In Callie De Wind’s family, confidence is passed down like an heirloom. Her mother, a former stewardess with Malaysia Airlines, was beyond uptown chic. The trademark kebaya took her places, just as how every click of her heels expanded the parameters of her world. She was, as a 1990s kid would say, “so fly”, and this self-assuredness gave the young De Wind wings. Through mum, she learnt that clothes connote persona, while closets are reconceived as repositories of potential and dreams. “She makes me feel that anything is possible,” De Wind proudly announces.
A high-flyer she might have been, but De Wind’s mother understood the elusive balance of indulgence and firmness that constituted the making of a great parent. She knew when comfort and candy were in order, or when they should be withheld. She also knew how to untie the apron strings and let her children roll with the punches or have fun. “When I was seven, my mother dropped me off at my grandparents’ house once and left me a red lipstick to play with. Trust me, I had a blast,” says De Wind, who is the youngest of four siblings.
Not every little girl takes in herself like how De Wind embraces the princess who stared back at her in the mirror. Colourism and prejudice were still daunting foes to even the cheeriest teenager, but it took a family and a strong band of friends to convince her that real beauty is not only physical. Now 26, old enough to remember when magazine pages and runways were graced by a gaggle of models who were uniformly tall and thin, she stands for a generation of women who reject their bodies from being numerically labelled. So, who gets to be beautiful? Those who believe themselves to be so, for sure, judging from the way De Wind flitted effortlessly between soigné Parisian and grungy denim on set.
The spirited lass is not only doing all the right things to celebrate one’s genetics; she is saying them too. “Body positivity is severely lacking in Asia, and I feel we don’t talk about that enough in this part of the world because we’re still quite conservative. Depending on our skin colour, we’re still expected to behave or dress a certain way,” asserts De Wind, who represented Malaysia as a plus-size candidate in the Make Me A Zalora Model Cycle 4 contest in 2019. She emerged a semi-finalist among other models from Southeast Asia.
A word about the term “plus-size” though: De Wind finds the nature of the catch-all phrase somewhat alienating, especially when retailers tend to group a majority of shoppers by giving them the minority of the merchandise. “Fashion is fashion, models are models. You don’t tell curvier girls they’re being accepted and then assign them to boxes.” De Wind’s argument makes one wonder — if Gigi Hadid is not known as a “lean” supermodel, why should Ashley Graham, Precious Lee and Yumi Nu be labelled as “plus-size” figures? After all, women’s bodies should not be treated as problems to be solved.
After quitting her stint as head chef of a local resort to join celebrity chef Ili Sulaiman as a personal assistant in 2018, De Wind did not think she would make a sobering impression on girls, let alone become a role model who, instead of showing others how to be like her, uses her freedom to demonstrate that it is safe to be themselves. “People would DM me via Instagram about their worries, and it is good to be able to offer advice or comfort to those who feel insecure about themselves, as if we are a part of a community,” says the fashion design graduate, who also models part-time for brands such as Zalora and Melaka-based Curva Fabulous.
However, even in this era of supposed self-acceptance, societal expectations still prey on our vulnerabilities, reflecting all the ways we do not measure up. The undue burden placed on women to maintain their appearance and attractiveness takes a toll on their mental health as they are expected to practise femininity and feminism at once.
“People have said mean things, like how I am chubby or have wide hips, and that makes it difficult for them to find clothes for me. Even if they want to feature a plus-size model, they want a plus-size model of a certain look, height or proportion. At a photoshoot once, the staff found clothes that were smaller than my size even though I had given them my measurements prior, and still made me feel bad about it. I felt terrible after that, and it shattered my confidence. Sometimes, I ask myself if it’s worth being scrutinised and feeling like this?”
But De Wind was not going to let others size her up. When the road got tough, she went the extra mile at her modelling gigs or sweated it out by doing lifts at the gym. Real queens fix each other’s crowns so, she drew strength from empowering allies and idols, be it her friend Nalisa Alia Amin (who also smashed boundaries as the first plus-size model to open KL Fashion Week) or the well-endowed American model Tara Lynn, a mother of two who posed for Sports Illustrated when she was 36 and most recently Elle Spain.
De Wind is looking forward to the day when diverse representation will not even need to be discussed; when women need not be tokenised to feel normalised. As much as she aspires to carve out a modelling career in New York and Chicago, where the conversations on body confidence is being included in the mainstream narrative, she hopes that she can open more doors for others and make a mark on her home soil first by walking for KL Fashion Week in some of her favourite labels such as Alia Bastamam and Nurita Harith.
That said, bigger changes and commitments also need to happen behind the scenes, with brands, retailers and modelling agencies striving to eliminate some of the industry’s toughest blind spots — dowdy ideals of beauty and sartorial hierarchies — and build the kind of fashion that includes and inspires. Focus not on the shape of your body but the size of your heart, De Wind’s pictures seem to tell us.
“You are your own person. Don’t be afraid to do what you want,” she echoes, with a huge smile etched on those bright red lips.
Artistic direction Joanne Lim
Photographer Shawn Lor/ Blueprint Design & Studio
Hair Steve Wong/176 Avenue
Makeup Kristal Lee, using YSL Beaute
Coordination Diana Khoo
Wardrobe Ms Read
This article first appeared on Apr 25, 2022 (Spring/Summer 2022 issue) of The Edge Malaysia.