She has been ridiculed by family members over her weight and told as a child that “no one will hire you because you are too fat”.
Few of her family and friends would perhaps have imagined that Ms Fiona Tan Si Min would one day be crowned a beauty queen.
Ms Tan, now 29, won such a crown in Latvia in June last year, beating nine others to be named Ms Top of the World Plus Size 2016.
The experience of the Singaporean, who was the only Asian in the pageant, has highlighted the struggles faced by plus-sized women in Singapore, who are often viewed negatively and are not well represented in the media.
Many plus-sized women in Singapore also struggle with body image issues alone, as there are no local support groups for them.
As Ms Jolene Tan, programmes and senior communications manager at Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), said: “The media, ads and even our peers and family members bombard young people daily with the message that only thin people have value.
“Criticising someone’s weight and appearance even while they are not there, or giving unsolicited ‘compliments’ on weight, contribute to the pressure.”
Ms Fiona Tan’s path to the crown has not been easy.
She said: “I had a difficult time from my father during my childhood about weight issues, but I had that desire to prove to him that being plus-sized, I could still be as beautiful and capable as anyone else.”
At 21, she made a drastic decision to undergo liposuction in Thailand, which brought her weight down to 72kg.
She regretted it soon after as she felt she had lost part of her personality. She now weighs 102kg, and has fully embraced her curves.
Apart from having trouble shopping for clothes, or finding life partners, plus-sized women often face cutting remarks, even from the people closest to them.
“It’s very common in Asia for people to comment on the way we look,” she said.
“Most people associate plus-sized people in general as lazy and slow and who don’t look after themselves. But let’s not play the victim card. Instead of thinking why that person is biased against me, why not be the stronger person and ask, ‘How can I improve myself?'” she added.
The makeover stylist and online entrepreneur now hopes to use social media channels such as her Facebook page and YouTube channel to share fashion and grooming tips and, hopefully, influence women who suffer from image issues.
“I thought that taking part (in the pageant) would give me a platform to share what I’ve been through to be who I am today, and hopefully inspire other plus-sized women,” she said.
Observers say the pressure for women to conform to certain beauty ideals can contribute to low self- esteem and affect mental health.
Ms Geraldine Tan, principal psychologist at The Therapy Room, said fat shaming may push women to resort to extreme weight-loss measures like starvation or engaging in overly rigorous exercise.
She added: “Some women may resort to compulsive obsessive exercise regimes.
“Prolonged negative self-perception might also lead to depression, anxiety or eating disorders, as these are all interlinked.”
Ms Jade Isabelle Liang, 31, knows all too well how cruel people can be towards those who are big-sized.
“Everybody around me didn’t seem to have problems shaming me all the time – friends, family and teachers included,” said Ms Liang, who is 1.55m tall and weighed 60kg before her weight loss.
“They liked to pinch my arms and jiggle it, or say things like, ‘Wah, your big bag suits your big body, great choice!'” she added.
The blogger started running and dieting in 2012 and lost 16.8kg to weigh just 44kg.
Ms Liang said feeling unhealthy had hardened her resolve to lose weight.
“I felt sluggish and tired all the time. I also had knee problems because of my weight… I felt like I wasn’t in the best of health, so I decided to change,” she said.
Ms Liang has developed a love for running and managed to maintain her weight since.
For those still struggling with their weight and body image, Ms Fiona Tan would advise them to start loving themselves, as beauty starts from doing so.
She said: “Everyone is born beautiful. You just need to know your strengths, and work on small wins.
“Surround yourself with positive people, people who believe in you and what you do, and when you’ve gained that confidence, pass it on.
“You never know who you might help and that’s the most beautiful act of all – plus-sized or petite.”
By Cheryl Teh, The Straits Times, August 2016
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