So, why can’t big women look fashionable?

M. Ratna Devi says there is no one ideal body shape and it is time the world accepts this. ― Pictures by Saw Siow Feng
M. Ratna Devi says there is no one ideal body shape and it is time the world accepts this. ― Pictures by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 22 ― Body shamed most of their lives for not being thin, M. Ratna Devi, Fatimah Nazirah Ashari and Cheryn Tan are on a mission to show you can be plus sized and fashionable.

“People still believe that there is an ideal body shape. Even in the plus size world, there is an ideal body shape. The celebrated ideal body shape for the plus size community is usually a pear or hourglass shape.

“So there is only one body shape? Then you say real women have curves. Are non-curvaceous women not real?” Ratna said.

Ratna, who is known for her bold and daring fashion sense despite being a size 22, started Adevi Clothing in 2014. It serves up chic fashion for women in a range of sizes from 14 to 26.

She also kickstarted  the #justwearlah campaign, encouraging plus sized women of all shapes who are often trolled for their physique, to be unapologetic about their fashion choices, and to show the fashion industry how stylish big women can be.

“We have been told over and over again by people to not wear miniskirts, don’t wear this colour because you’re too dark, don’t wear crop tops, don’t wear sleeveless clothes. So we started this campaign to basically say just wear lah if you like it, who are others to stop you?

“Why put somebody else’s opinion over yours? Should not give power to such opinions,” she told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.

Today Fatimah Nazirah Ashari is telling all plus sized women to be confident and dress as they please.
Today Fatimah Nazirah Ashari is telling all plus sized women to be confident and dress as they please.

Nazirah who has a growing fan base owing to her body positivity campaigns also shares Ratna’s sentiment.

Not mincing her words, Nazirah has one message for body shamers: zip it! “I’m not insulted by the word fat. I happen to be a lot more stylish than you, so shut up!

“I don’t have any intention to lose weight. I did think about it. At one time I was UK size 20 and then I told myself, ‘My God! I need to lose weight.’

“Then again, I have always been curvy. I don’t have any intention to change the way I look,” she told Malay Mail Online.

Nazirah remembers when she was mercilessly trolled for emulating the style of popular singer Yuna, by opting to don a turban.

“Someone took my picture and shared and criticised me on Twitter. It hurt. I will remember the first line till I die. Dah gemuk nak pakai turban! (Already fat and wants to wear a turban!)

“Yuna popularised turban in Malaysia and I wanted to wear it too, after looking at her. But unfortunately, there was a double standard for such looks as it seemed in my case,” she said.

Nazirah, who used to be a plus size model, then took to social media and gained fame as one of the voices for plus size women.

She started her own blog “That Fat Tudung Party Girl” where she chronicles her fashion journey as a plus size figure as well as the challenges and stereotypes she faces, which resonated with other women.

“The most obvious problem for women like me lies in finding clothes that appeal to us. Clothes that look good on our bodies. But the bigger issue is the stigma that plus size women are not confident.

“Most of the time, a lot of plus size girls out there try to shy away from life and see their size as something which hinders them from achieving greatness.

“Of course society has a general preference for slim, petite and fair women. That’s when I realised I needed an avenue to be heard, so I started my blog.  I have almost 2,000 followers on Instagram.

“Still small but very loyal followers. I know each and everyone of them. Most have reached out to me.

“The plus size community is very small and I feel I have reached out to quite a few of them,” Nazirah tells Malay Mail Online.

The digital strategist and body positivity advocate aims to use her marketing knowledge to promote plus size confidence to the world, and be living proof that fashion is borderless.

“There is no one accepted body size that is style-approved for me. Anyone can be stylish with some effort.”

Cheryn Tan is tired of designers thinking big girls should only wear dark colours and conservative designs.
Cheryn Tan is tired of designers thinking big girls should only wear dark colours and conservative designs.

Like Ratna and Nazirah, Cheryn Tan was also stereotyped because of her weight.

“I was thin as a child. I only ballooned after hitting puberty.

“My family did put pressure on me to look skinny. My sisters eat like one spoonful of rice. Oh God! I can’t do that. I love my food,” the bubbly woman said.

For the love of fashion and clothing, Tan opened up a small boutique four years ago with her cousin: I Can’t Sew Therefore I Buy.

There was one problem though. Tan found that none of the clothes they ordered could fit her or any other plus sized woman.

This then gave her an idea to open up something just for big women, and online store Plusify was born about two years ago.

“I found that I couldn’t fit into any of the clothing I bought from regular stores which we sourced to sell. I wanted to feel like I too can wear fashionable designs and be in nice patterns and colours so I decided to start Plusify.

“For me, it wasn’t so much frustration but wanting to be different and reach a certain group... I don’t think I was ever frustrated over the lack of nice clothes for my body size, but I wanted to make a difference. I knew something was missing in Malaysia,” Tan, who now specialises in plus sized formal wear, said.

Plusify has plus sized office wear to fight the notion that plus sized women can’t find decent corporate attire.

She didn’t want big-sized women to lose out when it came to making good first impressions.

“I feel that plus size women, if they can’t dress well to office, they are missing out on so much.”

Still, the fashion world is dominated by sizing standards that make big women feel underrated and sidelined.

Madeline Figueroa-Jones, the editor-in-chief of PLUS Model Magazine, wrote in her blog about how the fashion industry and media have been slowly forcing big women to comply with aspirational fashion standards.

“Twenty years ago the average fashion model weighed 8 per cent less than the average woman. Today, she weighs 23 per cent less.

“Ten years ago plus size models averaged between size 12 and 18. Today the need for size diversity within the plus size modeling industry continues to be questioned,” Jones wrote, adding that the majority of plus size models on agency boards are on average, between sizes 6 and 14.

Figueroa-Jones also lamented that while 50 per cent of women wear a size 14 or larger, many clothing retailers only cater to a size 14 or smaller.

“When the plus size modelling industry began, the models ranged in size from 14 to 18/20, and as customers we long for those days when we identify with the models and feel happy about shopping,” she further added.

Then there is the notion of an all-encompassing free size as the magical size that will solve all problems.

“Free size is an insult!” Nazirah scoffed.

“If I can make a comparison, free size is like, in the real world, assuming there is only one type of person. So I say free size is an insult to humans. It’s very insulting and I hate the word free size. Free size is a discrimination and such a label does not embrace people’s differences,” she said.

Tan believes that the notion for such a sizing label stems from laziness of clothing manufacturers to study the plus size market needs.

“I think there is no such thing as one size fits all unless it’s a tent, but even that has sizes. I feel manufacturers are just lazy to find out details and proper sizing. It can be deceiving. I would say ridiculous and lazy,” she added.

Ratna, however, feels that free size is just another size-range which women with different body shapes can try.

“It is not insulting but it gives some women who don’t fit either there, nor here to try that size. The more options, the better. I don’t think it’s ridiculous,” she said.

UiTM’s senior lecturer Mohd Faizal Abdul Hamid says local designers don't really design for real women.
UiTM’s senior lecturer Mohd Faizal Abdul Hamid says local designers don't really design for real women.

Despite many movements calling for a more realistic depiction of clothing sizes and runway models, the fashion industry is still dominated by aspirational standards, UiTM’s senior lecturer Mohd Faizal Abdul Hamid said.

“Local retailers... they do have plus size designs but how they interpret plus sizes is different. They only produce XL on average. Even local designers, and they think that the XL size fits all.

“It’s not fair as there needs to be more detail put into the clothing designs,” Faizal, who has trained with several notable US designers, told Malay Mail Online.

“I think local designers and retailers, they don’t really design for real women,” Faizal said, rating the awareness among both local designers and retailers at only 20 per cent.

He added that Malay women who are unable to find regular plus size clothing have made a shift to modest Muslim wear which promises a broad size range.

“Modest wear are easy-to-wear style types and it’s less hassle. So we see many (Muslim) women moving there and trying to look fashionable,” Faizal said.

When asked where they themselves shop, Nazirah, Ratna and Tan replied, “Ms Read.”

They said that while there may be other clothing options for plus size women now, many brands do not focus on the details when catering for the group.

“Only Ms Read. The brand champions plus sizes. Not many stylish ones around. Not many realise you can be big and stylish. I also shop  online a lot. H&M Plus, Marks and Spencer the rest I go to Asos,” Nazirah said referring to the British online clothing business.

Tan said that while she is considered in the “smaller” category of the plus size group, she still has to resort to baggy styles when shopping at conventional outlets.

She said that with her own clothing brand, however, she has endless choices.

“I can’t try bodycon stuff but ever since I started Plusify, I wear body hugging clothes and style myself better.”

Tan said that though some brands do cater for plus size women, the designs are rather “conservative.”

“For me there are three brands that cater for the bigger size. Not exactly super plus; Ms Read and Dorothy Perkins and now we have Violeta by Mango.” However, she finds the designs to be a tad too conservative for her.

Ratna meanwhile has always found Ms Read to be an inspirational brand for plus size women.

“They cater to many sizes and I just love Ms Read!” she added.

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