New project Like Bodies, Like Mind, created by writer Angela Barnett and illustrator Ruby Jones, explores the intersection between body image and mental health across seven brilliant bodies hoping to reduce discrimination and increase understanding. It launches this week - Mental Health Awareness Week - with one story a day from the content series to be released on Stuff from Wednesday September 29, and via social media.
We’re delighted to share the words of Amy Lautogo, the South Auckland-based founder of fashion brand Infamy Apparel. We featured Amy earlier this year before she launched FatFeb, a grassroots neighbourhood arts festival dedicated to radical fat body sovereignty.
Here, for the Like Bodies, Like Minds project, Amy shares her frank and insightful account of growing up fat.
My earliest memories are of being a fat child. I would have been about 7 and my mother and I were chased down by a nurse in the supermarket car park. They were worried, on sight, that I was so overweight I might get diabetes. I had to go on a Lucozade diet. It tasted awful. That was my first experience of being “othered” because my brother was around the same size, and he didn’t have to do any of that. And then I got sick and when I came out of hospital everybody told me how much weight I’d lost, and how great I looked. From being sick. That set me up for being aware that everybody was going to have something to say about my body. I developed some maladaptive behaviours. I’m a comfort eater, because I always felt so shit about it.
Heading on to intermediate, on a doctor's recommendation, my mum took me to Weight Watchers. I started at 11. This was something I did for mum because a concerned family friend had said to me “if you keep going like this you may never find someone [who] loves you”. It’s a similar conversation family members have with their gay kids.
Ninety five per cent of the time I was always the fattest person in the room, and for the longest time I was the tallest. Throughout high school I made the decision to play sports, so I started everything: rugby, netball. I thought, if people knew I played sports then it wouldn't matter how big my body is. Turns out that's not the case.
I don't know what it is like to feel unnoticed - I won't say unseen because people see me and make snap judgments that won't be representative of the person I am - but I have never been unnoticed. I ended up divorcing my body and mind. It's that old adage, my body can be fat but I will always be as smart and as articulate as I can be. I will dress this fat body and present this body in the way that is the most acceptable, but my mind and body never really felt connected. I was a floating brain in my 20s. I don't have any memories of thinking anything about my body except that it wasn't the body I wanted.
When you're in a fat body, it feels like you are constantly at war with the rest of the world. I have to arm myself before I go out to be prepared for whatever could happen, whatever might be said with people's eyes. It's pretty shitty at times. But not all the time. Otherwise, I absolutely would have given up by now.
I would describe myself as a stroppy fat brown woman. It's tricky - “fat” can be so triggering, and it isn't until your 500th time referring to yourself as fat that you can do it without feeling some type of way about it. But it's important to develop your own relationship with it because if you don't then you’ll always be subject to however somebody chooses to weaponise it against you.
I have this congenital issue with my left hip. It stopped growing when I was a child so the top of my leg pops in and out. My mum would take me to the doctor because my leg would be so sore and they’d say, “it’s growing pains, you could stand to lose some weight though”. If I had had an X-ray, just one, they would have been able to treat it. Three years ago, at 35, they figured out I have hip dysplasia. There is an operation but when I [got] in the system [I was] told, “you need to lose 40 kilos first”. Everybody was saying I’d be a great candidate for gastric surgery, never mind [that I felt] I shouldn’t have to have something so invasive to get my hip fixed, but I went down that route but got declined because I don’t have diabetes, I don't have comorbidities. I could pay $30,000 privately for the surgeon, the same surgeon who would be doing it at the DHB, because he has no problem performing this operation on me. It feels like you’re really on your own.
A lot of people think fat people get a lot of care, but it seems to be the opposite anecdotally. We’re not trying to get more; we’re trying to get the same. At times, I feel like a prisoner in this body.
When you’re caring for a fat body you don't realise how much you hate on it, being rough. Beauty ideals are heavily ingrained so it's hard interrupting those thoughts to be like, “we're not going to scrub until your skin is raw because you can't scrub this away”. This is still your body.
My entire thing used to be to shit on people - in my head - just in case they wanted to come at me for being fat. Thinking positively about strangers has been a game-changer because if I'm going to say nice things about them why can’t I say nice things about myself. And, in particular for me, for women of colour, anyone differently abled or in our LGBTQ+ community, you’ve got enough going against you.
I'm still trying to work out my role in life, but I have the most genuine satisfaction and fun adapting what is mainstream to fat bodies. Doing my work with Infamy Apparel, I started looking at myself as an intersectional being. It wasn't until I started to focus in on making a custom garment for fat bodies, constantly looking at fat bodies and applying whatever artistic eye I have to figuring out the way to adapt the beauty of fabric to fat bodies, I realised I couldn’t do it unless I found fat bodies beautiful.
And my body image, and the way I felt about myself and my brain and my spirit, and how I feel about the world somehow, we all managed to get back together. That’s a happy ending.
• Like Bodies, Like Minds encourages all of us to look at each other with gentle eyes and zero assumptions. Funded by a Nōku te Ao: Like Minds Media Grant, with support from the Mental Health Foundation and the YWCA.