Art direction: Alice Chua, Photography: Tan Wei Te, Styling: Dolphin Yeo
Fiona 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 like-minded 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 tiara - she also got a sisterhood.
Her optimism saw her through childhood bullying
Art direction: Alice Chua, Photography: Tan Wei Te, Styling: Dolphin Yeo
But Fiona hasn'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 well-intentioned 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-of-factly. "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 natural 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 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 meant 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 swapped the dreaded tedium of running for zumba classes, which she prefers. Annual medical check-ups, taking vitamins and attending wellness talks are also non-negotiable 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 http://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.
This story was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Her World.