What Jo Cooke and Alison Law want you to know is this - fat girls do not sit on the sofa all day watching Jeremy Kyle and eating cream cakes.
Both women openly refer to themselves fat girls, and yet they move so fast it took me weeks to pin them down for an interview. When I finally did, I had to interview them in their car whilst driving between the day’s appointments. Their schedule is hectic to say the least. As I read through their agenda, a sea of women’s names, sizes, their dress specifications and wedding locations swum before my eyes. It was enough to make anyone car-sick. Now that their television show ‘Curvy Brides Boutique’ has begun showing on TLC UK, things are unlikely to slow down for Jo and Al. I very much doubt that they will be interviewed by a spotty-twenty something whilst driving along the A12 ever again.
My first question revolved around ‘the f word’ , which you will undoubtedly hear as you watch ‘Curvy Brides Boutique’ – ‘fat’. I asked Jo and Alison if other people could call them fat, or if only other fat girls could call them fat girls? It felt like a loaded question, one that I shouldn’t be asking whilst travelling at speed on a dual carriageway. But I had spent the last few months getting to know them both and really felt they were open to talking to me. Alison is not one to mince words, and she jumped right in to tell me that “Only other fat girls” can use the F word. Jo chimed in from the driver’s seat with “You can call me what you like, but you can expect the same in return”.
You would be wise to mark Jo’s words. Both women, who run Curves & Couture Bridal Boutique in Essex, are very confident and extremely quick witted. It would be foolish to think you could ever make either lady the butt of a joke, because they would soon be able to turn the tables on you. I wish I could realise the pure, uncut recording of this interview to the public. Jo and Alison are wildly, irreverently funny. But it contains so much of my raucous, Australian laughter that at times, all else becomes incoherent.
I asked them about their own wedding dress experiences. “I’ve done it four times!” says Jo, unabashedly. “The first time was to Eddie, and the ceremony lasted longer than the marriage! I had a dress that I was all covered up in, my mum was buying my dress and I couldn’t be bothered to argue with her. I didn’t enjoy the dress buying. Even then I was probably only about size 22, but there was nothing for me, I had to try on a size 14 – which obviously fitted my ample size 22 body!”. Jo’s sarcasm is justified. I had emailed several wedding boutiques in the area, pretending to be a size 24 bride-to-be that was shopping around. Multiple boutiques replied that I was welcome to come and squeeze myself into the sizes they had available. In reality, if I was to go and try on wedding dresses, no one would ask me to squeeze myself into an ill-fitting dress in front of my friends and family. Jo’s second wedding dress wasn’t much better, despite the work she put into designing it.
“The second time when I married Mick, I was pregnant and I designed a dress that I wanted in satin backed crepe. It was really nice and the idea was that it would pleat and fold to hide the baby bump and all the rest of it. When I picked up the dress from the seamstress, I don’t know what drawing she looked at but it wasn’t mine! It was the right material but it resembled nothing on earth like my design. The third time when I married Kev, I bought a dress out of Evans and that dress was ok, it was a very intimate wedding with only about eight of us so that was fine. When I renewed my vows this time, I was just going to alter a dress that was in the shop because I loved the lace on it but the line of the dress was wrong for me. Even though I didn’t have hips, because even when I was as fat as I was, I have never had hips – well obviously I have because I wouldn’t be able to walk! But even though I didn’t have very big hips, the dress made me look like I had child bearing hips – hips that could bear all the children of the world! That’s what it looked like” Jo then planned to have the dress altered, until the dress’ designer offered to make her an entirely new dress as a wedding present.
“The minute I put it on, he had captured my whole personality, everything about this dress was perfect So that’s the story of that, it was lovely, and I now know how a bride should feel”
Then it was Alison’s turn. “Taking over from Jo,” she began “ I don’t know how a bride should feel because I never had that experience myself –“ . We didn’t get far before Jo interrupted jokingly “And you only got married once, no one else would have her!”. Alison butted right back in, throwing her hands up in mock-anger. “This ain’t about you, you had your turn!” It’s painfully obvious that these two are best friends.
“My wedding dress experience was pretty poor to say the least. I went into quite a well-known bridal store in Brentwood. The woman looked me up and down. There was a couple of other customers in the shop at the time, skinny girls looking at the dresses on the rails. I walked in, she didn’t approach me, didn’t smile at me, didn’t acknowledge me in the slightest. And I was left standing there for about an hour, like an idiot, just looking at the dresses, looking at all the beading and the lace, thinking “I could have this, I’m so excited, I’m going to have such an amazing dress”. Anyway, after an hour I lost the will to live. I said what size I was, what I was looking for and she said “I’m sorry dear, we can’t help you there’s nothing for you to try on”. So I felt like a bag of you-know-what really. I didn’t think the wedding would ever happen. Then my mum decided we should go to the department store and go flower girl shopping. Up in the bridal department of the store, they had a range of bridesmaid’s dresses. There was one on the rail, a size 24 in ivory. Oh my god, I was so happy. I put the dress on, but there was kind of an air of sadness because I never got that whole ‘This is my dress, and I have tried on lots of beautiful dresses and I’ve found the right one naturally’ . This dress was the only dress in my size. So I bought the dress, hated the dress, and after the wedding I took the dress into the dry cleaners and needless to say I never went back to pick it up. My whole wedding dress buying experience was really, really crap. And it saddens me. Twelve years on, and it saddens me that it makes me feel this way. That’s why I am so determined to not let other brides feel the way that I felt and how Jo felt.
Megan Jayne Crabbe, better known by her Instagram handle bodyposipanda, has paid a visit to Jo & Alison at Curves & Couture Bridal Boutique. She has 794k followers, identifies as being body positive, and I’m told that she will make an appearance in an episode of ‘Curvy Brides Boutique’. I wanted to know what Jo and Alison though about the surge of interest in the body positive movement. “There is so much body positivity going on today,” Jo began, “and that is fabulous if people truly feel that way. But I ask myself this, if there was a pill that you could go and buy at the supermarket for £10, and when you took it on a Friday night, you woke up on Monday a size 12 – who would and who wouldn’t buy it? Most of us would buy it, let’s be honest! So therefore, are we really as happy as we say we are? Because if you are going to queue up and buy this £10 tablet – are you really body positive? You have to be honest with yourself”. Alison laughed as she sat in the passenger seat giving directions “I would be buying packet loads!”
It is easy to reduce the term ‘body positivity’ to a mere hashtag used by influencers on social media. If you search ‘body positive’ on Instagram, you’ll get over two million results. But body positivity has a history that stretches back over fifty years. The Fat Acceptance movement was born during the latter half of the tumultuous 1960s, with the first ‘Fat-In’ being held in June, 1967 in Central Park, New York to protest size discrimination. Around 500 people turned up to protest and spectate. Here, the primary organiser of the Fat-In Steve Post burnt a life-size poster of the model Twiggy to symbolise his rejection of mainstream beauty ideals (fairly problematic because Twiggy is a woman with a body too, but sure, you just go right ahead and ignore that Steve…)
Fat feminism started becoming a distinct movement during the beginning of the 1970s. In 1973, The Fat Underground was formed in Los Angeles by fat feminists looking to contest the concept of “spoiled feminine identity”. The organisation would come to represent the birth of fat activism, with its lobbying of academic health organisations and its harassment of weight loss institutions. The original Body Positive Movement as we know it today was established 1996. It was the brainchild of Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott who together wanted to form a community that offered “freedom from the suffocating societal messages that keep people in a perpetual struggle with their bodies”. I felt that fat activism was alive and well, and flowing through Jo and Alison.
Jo: “Fat girls have a way of being able to look in the mirror and see nothing below the neck. You can look in the mirror, focus on your face and totally ignore the rest of the body because that’s what you don’t like”
Alison: “But there is nothing wrong with looking in the mirror and appreciating what you see. Because you’ve got it, you’re living with it, and you have to make the best of it, so there is nothing wrong with saying “Actually, you know what, I look bloody good!”
Jo and Alison were echoing the exact sentiments of Sara Golda Bracha Fishman, a founding member of The Fat Underground. Fishman felt that the time spent at a retreat with other Fat Underground members “brought into focus our shared habit of seeing ourselves only “from the neck up”. We’d all been told that we had “a pretty face”. We decided that from then on, we were also beautiful from the neck down”.
As we continued our drive, I found out more about the discrimination and abuse larger women face due to their physique. I was conscious of that fact that I was coming from a place of privilege (being a white, straight, cisgender woman who is petite) , so I wanted to understand what the plus size community is up against as they go about their daily lives
What are the things that frustrate you most about the way plus-size women and curvy women are perceived by everyone else?
Jo: It is acceptable in society to torment, to tease, to rip on the fat girl. It’s ok to shout to the fat girl “Who ate all the pies?”. But you cannot discriminate against other people on the basis of their religion, their sexuality, anything like that because there are laws against it. There is legislation in place to protect people from that kind of abuse, so why is it ok to abuse the fat girl?
Why is that comedy, and not abuse?
Jo: Exactly. The overwhelming majority think that fat girls sit at home, eating cream cakes and watching Jeremy Kyle. But that is not necessarily the case for everyone. There is a hundred and one reasons why people can be overweight – hormonal imbalance, medication, side effects of various different illnesses. Who are you to judge me, or anybody else, on their appearance? Yet, it is acceptable. No one questions it
Alison: What gives you, or anyone, the right to make somebody feel that way?
Jo: Exactly. But it is acceptable. People just accept it, and it is just something that you are forced to learn to live with. You become very thick skinned, you become very good at having a retort ready. If you’re going to ridicule me in public, it better be bloody good mate because I have heard it all before.
You know what, if someone’s going to come out with a fat joke, let it be the fat girl first.
Is that how you feel?
Jo: Yes. Because when you spend 45 years in a fat world, and your world is a fat world because you have a fat body, you know where you belong. You know where you can shop, you know where you can’t shop. You know what times to shop, what times not to shop…”
What times do you shop?
Jo: Well you don’t do it at school letting out time, because of the abuse that you get from a load of teenagers, so you shop during school hours.
That is something I have never considered.
Jo: You know whether or not you can fit through the barriers at the train station, or whether you have to ask to have the gate opened up for you. Same with the turn styles at venues, or going out to dinner and being put at a booth that you can’t fit behind. When you take all these things into account on a daily basis, because that is your life, it just become second nature. And being in that world for 45 years, I know where I belong. I know that if someone shouts out a fat joke, I can turn around and come back at them. So when someone gives me a compliment now, I’m like “Is he taking the mickey, is he being serious? Or what does she mean by that?” I don’t know how to take a compliment because I don’t know if it’s sincere. I still think that what makes me, me is my personality. Because I don’t think that my personality has changed one iota with weight loss has it Alison, you tell me.
Jo: Apart from the fact that I am more of a shopaholic now. But apart from that, nothing else has changed. In my mind, I will always be a fat girl. Always. That is my mentality and it is so engrained, it is all I have known, so I will always be a fat girl in my mind.
But that must help you connect with some many people that come to see you both because you were much bigger at one time, you’ve experience the weight loss journey, you are the size that you are now so you have effectively covered a lot of bases.
Jo: Absolutely, and sometimes you think, “I’m in here, wearing a pair of size 12 trousers, and she’s looking at me thinking – as If you know what I’m talking about”. But it will only take one comment, or something I say, and they know that I have been in their shoes. Because it’s just the vernacular, if I say ‘ you know what you need for this, a nice pair of chub rubs’, they know from that that I have been there.
Whats a chub-rub?
Jo: See, you don’t know because you're skinny. Chub-rubs are like cotton, almost cycling shorts, that you wear so your legs don’t rub together and chafe.
Alison: If you're shaped like a mermaid, you get chub-rub. I like that expression, being shaped liked a mermaid, that’s nice.
Jo: I've never been a mermaid. I have a melon sized body, with a little walnut head, two bits of string hanging out for my arms and legs. I think once the brides know that you have been where they are now, and that you are not sympathising with them, you are empathising with them – that makes a huge difference.
What is the best thing that slimmer people can do to be good allies to people that are plus size and curvy? What can they do to help?
Jo: Eat their food for them!
Alison: I would stab someone with my fork if they tried to eat my food, let me tell you!
We talk about people being good allies to the LGBTQ community, people who are straight and cisgender but still support others – what can people do to support the plus size community?
Jo: Don’t judge. Don’t judge us. We all know that people are judged visually. It takes you eleven seconds to decide whether you are going to buy a certain house just by looking at it, apparently. You look at a fat person, and without even realising it you are judging them. You are judging them on the way they look, on what they are wearing, the way they walk, everything. So you know what, maybe just think, not everybody is fat because they sit at home eating cream cakes.
Alison: I think as well, if you have a fat friend, don’t put them in a compromising situation where they might feel uncomfortable. Like going out for dinner, getting a table with a booth for example.
Jo: See, Alison was always my protector.
Alison: I was.
Jo: When I was big, and I’m talking 30 stone big, she would protect me from a lot. Almost like, she would lead the way and test the waters first wouldn’t you
Alison: Yeah, I would.
Jo: She would never make me be in a position where I would feel uncomfortable, and if someone was shouting something horrible, she would shout right back at them, louder and funnier to drown them out.
Alison: I would go ahead and check where the toilets were for her, so she didn’t have to be wandering around the whole place and bumping people’s tables. I would say “they are over there, take a left, take a right, whatever”.
Jo: That’s because Alison has been a big girl and a small girl. She has been at both ends of the spectrum, so she knew exactly how I was feeling. You know, when you go somewhere new as a fat person, the first thing you do is map a route in your mind to get from where you are to where you need to be – the bar, the toilet, outside. When we went to the Business Awards, we had to plan a route because if we won, how the hell where we going to get our fat bodies between all the tables to get up on stage? And let me tell you, when we won the Essex Wedding Award, we thought we had absolutely no chance. I was under the table looking for one of my shoes, it was the last award of the evening and once that was over , the bar was going to be open again. So I was under the table, I had found one shoe and was looking for the other ready to do a runner to the bar. Well, blow me down if Paul Ross, Jonathon Ross’s brother, didn’t then call out “Curves & Couture” . You’d never seen two startled rabbits caught in the headlights. Alison had no shoes on, so her dress was far too long for her, I looked like I had a severe limp because I only had one 8 inch heel on – we couldn’t get to the stage, he had to come down and get us in the end. So it was hilarious – but it shows that you do have to plan a route for every eventuality.
Alison: You take it all in your stride because that’s what you do, you don’t know anything different really.
Jo: It is just what you’re used to doing, and you almost do it subconsciously. There are other things as well that you need to think of – like buying a car. You have to be able to get your body in the car somehow, and I don’t know how I used to be able to sit as far back as I did and reach the steering wheel, but I did because I had to. Now I sit so close to the steering wheel my husband says “What do you do, fold yourself in half when you drive?”. It’s those kind of things that people don’t know. Every fat girl needs to have an ally. Because being a fat girl living in a fat world can be a very lonely thing.
Alison: It can be horrible, and unfortunately we get a lot of brides in like that, that don’t have anybody by their side, and they are the brides that seem to struggle the most with the size they are.
Typically, are the brides that come in to see you lacking confidence? Or do a lot of them have great confidence in themselves? What do you typically see?
Jo: A lot of women come in with their barriers up and their masks on. Alison breaks them right down to basics and addresses the problem. It is almost like a form of therapy. Sometimes it can be really rewarding, when you get to the end of the journey. But we had a bride in recently who used to be skinny. The love of her life died of leukaemia when she was 16. Eating was how she dealt with it. She was getting married, and she was in to buy a dress, and she loved the dress that she was in, and she was absolutely convinced that that was her dress. Wouldn’t matter if she was a size 16 or a size 26. I said to her you won’t want this dress when you’re a size 16, we wouldn’t sell it to her, and this just opened the flood gates. Afterwards her mum thanked me and said “you know what she has never spoken about it before, she has never broken down and cried before”. She was over him obviously, as she was marrying someone else, but there was still so much hurt there.
Alison: There is a root cause to every bride that explains why they are the way they are. Some like to admit it, some don’t. It can be mental health, medication they are on, whether they are a food addict, maybe there is something from the past they are trying to push away, there is always something there and that is what I try and get to so we can fix the problem.
Jo: I remember my personal trainer only ever made me cry once. But after he broke me, he said “Jo, I had to break you so I could fix you”. That has stuck with me and I really do believe that, that they have to strip everything back to bare and start rebuilding again.
Alison: Some women are open, some aren’t.
Jo: That is true, some women are open to telling you what their issues are, others Alison has to work a bit harder to get it out of them. I can’t do the emotional stuff in the dressing room like Alison does, she can compartmentalise things. She can just switch off and go home. If I was doing the emotional stuff, I would have sleepless nights for 3 weeks over someone I don’t even know. So I choose not to take on that role in the dressing room. What I tend to do is a bit more of the styling. I am quite good at looking and thinking what will suit, putting all the accessories together. That’s what I do, and that’s what works for us. I also sit and chat to the bride’s entourage, to try and find out their point of view about why the bride is upset maybe, or what’s going on.
Do you think that social media is a force for good or evil, when it comes to plus size women? On one hand, social media is flooded with images about what the ideal body is supposed to look like, and on the other hand there are loads of ways for body positive people and plus size bloggers to get their material out there and share it all and make people feel less alone. So does it do more harm than good, or more good than harm?
Alison: I think it’s getting better. Let’s put it that way.
Jo: You need to know what websites are fat-friendly. And I know that with Facebook, there is a lot of body positivity, but you know what, there is some absolute filth on Facebook as well. I think that social media is not really as easy to navigate as you might think.
Something that has become quite controversial of late is the question – can you be overweight or larger and still be healthy? What do you both think?
Jo: I am considered an athlete according to my BMI, which is laughable. My percentage of body fat puts me in the category of a female athlete, so yes, I am fit but I am also big. And Alison used to run 5 kilometres every morning, so she is in shape as well.
Alison: I do believe you can be fit, fat and fabulous. You have loads of plus size dance teachers, and look at Whitney from ‘Fat Girl Dancing’, so you can absolutely be fit, fat and fabulous.
What are some of the most outrageous things that you have seen in this business
Jo: There was the girl that wore two bras, one for her front and one for her back. People’s lack of personal hygiene can be a problem. Why would you turn up to choose and try on a wedding dress with no knickers on?
Alison: We have seen some crazy things.
How do you think someone can break the cycle of feeling like they have no self-confidence, yet they are being told by those around them that they are not good enough?
Jo: Get rid of those people, get them out of your life.
Alison: Change your life around. You have to stay positive, and if those around you are bringing you down that isn’t going to put you in a very good headspace.
Jo: There is a book out there, I can’t remember the name, but it all about discarding the little people. The little people are only in your life for a short amount of time, but they have an influence on you. If people come into your life and they are not positive, leave them by the wayside and keep on walking. Everybody can be a Debby-Downer. The most attractive qualities to me are confidence, positivity, a sense of humour, and the ability to laugh at yourself. You are big for whatever reason, but it doesn’t mean you have to be big and miserable.
Alison: There is a theory behind standing in front of the mirror for two minutes a day and just telling yourself how lovely you are, and yes I deserve it, and yes I can take myself to a happy place, then eventually you will start to believe it.
Jo: Girls that come to us are getting married. So therefore, someone, somewhere, thinks that they are perfect. So those that mind, don’t matter, and those that matter, don’t mind. I would never, ever, let my appearance dictate the way people treat me.
Alison: I have never really lacked confidence or looked down upon myself. But of course I have my moments, every woman does.
Jo: Even if someone is the biggest person we have ever seen, there is always something about somebody that makes them beautiful...