• Johanna Tan on the Curvy Couture runaway in 2015 wearing Bombshell Vintage. (Curvy Couture Inc 2015. Photographer: Damien Bredberg)Source: Curvy Couture Inc 2015. Photographer: Damien Bredberg
Johanna Tan loves food and cooking, and doesn't think your weight should ever be a complete indicator of your health. The 34-year-old Melbournite explains how an extreme diet led to liver failure and eventually, body acceptance.
By
Johanna Tan, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

10 Apr 2019 - 3:53 PM  UPDATED 10 Apr 2019 - 3:53 PM

I am Singaporean-Chinese and grew up in Singapore where food is the culture.

I love food so much. I love cooking as a craft as well: the smell of it, the feel of it. Cooking has always been part of my family’s identity.

Growing up, we were like hobbits: we were always eating. We used to go out to eat a lot of Singaporean food. At home, we would have Chinese peasant dishes like pickled turnip, fried in an omelette to be eaten over rice or home cooked soup.

But as a child, I had a terrible relationship with my body. My mum was always trying to make me ‘not fat’. When I look back at photos of me when I was young, I don’t look that overweight.

I was one of the bigger kids in an average classroom in Singapore. That said, I reckon if I grew up in Australia no one would have looked twice at my size.

The doctor’s charts showed my weight as sitting in the space between normal and overweight. I wasn’t obese – I was always at the upper end of normal. But I was one of the bigger kids in an average classroom in Singapore. That said, I reckon if I grew up in Australia no one would have looked twice at my size.

I was made fun of at school and I copped a lot of flack from my family about my weight. It’s very routine for an aunt to greet you with ‘oh my gosh, you’ve gotten so fat…’ Making comments about your body weight is not as taboo over there, as it is here.

I’m not overweight, so why do I need to eat healthy foods?
Get the skinny on the importance of diet.

At age 17, I moved to Canada with my parents. Having grown up as the ‘fat kid’, back then I thought I was a whale, although I was only size 12-14.

When I was 18-years-old, I went on a doctor-monitored diet that kept me on 500-800 calories a day to lose weight. The [doctors and nurses] gave me a list of foods I was allowed to eat. For example, I could have 200 grams of protein (chicken, white fish and turkey) a day and some vegetables but I couldn’t eat grapes, carrots or peas because they were too high in calories. I had a weigh-in every week and I had to get B-vitamin shots.

Johanna Tan: "I love food so much. I love cooking as a craft as well...Cooking has always been part of my family’s identity."
That was the diet that resulted in was a whole lot of medical drama.

I developed gallstones, which were misdiagnosed. It was only when the gallstones moved and my liver failed that I was correctly diagnosed. The misdiagnosis was also a result of the doctors only seeing my weight loss as a good thing and not identifying it as a potential cause of the health problems I was experiencing. 

It was this whole episode – an event that was precipitated by a doctor asking me to lose weight – that politically activated me. I soon got involved in ‘health and every size’ and ‘fat acceptance’ activism.

Johanna Tan on the Curvy Couture 2015 runway, modelling a swimsuit by Beyond the Sea Swimwear.

I reached Australia in 2007 when I was 23. Ever since then, my body acceptance journey has been amazing.

 I got involved with the Curvy Couture Roadshow and walked the runway for three years. I got a lot of connections for independent designers and also modelled for their advertising campaigns. There’s nothing better for your body confidence than being a plus-sized model.

I also haven’t dieted since my liver failed. In general, I try to eat healthily... of course, I am not perfect but I don’t punish myself.

Today, my relationship with my body is pretty great. I am now a size 18-20 [and am five foot six inches] but I usually don’t think about my weight or size at all, which is a nice change from how I was when I was younger. Just yesterday, I noticed that my dress clung to every roll of my belly but I didn’t care because it was a really comfortable dress. That wasn’t something that would not have happened when I was a lot younger.

I also haven’t dieted since my liver failed. In general, I try to eat healthily and I have home-cooked meals most nights. Of course, I am not perfect but I don’t punish myself.

I eat fast food every one or two weeks. I am not the healthiest person in the world but find me a thin person who doesn’t do the same thing because I can’t.

I would be a lot healthier if I cut out fast food completely and started doing more exercise again but I know from experience that it doesn’t mean I will become a smaller person. I will become more fit but I don’t lose much weight. So looking [at my size], if you associate weight with health, you would probably be unable to guess how healthy I am.

I would be a lot healthier if I cut out fast food completely and started doing more exercise again but I know from experience that it doesn’t mean I will become a smaller person.

If there’s anyone out there who is always dieting because they don’t like themselves, just try to imagine what it would be like not to hate your body. It will be really hard because you probably can’t remember a time in your life when your body was not something to be tamed with a diet.

... But you are your own expert about your own body. Listen to what makes your body feel good. In terms of health, if you are not healthy there are changes you can make to your lifestyle. But I don’t think your weight should ever be a [complete] indicator of your health.

If this article has raised an issue for you or you, or someone you know, is in need of support please contact:

Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Butterfly's National Helpline ED HOPE on 1800 33 4673,.

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