Growing up, I never felt like I fit into the Filipino standard of beauty. Slim, light-skinned, and having a high nose bridge was the ideal image I overheard titas obsess over at family gatherings. As a fat, darker Filipina with small eyes, I thought I wasn’t living up to the expectation of my parents and our culture. The only time I was praised for an accomplishment was when I lost weight, so I internalised that if I was thinner, I’d be better. In my teenage mind, I wasn’t enough for anybody.
I stuck to dressing in black because that’s what hid my body — stretchy pieces like tights on the bottom (doubled up because of the holes from my thighs chafing), topped with a tank top and an oversized shirt. The exception was two periods where I lost a considerable amount of weight —around 7 kilos in high school and 11 kilos in university. For those few months, I allowed myself to be trendy, to wear what I wanted and not settle for whatever fit. In 2001, one of my favourite outfits was a pair of low-rise flares and a pink floral shirt with bell sleeves. But as soon as I gained weight, I went back to my all-black uniform.
When I started seeing fashionable plus-size clothing options appear in stores in my late 20s, I realised my monochromatic outfits didn’t fit my personality.
When I started seeing fashionable plus-size clothing options appear in stores in my late 20s, I realised my monochromatic outfits didn’t fit my personality. I was an emerging comedian from a culture with a rich tradition in fashion that encourages you to be the life of the party — we love showing up and showing off with a new luxury handbag or piece of flashy jewellery. As much as there’s a superficiality to it, it comes from a place of pride — you’re presenting yourself as a beautiful peacock. The desire to be the best version of myself is the most Filipino thing about me. So in 2015, I challenged myself to try a new piece of clothing every year I thought I couldn’t or shouldn't wear.
I decided to no longer be self-conscious about my belly and first started wearing crop tops. Then, a floral bikini — an underwire top with pink, blue, and green tropical flowers on a white base. It was the first bathing suit I'd owned since I was a teenager, I somehow managed to avoid water settings for years. And most recently, getting over my fear of my fupa, I started buying pants: jeans, wide leg, skinny, Hammer pants. More than one pair of Hammer pants, if I’m being honest.
I cried reading Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman. It helped me stop listening to messaging I absorbed from the media like, “You shouldn’t wear crop tops, people will see your belly.” Through West’s book, I saw someone who was open and non-judgmental about their own fatness. I felt utterly seen.
That was in 2016, and it was around the same time I started talking about my body on stage, an improv and sketch comedy theatre with sister locations in Los Angeles and Chicago. In my first main stage revue, “Come What Mayhem,” I did a couple of scenes that were specifically about my fatness. One was a striptease. I wanted the audience to see my body dancing around being fun and sexy. It’s what I wish I saw when I was younger, someone who looked like me being celebrated. Women in the audience screamed and cheered. The men did too, but they were always overpowered by the women. It was my way of daring the audience: Oh, you think the fat girl’s funny? Well, she also thinks she’s hot. Do you?
Now people get to see how hot I am on TV. I never thought I’d host one of the biggest cooking franchises because I never saw someone who looked like me on screen. At least not until I started watching Netflix’s Nailed It in April 2020. That’s when I saw the hot and funny Nicole Byer, a fat person who was the host and star of a food show — not just a chef. Just a few months later, this stunning, fat, funny woman auditioned and became the new co-host of The Great Canadian Baking Show.
On the show, not only do I get to wear sequin dresses, bright floral prints, and chiffon skirts, I’ve also been able to incorporate Filipino fashion into my wardrobe, which stylist Vanessa Magic made happen. Traditional Filipino clothing never interested me because it didn’t come in my size. But that changed the moment Vanessa sent me two dresses with classic terno sleeves from VINTA Gallery, a Canadian company whose modern Filipiniana and Filipino-inspired fashion are made at their atelier in Parañaque City, Philippines.
When I put on the white and green sampaguita dress for the first time, I felt like a beautiful Filipina woman who’s regal and important. I’d never seen myself looking like a Filipina before. It wasn’t lost on me that sampaguita is the national flower of the Philippines — I was a blossoming flower making her debut. Even though I’m still fat and not light-skinned, I felt closer to other Filipinos when I wore that silhouette.
When I put on the white and green sampaguita dress for the first time, I felt like a beautiful Filipina woman who’s regal and important. I’d never seen myself looking like a Filipina before.
I’ve also realized that I only believed my body was unlikeable because society kept telling me that. Other people had a bigger problem with my fatness than I ever did. This isn’t to say that I haven’t felt bad about it. There are plenty of times I’ve felt deep shame, like when a tita pokes my stomach and comments I’d be prettier if I lost weight. Or when men scream I should be grateful they’re talking to me after I reject their advances. My defence mechanism, which has worked for me and gives me peace, is to dismiss their opinions.
Now, I’m more at peace with who I am and what I look like. As a woman in my 30s, my sense of style is still developing. I’m cosplaying as my teenage self, wearing tank tops and crop tops, which I thought were off-limits for fat girls. Every day, I’m dismantling ideas of what plus-sized bodies can or cannot wear.
As told to Amy Chyan. This interview has been condensed from its original transcription.