Embracing their bodies and advocating for fat liberation, MahMah Timoteo, Meagan Kerr and Siobhan Tumai are helping others accept themselves as they are. Siena Yates reports.
In a garden at the end of a cul-de-sac in South Auckland, a gathering is taking place; one so rare that most people have never seen – and may never again see – anything like it.
There are no death-defying acts or loud decorations, no celebrities in attendance, no exotic animals or grand gestures. Just a bunch of fat people.
More than that: A bunch of fat people eating, laughing, lounging, sharing experiences and actually talking – very purposefully – about their fatness. With joy.
What does fat joy look like? It looks like fat bodies in designer dresses, cut to fit their bodies rather than restrain them. It looks like bright colours, glam make-up and bared belly rolls. It looks like fat people loading their plates with brownie and cake, eating in public without guilt or shame. It looks like strangers hugging strangers; the physical manifestation of two souls saying, “I’ve got you”.
“What’s fat joy for me?” says one of the event’s three keynote speakers, Siobhan Tumai. “Fat sex.”
The crowd claps, snaps and whistles, and she adds, “Having someone see and touch every part of you, every roll, every fold of skin.”
Other elements of fat joy include being allowed to go out and have fun without having to think about your fat body, being hyper-visible, and being able to eat in public – the way we all are now.
Everyone in the garden is here thanks to a South Auckland event called Fat February, a celebration of our fat, queer, BBIPOC (black, brown, indigenous people of colour) community. Now in its second year, Fat Feb boasts creative and executive teams made up entirely of women of colour.
While last year it was marked largely by one keystone event – the Fat Babe Pool Party – the team have this year unveiled a slew of new offerings, including workshops, talks, parties and exhibitions which have been held throughout February and will continue until March 13, as well as many offerings finding a permanent home online at the Fat Feb website.
Here at the talanoa (a talk, discussion or hui), we’ve gathered to hear three of New Zealand’s most prominent fat social media influencers speak on their experiences as fat, queer, indigenous wāhine.
Some attendees are just allies, here to support and learn. Most are fat people and many are leaders, academics and influencers at the head of a new fat liberation movement – the next, more radical step up from the body positive movement.
“I was going to try and say this in a nice way but I’ll just say it: I hate the body positive movement,” says Fat February’s acting creative director, Amy Lautogo. “Because it isn’t actually what it says it is.”
The body positive movement picked up enough traction on social media to be co-opted and repurposed not only by thin people, but worse, the diet and fitness industries.
“Three years ago, you used to be able to scroll through and see really, really happy fat people,” Amy says. “Now it’s literally all about losing weight: ‘Here’s my before and after pictures, I’m body positive because I want to make my body better’. That’s a problematic message.
“And that doesn’t mean that you can’t want to ever change your body. The problem is when you start to judge or ascribe things to other people’s bodies based on your own beliefs. That’s why we say we’re fat liberationists and we’re here for radical body sovereignty.”
That’s the idea that your body became what it is through years of ancestry and genetics. Besides, “you’ve only got one body, so it wouldn’t be good to spend your entire life hating it”.
You’ve only got one body, so it wouldn’t be good to spend your entire life hating it
It’s not a new idea by any means. Amy, who runs plus-size fashion label Infamy Apparel, credits the work of fat, black – mostly women – activists in the US with laying out a blueprint for agitation and change.
As well as that, she adds, “there are a whole heap of things that have happened over the last short while that really put fatphobia, fat acceptance and fat liberation in front of people, and that hasn’t been the case maybe ever.”
The biggest of those things? Social media, definitely, but also the influence of celebrities like Sonya Renee Taylor, Tess Holliday, Stephanie Yeboah and, of course, Lizzo.
“I don’t think that there’s ever been a time where there has been this kind of energy, and – at least in a small part – acceptance when it comes to people standing in their power and saying, ‘This is my body that I’ve got for life, and I want to have a great life and wear what I want and do the things that I want to do and just be happy’. So it’s a great time.”
Meet the stars of Fat Feb 2021
SIOBHAN TUMAI, 30
Siobhan was born in Whāngarei and while she enjoyed “quite a wholesome childhood” growing up on a farm in Hūkerenui, her town was “also really f* up”, plagued by violence and death. As a kid, Siobhan’s neighbour was shot in a drug-related incident, one of her school teachers got beaten with a hammer, and other “weird, traumatic things”.
It’s a duality which Siobhan feels has followed her through life. “I’ve always lived in these really beautiful spaces,” she says, including Northland, Rangiora, Blenheim, Auckland, Christchurch – but trauma seems to follow. We’re talking bullying, abuse, leaving an unhappy marriage after discovering she was queer, feeling disconnected from her cultural identity and, perhaps most importantly, losing both her parents.
All of that has informed who she is now: an out, queer woman with a partner she loves “deeply”, a mother of a beautiful 11-year- old son, the proud wearer of a moko kauae, after years of being removed from te ao Māori.
Writer and poet Siobhan works in art therapy in the mental health sector, and is also an academic, tutoring at the University of Canterbury. As part of both her mahi and her personal life, she’s an outspoken activist for fat liberation, decolonisation, re-indigenisation and feminism and an advocate for victim support, mental health and the LGBTQ+ community.
MAHMAH TIMOTEO, 25
Born in Australia to a Pākehā mother and Cook Islander father from Rakahanga, MahMah and her family moved to New Zealand when she was five or six.
After a lot of moving around, they eventually settled in Harihari with her mum’s new partner. There, MahMah endured severe and horrible bullying at school. Other children called her names, mocked her and, “there was a whole year where I couldn’t walk down a corridor because they’d spit on me”.
She grew up disconnected from her father and therefore her culture, not finding community or support until she was 18, when she connected with the Pasifika community at the University of Canterbury and embraced her identity for the first time. One of those connections was fellow panellist Siobhan, who, MahMah says, “helped me so much in coming to terms with being indigenous and the fact that I’m fat and that not being the worst thing in the world.”
Now, she’s unapologetically queer, fat and indigenous, and as such has become one of New Zealand’s leading fat activists on social media. She’s currently doing her PhD on amplifying indigenous Pacific Island voices in climate change spaces, and is co-teaching a course she helped develop on social issues and challenges, tackling race, sexuality, fatphobia, climate change and more.
MEAGAN KERR, 36
Meagan grew up mostly in Whāngarei, but moved to Auckland at 17 to create a life for herself, separate to her parents who, as teachers, were very well known in the town.
Now, as well as being a loving mum to her 18-year-old stepson, she works managing social media for companies.
On her path to get there, however, she tried her hand at everything from computing, business administration and massage therapy to sexual abuse healthcare and later, photography. The latter set her on her activism path when, she says, “I realised I spend a lot of time photoshopping people to look different because all through my degree, I got told that the models I used weren’t young enough, thin enough or white enough”. So Meagan rallied against those ideals and her final project was “just lots of fat naked ladies”, including herself.
That sense of social justice and fat representation carried her over into social media stardom, after she created her blog simply because no one was creating the Kiwi-centric plus-size fashion content she wanted to see.
Now, she’s also an award-winning plus-size fashion writer, one of the country’s leading plus-size fashion experts, and certainly one of our most well-known and effective fat activists who has led many women on their journeys of self-love – including her panel-mate, Siobhan.
Missed out on Fat Feb? Check out fatfeb.co.nz to catch up.