are common conversation starters.

“Fat people can only play supporting roles, such as clowns [on local TV],” Fung says. “They are never portrayed as rational or intelligent.”

He says broadcasters use this to appeal to the wider audience who already harbour stereotypes of overweight people.

Young film director Nicola Fan agrees. “For local movies and TV shows, when they introduce an overweight woman character, she is usually portrayed as a caricature, or a monster, or someone who wants to bang everyone in sight,” says Fan. “This paints the picture that an overweight person is something to laugh at.”

Fan directed the documentary She Objects , which explores how the media objectifies and sexualises women. The film is part of a campaign by the Women’s Foundation to challenge gender stereotypes in the media.

The documentary features local artist Joyce Cheng Yan-yee, one of the rare Hong Kong celebrities who are vocal on the issue. Cheng, who has long been ridiculed for her size, announced in 2014 that she was done with trying to lose weight and wanted to lead a new life. “Don’t let your happiness be decided by your body shape,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

She was not the only one embracing her newfound identity. Her single Goddess, released in April, encouraged women to appreciate their own natural beauty. It garnered more than 480,000 views on social media within a day and topped local music charts. Her page was flooded with comments from fans, praising her for her courage and beauty.

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Although it may seem that Hong Kong is taking a first step towards body positivity, Fung thinks the younger generation merely admire Cheng for her authenticity and have yet to genuinely accept body diversity.

Plus-size fashion designer Makayla Ng Sze-nga agrees that skinny as a body image ideal is so deeply ingrained in society that it won’t be easily erased.

The 23-year-old built her own online start-up, Fashion Corner HK, selling large-size womenswear she designs. Although she has never received formal training, her parents work in the clothing industry and offered her guidance.

During her high school years, Ng says, her peers shared lunch boxes or bought diet pills over the internet. “I asked them why they abused themselves like that and they replied, ‘We want to be pretty’,” Ng says. “They said if they wanted to lose weight, they’d have to starve themselves.”

Ng has no doubt the fear of weight gain and being chubby persists in Hong Kong society. Her friends still firmly believe they have to be thin to be beautiful and are paranoid about getting out of shape, she says.

But being plus-size herself, Ng thinks the thin ideal is wrong-shaped thinking, and hopes others will come to realise it.

“Maybe because I am fat, I’ve come to understand that whether or not you are pretty has nothing to do with your physical appearance. Only when you are true to yourself will people like you.”