Indonesian culture, like much of the rest of the world, imposes unrealistic beauty standards on women through advertising and fashion. In Bali, the pressure to adhere to these standards is amplified by the concentration of fitness fanatics who take every opportunity to show off their sculpted beach bods in public and online.
For 28-year-old Chandra Dewi, affectionately nicknamed Gung Gek, the pressure to not be plus-sized initially brought her down into a deep, dark abyss of depression. But she eventually learned to embrace her own beauty, which led her creating a business based around giving other plus-size ladies in Bali a way to show off their curves and celebrate themselves.
By launching a clothing line catering to heavy-set women and, eventually, an agency specifically for plus-size models, Gung Gek’s inspirational journey to self-acceptance has not only helped herself but many more who found themselves mired in destructive thoughts about their body image.
With all the Instagram fitness models roaming around Bali, it’s truly refreshing to see Gung Gek and her models begin to take the spotlight. We recently spoke with the woman herself to learn about her motivations, struggles, and hope for an industry that remains largely hostile to certain body types.
The interview below was translated from Indonesian and has been edited for clarity.
Can you tell us about your experience with issues related to body positivity?
I became familiar with the term “body positivity” in 2017. However, I started the plus-size modeling agency and the clothing line before that, in 2016. I only started learning about body positivity issues in recent years. It’s all about how we can accept whatever body shape, skin color, and hair type we have.
Of the 13 models who are currently signed to my agency, half of them have attempted suicide at some point of their lives.”
gUNG GEK, OWNER OF GUNG GEK MANAGEMENT, A PLUS-SIZE MODELING AGENCY
How did you get the idea to start your modeling agency?
It actually started with me designing clothes for myself. I was a big girl myself, weighing around 95 kilograms at one point, although I was skinny before. In 2016, it was difficult to find clothes for big-sized people in Indonesia. Only recently there have been more and more people showing up and proudly presenting themselves thanks to body positivity. But before that, fat people were still ostracized.
The establishment of the plus-size modeling agency began because I found it difficult to find plus-size models for my clothing line, Gung Gek Gung Gek, which I began in 2017. So in 2019, I did a talent search as a follow-up for that clothing line, specifically looking for plus-size models for my own brand.
In 2021, I officially opened Gung Gek Management to cater to plus-size models.
Did you sign a lot of plus-size models right away? What are the criteria for models to join your agency?
In 2019, 172 people auditioned – perhaps because it was free. We asked them to send us clear pictures from the front and sides. The photos needed to be clear. Afterward, we selected some models for the interview to check whether they were actually plus-size or not (the minimum weight to be a plus-size model is 75 kilograms but there were auditionees who weighed less than that).
We gave them a one-month program that included classes such as makeup and posing workshops. Out of the 172 people, we selected 12 models for our body positivity campaign in which we shot video of them modeling out on the streets of Denpasar.
Three out of the 12 selected models from the 2019 talent search stayed with me so I began the plus-size modeling agency in 2021. I also recruited two other models that I previously hired for my own clothing line campaign.
Currently, we have 13 models under Gung Gek Plus-Size Modeling Management.
As for the criteria, models signed with us must be between 22 and 45 years old, possess a good attitude and have good time management skills (being a model is not a full-time job so they must have another job and thus time management is crucial). And, of course, a willingness to learn and develop themselves.
Do your models get a lot of bookings?
Of course they do. Because brands that cater to plus-size are only now getting the spotlight. So there is a lot of work to be done. There are several campaigns, including makeup lines. Gung Gek Agency recently worked with MS Glow and Make Over, as well as other collaborations.
Do you feel accepted in Bali, which is known for its fitness scene? We notice there is a burgeoning amount of Insta models and influencers in Canggu, for example. Have you ever experienced bullying or any negative reactions?
We actually feel more comfortable in Canggu because we – my models and I – see Canggu as a place where the people are more open-minded in comparison to Denpasar and Sanur. None of the bullying or catcalling happens to us [in Canggu]. Whenever we participate in events in Canggu, Kuta, and Seminyak, we rarely experience harassment.
Tell us about the reactions that you have been receiving so far
Naturally, I have received both positive and negative reactions. [My brand] went viral because of negative comments. The negative comments are mostly toward our bodies and because we have the nerve to show off our curves and wear whatever we want, like, “Hey! Look at me! I’m big and I wear this.”
On the other hand, there are also people who appreciate our confidence. I would say most of the comments are actually positive, albeit we do receive a handful of negative comments.
What’s been the most memorable experience that you’ve had in building your agency?
Of the 13 models who are currently signed to my agency, half of them have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Here, in this agency, they found a place where they can feel comfortable in their own skin. Some of them were initially afraid to reveal their actual names because they didn’t feel that the beauty of their names matched their appearances. However, in Gung Gek Management, they joined our modeling, confidence-building, and make-up classes. We build their confidence and talents as well so they do not feel inferior to people who are not plus-size.
Do you think Indonesian culture will eventually accept that big can be beautiful?
Although it is possible, it is going to be very difficult. Even for me in Bali, I find it difficult [to see body acceptance] based on my Instagram and Tikok audience, who mostly leave negative comments. However, there are still positive comments that support us. It is still possible, although it will be slow because of our culture. Perhaps because the standards of beauty are still based on the pageants. Sometimes I am disappointed because there is Miss Indonesia, Miss Transgender, but why isn’t there Miss Plus-Size Indonesia? The standard [for beauty] is that you have to be thin.
I’m curious – so far, I see all of your models are women. Do you think there will be male plus-size models as well? Because right now the trend is that male models have to be ripped.
There should be, actually! There are people with “dad bods” with big bellies, so there should be plus-size male models [to represent them] as well. But maybe currently there is no demand for them and no agency looking to sign them. As for brands, I currently have a plan for that because I realize that big-size clothing for men does not come by easily. I haven’t thought about it that far in the future but I think certain collaborations, such as pairing big guys with [our] models for fashion shows, would be good!
*All photos are provided by Gung Gek