When talking about size discrimination and bullying many people think that it’s not really a thing. People might think that sharing a meme of a fat person is just funny and tweeting and laughing along about how ‘huge’ Gemma Collins is every time she is on your TV screens is just banter. Well here’s the thing: it’s not funny and belittling someone because of how they look is a form of bullying. To put things into context I am a lifestyle and fashion blogger based in London and I write about a number of things including travel, cooking, style and fashion and I also happen to be fat. I posted on my blog recently about my experience of being labelled a bad role in a number of press outlets after featuring in a channel four documentary called ‘Plus Size Wars’.
 Since the documentary aired I have also experienced a lot of nasty comments about my health, size and appearance on my various social media outlets as well as berated about my size live on the radio. I wanted to share my personal story with the readers of Ditch the Label in the hopes that I can help comfort anyone who has or is experiencing bullying or size discrimination for them to know they are not alone and do not deserve any of the ill treatment they have received due to their size.

Ask most overweight women and they will tell you that they have spent most of their lives on diets, I certainly did. Growing up I was a small sized child, but then at around 8 or 9 years old I developed severe asthma, I was put on steroids and I slowly but surely got bigger and it became obvious to me even though my Nana (the next best thing to a mum to me) told me I just had puppy fat and that I was beautiful and perfect. By the time I hit my teens I was developed in all the right places and had to start wearing a bra earlier than most of my friends in high school, I was most certainly fatter than all my friends but they never made me feel different even though I knew I was. I had the occasional nasty comment about my size, some more hurtful than others, but I was lucky to grow up mostly with nice people that I hope saw me for more than just my weight. However I still hated myself, I couldn’t wear the clothes that all my friends did, they shopped in Tammy Girl and I shopped in Etam and I would cry to my Nan that I felt fat and she would again hold me and tell me that I was beautiful, she was like this best friend that loved me just as I was and for a second she would make me forget. Then one Monday before I was about to head off to school my Nana had a heart attack, she was a smoker and couldn’t stop, that following Sunday she died and I never really got to say goodbye. I was 13 and for days I didn’t get out of bed, My Nan was the matriarch of our family and when she died everyone fell apart, I felt alone and I turned to food as a comfort to fill a hole and my weight increased.

Over the years I built an obsession with wanting to lose weight, I tried lots of things, including starving myself, then binge eating and hiding the packets at the side of the sofa, I tried to make myself sick but that didn’t work out because I hated the feeling of being sick. I went on the cabbage soup diet, the no bread diet, I took slimming pills and became obsessed with the gym. I lost a significant amount of weight for my cousins wedding and when people saw my weight loss they praised me and it felt oddly good, like for once I had achieved the end goal, until it went straight back on. In reality, when I look back I wasn’t even as fat as I thought I was.

Callie Thorpe

Fast forward a few years to University and I was looking forward to starting afresh, yet I still took those troublesome thoughts with me and my weight issues only grew. Drinking made me put on more weight and I was back again being the fat friend of my new group. Boys had no interest in me (that had always been the way) and I always felt used when someone did actually pay me attention. The reality was I was never girlfriend material for them – I was too fat.

Then in 2008 whilst working at my part time job a guy came up to me and asked me out, he was really nice and kind, he asked me on a date and nearly 7 years later, we are still together. Dan taught me that I could be who I was and still be loved, that it didn’t matter what size I was or how much I weighed because he just loved me for who I was, but even that couldn’t stop my weight obsession. Over the years I joined slimming clubs and then started drinking laxative teas. We stopped eating out to save calories and my obsession with food value made me cry whenever I indulged. I made a diet diary blog to share with everyone and to help shame myself into losing weight, it worked for a while until one day, the scales showed a gain and I broke down. Dan sat me down and told me he was worried and I realised the extent to my obsession. That day I got rid of the blog and made a new one I called it From the Corners of the Curve, I started reading other blogs like Gabi Fresh and Arched Eyebrow’s and my eyes were opened to this world where girls of my size were living their lives enjoying fashion and being happy. I decided I wanted a piece of happiness and started documenting my life, my holidays and my new found love for fashion and soon it got noticed . Before I knew it I was being asked to model in a campaign for Evans for a plus size line. It was picked up in press by media outlets I ended up in Vogue Italia with the other girls involved and my blog grew and grew. 

Slowly but surely my mindset changed and other girls began to look to me for outfit inspiration; my following grew and more brands approached me for collaborations. My mental health improved and with letting go of obsessions I let this whole new life come in. Dan and I moved into our own flat, we travelled for 5 weeks this Christmas across Thailand and Cambodia and on the 19th of December he got down on one knee at sunset on a beach in Thailand and asked me to marry him.

You are most likely wondering why I feel the need to share this with you and why it matters. It matters because health isn’t always physical, mental health is just as important and the years of dieting and punishment on myself caused more damage than good. Yo yo dieting has caused a number of issues for me and ultimately made me bigger than I ever really was. Articles are constantly being written about fat people as though we are setting a bad example by promoting obesity when we aren’t. I have never said HEY I’M FAT COME BE FAT WITH ME, all I have said is love yourself no matter what.

Everyone deserves to live a happy and fulfilled life no matter what their size, and believe me, fat people are not ignorant to health risks because that is something which is shoved in our faces daily by our family, friends and strangers. People lack basic empathy and that’s because they don’t understand there are more reasons to weight gain and obesity than simple greed, some people are ill, some people are taking medicines which cause weight gain and some people have mental issues behind their eating habits. It’s not as black and white as people may think. People also shouldn’t be treated any less if they choose not to be healthy, health is not a moral obligation.

 Size discrimination also isn’t just exclusive to fat people, every week you see a magazine which uses images of women without makeup or close ups of their cellulite to belittle and mock them. God forbid a woman having a stretch mark or not looking like they are professionally airbrushed. There are ridiculous standards put on women and men every day and it’s ludicrous.

So instead of today judging someone on how they look, try and look at them as a person and not an obesity statistic like the likes of Jamelia who thinks people under and over the ‘normal average’ don’t deserve access to nice clothes. Bullying of any kind is wrong and words especially on the internet can hurt. Be mindful of what you say and don’t support people who engage in making nasty comments or ‘joke’ and mock people on the internet. Until we all unite this issue will always be around, so stand up and be proud of who you are whether you’re thin, fat, tall short, whatever you may look like – you deserve happiness.

Callie Thorpe / @CallieThorpe

As many of you will already know, we recently announced that we were the official UK charity partner for The DUFF movie which is currently playing at major cinemas across the UK. As part of the partnership, we were given an opportunity to interview Kody Keplinger; the author of the original ‘The DUFF’ book. We talk writing, The DUFF, bullying and appearances – along with everything else in between.
Hope you enjoy!
Jess x

The Interview

Ditch the Label: When and why did you become a writer?
Kody Keplinger: In a way, I guess you could say I’ve always been a writer. One of my earliest memories is of sitting at my mother’s typewriter in her office. There was no paper in the typewriter. But I was clicking buttons anyway, telling her the story I thought I was writing. As I got older, that turned into actual writing. I was always coming up with new story ideas and writing them down. This has been my dream job since I was very young. I can’t imagine not writing.
Ditch the Label: Where did the inspiration for The Duff come from?
Kody Keplinger: I was in my high school cafeteria one morning when I overheard a girl at my table talking about her weekend and how a guy had referred to a friend of hers as a “DUFF.” It was the first time I’d heard the word, but as soon as I learned what it meant – the designated, ugly, fat friend – I was sure it was me. That I’d be the DUFF of the group. But after talking to my friends about it, all of them thought they were the Duff. Every single one of us was sure it was us. When I realized this, I jokingly said I’d write a book called The DUFF one day. I never thought I’d actually do it, but later that semester inspiration struck and that joke became a reality.
Ditch the Label: Did you have any involvement with the film making process?
Kody Keplinger: No. I wasn’t involved with the film making process; however, I did get to visit the set and meet the cast, which was such an honor. It was especially exciting to meet Mae Whitman — because, funny story, I’ve wanted her to play Bianca since I wrote the book in 2009.
Ditch the Label: What do you think of the finished film adaption – is it as you imagined it when you were writing?
Kody Keplinger: I love the movie! I’ve seen it several times now, and it delights me every time. With that being said, the book and the film are a bit different, as most book-to-film adaptations are. But the themes of friendship and self-acceptance are still there – and Mae Whitman’s take on Bianca is spot on!

Ditch the Label: In The Duff, there is a strong message of self-acceptance for Bianca, which will resonate with a lot of young women. Do you think this can just as easily be applied to teen guys?
Kody Keplinger: Oh, it most definitely can. In fact, I know that it has. I’ve gotten several emails from male readers who have read the book (usually because a female friend made them) who have written to me after because they related to Bianca. One of my close male friends read it and told me it inspired him to be more open and less ashamed about his struggles with mental illness, proving the self-acceptance goes far beyond body image. I’ve also heard from boys who saw the movie and had similar reactions. Guys deal with some of this stuff, too, and I definitely think the message can – and does – resonate with them.
Ditch the Label: Have you ever personally experienced bullying or prejudice? If so, how did you deal with it?
Kody Keplinger: I was an overweight, blind teenager – it would have been a miracle if I hadn’t dealt with at least some bullying. I was lucky, though. It wasn’t as bad as you might have expected. The majority of the bullying I dealt with actually came from a close friend, someone I trusted who would manipulate me, put me down, and randomly ignore me, leaving me on constant eggshells for reasons I never understood. I think that sort of quiet bullying happens a lot. At the time, I had no idea how to deal with it. I just let it happen until graduation. If I had to do it over again, I would have stepped away from that friendship early on, trusting that I’d find other friends who would like me. Teenage Kody didn’t have that kind of confidence, though.
Ditch the Label: You are the co founder of ‘Disability in Kidlit’ – can you tell us about that?
Kody Keplinger: Disability in KidLit is a website devoted to all things disability and how they relate to young adult and middle grade fiction. Our goal is to provide both a space for disabled readers and writers to discuss their experience as well as to be a resource for able-bodied authors and readers who want to know more. We’ve reviewed books, had discussion posts about specific issues, tackled problematic tropes, and even had disabled people write about their middle or high school experiences.
Ditch the Label: How important do you think diverse and positive role models are to young people?
Kody Keplinger: It’s insanely important. I think it’s easy to get discouraged – especially when you’re younger – when you don’t see anyone like you being successful or doing the things you aspire to. As a teen (and still now to a degree) I was always incredibly excited when I heard about a blind or legally blind person who had become successful. Because that meant I could be successful, too. I’d imagine a lot of young people feel that way, whether their disabled, part of the LGBT community, a PoC, grew up poor, etc. We look for role models we can relate to.
Ditch the Label: We know that bullied teens as young as 13 are considering invasive surgery. What message would you give to young people who may feel pressured to change themselves in order to fit in?
Kody Keplinger: God, it’s hard. I try to think if there’s anything anyone could have said to me at that age, when I was feeling awful about my body. I guess the first thing I’d do is remind them that, right now, their bodies are still growing and developing, and changing them at this stage just isn’t a good idea. And then I’d tell them that high school ends, but whatever they change about their appearance lasts forever. So if you do it for other people – and not for yourself – you’re just going to be unhappy in the long run. Instead of focusing on the things you dislike about yourself, focus on the things you do like. Maybe that’s your hair or the way your legs are shaped or your sense of style, etc.
Ditch the Label: In addition to supporting those who have been bullied, we strongly advocate education and support for perpetrators. We know that many are dealing with their own complex issues that may not be immediately obvious. Do you think this is an effective approach to tackling the issue of bullying and prejudice?
Kody Keplinger: I think it might be the most effective approach, personally. Because, yes, in my experience, those who bully are often taking their own pain out on others. I know there were times in elementary school where some girls were picking on me, making me feel like the ugliest, stupidest girl in class. So when I found a girl who seemed like she could be lower on the totem pole than me, I picked on her. It made me feel like I wasn’t the worst. I regret that now. But I think that’s a common practice. So it just makes sense that the best way to stop bullying from occurring is to find the perpetrators and find out why. There is always a why.

Today we have had the absolute pleasure of interviewing TV’s most recognised Liverpudlian dressmaker, Thelma Madine. Best known for her star-role in Channel Four’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding as well as her own series Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, Thelma is a successful mumtrepreneur who is so driven and passionate for her job that she even has her own bed in her factory! Here Thelma talks to us about the trials and tribulations of the travelling way of life, as well as an insight to her personal battles and her views on bullying and discrimination.

Ditch the Label: Hi Thelma, thank you so much for taking the time for an interview with us! What do you think about Ditch the Label?
Thelma Madine: It’s an absolute pleasure! I think it’s absolutely brilliant what you are trying to do and achieve and I support it completely.

Ditch the Label: Excellent! Moving straight onto your new-found-fame in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, did you realise how successful the series would be when the programmes first started?
Thelma Madine: I’m not being funny but to be honest I think I did. I’ve always been able to ‘dine out’ on it as the travelling culture is very interesting. So I knew that people would love it and want to know more about it and understand their way of life, I think the programme has opened doors for them.

Ditch the Label: Obviously, your clients are renowned for being discriminated against and have been pigeonholed into a niche category; do you feel that both programmes project them in an honest and realistic light?
Thelma Madine: I think it does to a degree – a lot of programmes have been made about the travelling community. It shows the bad parts as well of course, but that’s what you get in every culture. The travelling community like to tell you a story, everyone knows of a traveller that has ‘done them wrong’ in the third person, and before the programme people ignored them. Whereas since both programmes have been aired, people come and shake their hand, and they receive tweets and facebook messages saying that people are glad they’ve got to know them and see them in a different light. This is important as I think parent’s and other influences effect your view towards these people, even my own parents told me to ‘never to look a gypsy in the eye as they will curse you’.

Ditch the Label: Do you think it is important that gypsys are given equal opportunities and are treated the same as everybody else? Or do you think it is important that they are recognised in their own right as a minority group?
Thelma Madine: Oh most definitely I think that they should be given equal opportunities. In Thelma’s Gypsy Girls I have trained some lovely kids who have a different kind of patience, and they should be given the opportunity to learn such skills just like everybody else. I think it is important that they are recognised in their own right in terms of that they should not be made to conform to what is expected of them, i.e. the Government want to put them all in houses but it is not what they are about and I don’t think we should try and get rid of their culture, it’s their way of life. It would be boring if we were all exactly the same.

Ditch the Label: We’ve established from both Channel Four series’ that the feeling of a community environment is essential to the gypsy way of life, do you feel part of this community through your work, or still an outsider?
Thelma Madine: Erm, I don’t think I’d ever be fully accepted as I’m not a born traveller, but I do feel they welcome me into their community, like they trust me and things like that – if they want things done by a none-traveller then they’ll come through me which makes me feel really honoured.

Ditch the Label: Thelma’s Gypsy Girls marked a shift away from old ways of gypsy life, especially towards the change in the role of the female within the gypsy community. You experienced a lot of back lash… Do you think that the travelling community are ready to break away from their stereotypes and dated ways of organising society?

Thelma Madine: I think that some of them are ready to break away, the younger ones definitely are, and a lot of them want to be educated and stay on at School. They get a really bad time at School and are seriously bullied and I think most of them want to break away. I learnt so much when the girls came (discussing the girls featured in Thelma’s Gypsy Girls) and they broke my heart and I cried, some of them couldn’t even tell the time. It needs to be changed. I don’t think their community should be destroyed but I do feel it needs to be brought up to the twenty-first century.

Ditch the Label: Moving on to your life as a successful businesswoman, recent statistics indicate that of all self-employed people, only 27% are female. This figure is much higher than ever before, but have you ever experienced prejudice in your own working life? Are there barriers to entry for women in business still?
Thelma Madine: I don’t think it is as bad as it used to be, but women are always looked at as second class citizens when it comes to business as people think women are incapable of running a business successfully. I’m lucky in the respect that in my line of business it isn’t dominated by men and my employees are female, so I’m pretty lucky.

Ditch the Label: Thelma, what drives you to be successful? Do you think it is important to surround yourself by a close-knit community of people?
Thelma Madine: Yes. I don’t think anyone can do it alone. Who you surround yourself by is so important, the people I work with are as passionate as I am about my business, and you need that for a business to be successful.

Ditch the Label: On a personal level, in your autobiography Tales of the Gypsy Dressmaker, we learn about your imprisonment for over ten thousand pounds worth of benefit fraud back in 2001. Have you been disadvantaged or pigeonholed because of your past? What about the stereotypes associated with it?
Thelma Madine: I feel that if that had not happened to me then I wouldn’t be as successful as I am today, and if I hadn’t been through it then I definitely wouldn’t have gotten a book deal! It has helped me be where I am today and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it (minus the first week in prison as I was scared!). But consequently it has made me a better person. I met some lovely people – even a woman who was a murderer. I learnt the biggest lesson of my life and that is not to judge anyone, get to know them first before you judge them. You have to look at yourself and think what you would have done in their situation. Being in prison opened my eyes, and taught me a great deal.

Ditch the Label: If there was any message you could give to people reading this who have been bullied or discriminated for being different, what advice would you give?
Thelma Madine: Just be proud of who you are and where you’ve come from. We are all different, god made us different, so you should stand up for who you are. As for being bullied, we should feel sorry for those who do the bullying as it is their issue, not ours. In prison I was in a team of women who went round talking to people who were being bullied, and I think it is so important not to keep it to yourself, tell people you are being bullied and talk to people about it, you are not alone.

Ditch the Label: What advice would you give to a reader who is part of a minority community with strict rules and customs and is feeling like they have to conform?
Thelma Madine: I would say fight not to conform, definitely. We’ve lost so much in our society now, and when I watch travellers and the way their communities are so close, like they can walk out of their trailer and they’ve got children to play with and a community of people – you never see a traveller with post-natal depression as they’ve got so many people around them. In our society we don’t do that anymore, everyone used to know their neighbours and be sociable but unfortunately it isn’t like that anymore. People should keep hold of the things that make them different and celebrate them.
In the travelling community, even though you can tell straight away that some of the young lads are gay, they are not allowed to ‘come out’. It’s a taboo. It is so sad that the gypsy suicide rate regarding this matter is triple the national average. I once met two lovely young twelve year old boys who have both killed themselves since. I would encourage people to read a book by Mikey Walsh called Gypsy Boy, it’s an amazing read. Just believe in yourself and stand up for what you believe in.

Ditch the Label: Thank you so much for talking to us this afternoon, it’s been a joy talking to someone so down to earth.
Thelma Madine: It’s my absolute pleasure, I’m sure you’ll keep up the great work at Ditch the Label. I have a lot of work to do so I’m just going to crack on and do it, I’ll be staying in my bed here in the factory tonight!