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The plus-size Asian women behind that viral photo have a powerful message for us all

A beautiful image of seven Asian women from the plus-size community went viral this week. Here, Stylist goes behind the scenes of the shoot, as the women in the photo explain why we all need to be calling for more representation in 2019, and why body positivity is for all marginalised bodies.

Back in March, I hit boiling point on an issue that had been bothering me for months.

As a body positive activist who works in the plus-size community, I couldn’t help but notice that at every event I attended, I was the only Asian person in the room. More than that, in every campaign I saw being praised for being body positive, there was a noticeable lack of Asian representation.

This led me to post a series of messages on social media, calling on the plus-size and body positive communities to be more active in noticing – and ultimately, fixing – this lack of representation. I also called on brands to start being more inclusive in who they chose to cast, not just in their adverts but also their websites and social media posts. 

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Upon seeing one of my posts, photographer Linda Blacker reached out to me and together, we started plotting a campaign that we hoped would bring this issue to life. We decided to do a photoshoot featuring seven women, myself included. These women were Bishamber Das and Kat Henry, both plus-size bloggers in the community who I’ve been following for a while, and Mina Bhogaita, Simran Sanhu, Saalene Sivaprasad and Vanessa Sison, who reached out to me via social media.

Having worked with Linda in the past, I knew she always placed diversity at the forefront of all of her shoots, regardless of the content or the brand she was working with. As she says: “Everyone should feel represented and I want my work to support that.”

When Linda asked about my vision for the shoot, my answer was simple. I wanted it to be a high fashion shoot fit for a glossy magazine, to prove that Asian women belong in the mainstream media just as much as anyone else.

michelle elman selfie
Asian representation: Michelle Elman and some of the models from the shoot snap a behind-the-scenes selfie

On the day of the shoot, as we all gathered together in front of the camera, it was clear there was a lot of crossover in terms of our experiences.

“Our stories were so similar and it was sad that nothing has changed in decades,” Mina said. “But the buzz and banter was incredible, like we’d known each other for years,” she added.

For the majority of the women, taking part in the shoot was as much a personal issue as it was about making a powerful statement. Saalene remembers her aunties always making comments about her size, from “you’d be so pretty if you weren’t fat” to “you’ll never find a husband if you’re fat”. She told me these comments had started when she was a size 12, and that they were the reason she felt motivated to change the dialogue around women’s bodies. 

Growing up with body-shaming comments was a common theme in the room. Mina stated that at the age of 51, she thought she would be over people saying “you would be so pretty, if only you lost a little more weight”. She believes the picture speaks for itself; “I want people to see me and see my confidence,” she says.

For Sim, participating in the shoot meant combatting negative comments from people in her life. “I’ve been getting criticism from every side of my life for my size – from my family, friends, teachers, pupils,” she says. “Not once did I ever have someone to look at and think, ‘She’s like me, and she’s living her best life. I can too’.” 

Sim’s hope for this picture is that the people in our community feel seen, so that Asian children, in particular, don’t spend so much time trying to figure out if they are beautiful or powerful. 

Bishamber recalls that when she was a child and her friends used to play at being the Spice Girls, she was always left out because none of the five members of the girl band looked like her. When she used to go on holiday she would pretend to use “British names” so she could fit in more.

“As far as I can remember I never had a positive role model in the media to look up to,” she says. “I don’t want any other child to wish they could erase their identity. There is beauty in our differences and this should always be encouraged and celebrated.”

Now, Bishamber believes that the power of the media can be used for good. “The media is a very powerful tool,” she says. “It has the ability to break stereotypes and create strong images for people, countries and communities.”

Within the blogging community, the lack of Asian representation has been a problem, particularly in shoots that are deemed to be “body positive”. We cannot be fighting for size diversity and then claim not to notice the lack of race diversity. This is a frustration that Kat, a blogger within the plus-size community, also felt. 

“It is so frustrating to constantly see brand campaigns completely miss people who look like us,” she says. “Regardless of how hard we work we always seem to be overlooked.” She recognises that there has been progress when it comes to diversity but emphasises that it needs to be extended to all of us.

The amount of attention this photoshoot has garnered so far has been astounding to both Linda and I, but we know that it’s a sign of how much this kind of representation is needed. Linda hopes the shoot will encourage people to specifically notice the lack of Asian representation in other images in the future. “We need to push for more inclusivity in general,” she tells me.

She adds: “These women all looked incredible on camera, and there is just no reason for them to not be equally represented in the media.”

For me, I hope this shoot and the attention it has received globally is proof that people want to see inclusivity that not only spans across size but also race, ability, age, gender and sexuality. Body positivity is for all marginalised bodies and until we uplift and represent everyone, people won’t realise how truly powerful they can be. This photoshoot demonstrates that, and I hope that it is just the start of something wonderful.

Images: courtesy of Linda Blacker

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