For most people, winning is the goal when joining a competition. But for Lezlie Chan, the reason for taking part in a beauty pageant was that she had “nothing to lose.”
Chan, a 24-year-old plus-size model, recently made her first television appearance on ViuTV’s Extra Beauty, a beauty contest for women with a Body Mass Index of 25 or above that premiered in Hong Kong in April. Despite making it through to the last 12 contestants, she said she was originally hesitant to join.
“Hong Kong people are usually judgy and they are usually not encouraging. But I [thought] I should make the first step… there’s nothing to lose,” Chan told HKFP.
The show was described as “challenging beauty standards and “out of the box” by The Standard, as it is uncommon to see a programme centred around plus-size people in Hong Kong, where the entertainment and media industries are dominated by slim figures.
Draped in a bright pink fur coat, Chan sang an original song for her debut performance on Extra Beauty. Her confidence was widely praised, but it was a long-time coming. Growing up as a plus-size child was tough, even traumatic at times, she said.
“There [was] a lot of bullying… mostly traumatic. Some of [the bullies] usually called me ‘hippo.’ This sort of nickname made me feel so sad. At some point I agreed with them. I wanted to be part of them. I agreed and just let them call me ‘hippo,’ and I just called myself this name as well.”
It got to the point where Chan said she did not want to go to school because she felt alone. She was always the last person to be picked for group projects. “No one wanted me to be in the group.”
‘A new image’
To “build up a new image” after Chan graduated from secondary school, she lost around 45 kilograms. She said she wanted to be “pretty” and for her life to be “easier.”
But just as she thought she could begin a new chapter of life, bullying came back to haunt her, this time online. People behind a screen discussed her face, her body and her private life. It tore her down.
“Even [though] I lost almost 100 pounds, they didn’t like it. And they still called me ugly.” Chan realised she was not losing weight for the right reasons. “I wasn’t doing it for myself, or for my health. I was doing it because… I cared how people think of me.”
She felt lost and depressed, until a photographer friend reached out about a modelling opportunity for a plus-size swimwear brand in 2021.
Despite still healing from the trauma inflicted by online bullying, Chan took a leap of faith and said yes to the job. It paid off.
And although she received negative feedback and hateful comments when she shared her swimwear looks on social media, she has learned to look away.
Chan’s taste of success in modelling boosted her confidence to be more visible. Accepting more modelling jobs and participating in a reality TV show were her way of advocating for body positivity, as well as inching towards her dream of being a singer-dancer.
The body positivity movement has been gaining traction in recent years in Western countries such as the US, where brands work with more plus-size models and offer a wider range of clothing sizes. There are prominent plus-size artists, such as singer-rapper Lizzo and singer Adele, and celebrities speak out about embracing different body shapes.
Body positivity in Hong Kong
However, Hong Kong is slow to catch up. There is only one plus-size modelling agency in the city and very few size-inclusive fashion boutiques. And artists, especially women, in the entertainment industry are still subject to calls to lose weight.
When asked whether the industry is ready to be more size inclusive, Sonia Wong, an expert on gender studies and pop culture, gave a blunt response: “not really.”
Wong, who has been friends with Chan for a long time, said plus-size artists are rarely taken seriously in Hong Kong. She mentioned late comedian Lydia Shum, better known as “Fei-fei”, which translates to “fat-fat” in English, as well as plus-size actress Chan Ka-kai from broadcaster TVB, as examples.
“There’s always that comedic [association] – they have nothing to do with beauty. They have nothing to do with style. And there’s always that moral judgement of them having to work harder, their body being problematic, or they would [be] disqualified of being a socially acceptable woman,” Wong said.
The entertainment industry is harsh not only to plus-size women, but to all women, whose appearance and body shape are often more heavily scrutinised than their male counterparts, Wong said.
“A male star, they are someone to be worshipped. But for a female star, they are something to be desired… The hierarchy is different – the power dynamic between the male star and the fans, and the female star and the fans. So they are someone to be consumed, rather than someone to be worshipped,” Wong said.
First one, not the only one
This frustration is shared by Chan, who feels like there is only one acceptable standard for beauty in society.
“In mainstream media, it seems like girls who are [outside] of the standard don’t exist. Even if they do, their existence is considered not normal, or not beautiful,” said Chan, adding that plus-size girls can be glamorous and sexy.
However, the fashion and entertainment industries must play a role in changing public perceptions.
“Just look at how difficult it is for plus-size models and artists to [borrow] clothes – it reflects that Hong Kong lacks the representation. I became the first one, but I don’t want to be the only one. I want to change the culture of the industry. I want people to see women or models with different body shapes.”
Chan said designer clothes loaned to her often came from overseas as the samples in Hong Kong were usually only available in small or extra-small sizes.
“I think my presence is to show there are people with different body shapes and they can present themselves to the world in ways they are comfortable with – and that’s beautiful,” Chan said.
When asked whether the body positivity movement would be fleeting, Wong said, “If I say I’m not worried, I will be lying.”
The academic noted that companies promoting body inclusivity could simply be cashing in on the trend. But she said she still banked on the positive impact of representation, even if it was “token.”
“If [companies] are doing it in for the visibility and for the recognition, that means that whatever cause [they] are trying to pay lip service to, must strike [them] as being important enough… So I think it testifies to how much we have progressed, instead of how much [the companies] are contributing to the cause.”
For Chan, that visibility also means a genuine reflection of how plus-size women look. She tries to illustrate her beauty as honestly as possible, by requesting photographers not to overly retouch her photos or remove stretch marks and cellulite.
When asked about her favourite part of her body, Chan smiles. “Everything.”
Beautiful in our own way
Chan’s transformation was like that of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly – slowly but surely – and it attracted applause from friends and family.
“She [was] everything that she is not now. It was like she was trying not to take up that much space, to put it literally,” said Wong, who has known Chan since the model was 18 years old. “I am very proud of her.”
Wong said Chan is “very brave, very fierce,” adding she had a “very big and strong heart” to withstand all the bullying along the way.
Chan said her family was supportive of her work and had become more educated about body positivity.
Alongside her modelling career, the artist spends time creating music. While being touched up for her photoshoot on the day of the HKFP interview, she hummed a verse of a recent song she wrote about the trauma and depression she has experienced, “I Just Can’t”:
I just wanna give up myself everyday in the morning Better let me go and there’ll be no shit (to say) I just can’t I just can’t I just can’t stand today Leave me alone at the door and I’ll be walking away - You may think Imma cray bitch always brings up bad energy I’m always mad at myself don’t even bother I just can’t I just cant I just can’t handle my mind When the sun goes down I try my best to stay high
“My music is my upbringing, or speaking my mind,” Chan said. And while she was confident about promoting body positivity, she said it took more courage to open up about her innermost feelings through her songs.
But whether showcasing looks on the runway or performing on stage, Chan hopes to let others know: “We are beautiful in our own way.”
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