The fact that a recent casting call for a new reality series had a weight stipulation is, sadly, nothing new for the Thai entertainment industry. The particulars, however, were. Curve Battle Thailand has not a weight limit, but a minimum for hopefuls — at least 70 kilograms.
While referring to a woman who weighs roughly 155 pounds as “plus-size” might earn eye-rolls in the West, the number is considered relatively high in Thailand, where diet pills are openly endorsed by celebrities and young actresses and presenters scramble to keep up with the industry’s preferred look — thin and light-skinned.
“There’s a strict picture of what beauty looks like, which is being skinny, white-skinned and having big breasts, small arms, and a pointy nose … It’s like only this is beautiful, and you can see it in magazines and TV drama,” said Panita Roth, one of the two creators of Curve Battle Thailand.
“We don’t have different representations, when actually, Thailand has so many types [of looks].”
As a plus-sized woman in the Thai entertainment industry, Roth, a well-known DJ at radio station MET107, speaks from experience.
When searching for a job seven years ago, she auditioned to host a TV music program and quickly realized her talent wouldn’t be the deciding factor.
“The next day I got a phone call,” she explained. “They said, ‘Pani, of all the candidates, you’re the most talented, but you’re fat.’ They just straight up told me that, so it would not work. There was no other explanation, just: ‘You’re good, but you’re fat.”
Instances like that are more the rule than the exception, she said.
“A production company that I know — which will not be named — has a rule that if you weigh more than 45 kilograms (about 98 pounds), you’ll be fined THB1,000 (US$30). This rule is for all the girls who have to go on camera. This is one of the most extreme cases I’ve heard,” Roth told Coconut Bangkok.
Benyapat “Worwaer” Kruenakphun, Roth’s co-producer, says the same attitudes are reflected in every day Thai life.
“I’ve had a woman point at me and say to her son, ‘You don’t want to get fat like this. Look at her!’ I’ve had this happen to me a lot, and I’m not OK with it,” said Benyapat, who works full-time as an assistant to supermodel Sirinya Bishop.
Before Benyapat and Panita kicked off Curve Battle Thailand, the two had been promoting body positivity on their Facebook page “Oversized,” the only lifestyle community for plus-size women in Thailand.
The page, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, hosts campaigns and meet-ups for fans that include everything from swimsuit parties to casual lunches.
Curve Battle, which puts its 14 contestants through fashion and makeup workshops, public speaking training, and tough workouts, is the duo’s attempt to spotlight a body type rarely seen in Thai media.
“We’re not saying being big is better. The tagline is love yourself. There’s room for girls your size, too,” Roth said.
A pretty face
On a Saturday morning in late October, about 50 plus-size women hoping to qualify for the show arrived at Crossover Gym in Bangkok’s city center, to present themselves to the series’ celebrity judges.
While most sang, danced or showed off their runway modeling skills, others got more creative, offering their takes on everything from Thai dancing to rap to — in the case of 16-year-old candidate Emma Slattery — a monologue from Jane Eyre.
Asked how she heard about the audition, the Thai-American high schooler recalled how a teacher at her international school made a comment that bigger women are all-too-familiar with: “You have a pretty face.”
While the beginning of the encounter immediately raised red flags, Slattery says, what followed took her by surprise.
“At first, I was like ‘ouch, OK,” and then she showed me the video [of the casting call] and told me she thought I should apply,” Slattery said.
“Growing up, you definitely did feel a sense of ‘if you aren’t thin, you aren’t beautiful,’ and I think it’s amazing there’s a show that’s finally questioning that,” she said.
Plus-size model Malinee “Mind” Sriboonkong arrived at the audition with two fellow models: Kanokwan “Amm” Inthanin and Pimpreeya “Tae” Witthayapaisan. The trio is often seen on the feed of “Fashion Killer,” a popular online plus-size fashion shop.
While Malinee models regularly now, people around her weren’t so open about her career at first, she told Coconuts Bangkok.
“When I started modeling, my family criticized the way that I dressed. Many people mocked me, like ‘Someone actually paid you to model?’ But after a while, I got so many compliments from people, plus I make money, so my family started embracing it,” she said.
Kanokwan and Pimpreeya, both industry veterans now, agreed that while the plus-size fashion business is becoming more popular in Thailand, their work is still limited to catalog shoots and reviewing clothes on Instagram. To this point, local fashion magazine covers and top-end runway work have remained out of reach.
But while the sheer newness of the plus-size industry is arguably a factor in how Thais react to images of larger models, one meme that went viral this past summer illustrates just how far away acceptance can feel.
“Meet another Wild Boar team,” a meme featuring a photo of plus-size models from Fashion Killer was captioned on the Facebook page “Formular.”
The post was published on July 3, a day after the 13 footballers from the Wild Boars team were found alive after being trapped in a water-filled cave for 10 days.
For Roth and Benyapat, it only served as an impetus for them to pursue their TV dream that much harder.
“That’s one of the viral things that truly shocked me. There were such mean comments that asked people if they were stuck with the models, would they rather die?” Roth said.
“It’s not just joking. It’s body shaming, bullying and degrading. You say, if you [were] stuck with them, you’d rather die. It means you don’t even acknowledge them as human. It’s very mean, but it happened here in this society,” she said.
Malinee, one of the models in the swimsuit picture, said all she could do at the time was focus on remaining positive.
“I actually didn’t care at first, but then it went viral and people showed me the comments. It was … a lot,” she said. “I was disheartened by it, but I decided to choose what to listen to.”
The urgency of Curve Battle Thailand’s inclusive message was stressed when, just a month later, a high school boy in northeastern Si Saket province jumped off his school building, allegedly, because he was mocked for being overweight.
Benyapat saw it coming.
“I was only just talking about this to a friend, before the news broke. We said something would change … when someone dies because they are bullied for being big. Then a few days later, we heard about the story on the news. So it is time.”
Added Roth: “That story made us realize we need to do something bigger. We said to ourselves now is the time. We cannot wait any longer.”
Body positivity vs. body fat
On the global stage, plus-size models such as Tess Holliday have prompted debate in the past few years over whether the body positivity movement is actually promoting obesity.
In September, a photo of the US-based model on the cover of Cosmopolitan UK, sparked criticism by those asking if it was healthy to normalize her body type. British television personality Piers Morgan was one of the first to speak out against the magazine cover.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) September 3, 2018
Although Thailand remains a long way from even reaching that stage of debate, Roth and Benyapat hope their reality series will play a role in broadening the representations of women in media.
“Our end goal is diversity,” Roth said.
“I don’t know how much Tess Holliday weighs, but the size of your body doesn’t equal your health. Let’s make that very clear.
“Aside from diabetes, there’s also depression. Let’s just not forget that, too. Many [big] girls are so depressed with their own body,” she said. “You can be beautiful even if you’re big. We have to separate those two issues. If every plus size model is sick, then let’s talk about that!”
The DJ explained that much like skin colors and different facial structures, the plus-size movement is simply a representation of people we see in everyday lives.
“Thai women are diverse. We have northern, southern, Isaan [northeastern], Thai-Chinese looks. Everything is about the mindset … Let’s embrace each other more and judge each other less,” she said.
Yupapon “Rose” Tubtim, another contestant, isn’t sure if her appearance on the show will make an impact nationwide, but feels compelled to share her belief that beauty standards are artificial to begin with.
“I’m not sure if we’ll be able to change the beauty standards in Thailand, but I don’t think we need to wait. Look at the celebrities. They may only be playing a role, too. They aren’t like that in their real life,” she said. “Be yourself. Don’t follow other people, because what you see is just what someone created.
“You need to deal with the thoughts inside your head first. If you’re not positive, it doesn’t matter what people say.”
Catch the new episode of Curve Battle Thailand every Monday on YouTube Channel Oversized Overzaab (Thai-language only.) Featured in this article, Emma, Rose, and Amm went on to become among the 14 contestants.