more than a fashion show

By Vanessa Gordon

"Speak to your body in a loving way. It's the only one you've got, it's your home, and it deserves your respect." - Iskra Lawrence

Body image has been a personal battle for me.

The first time I felt discomfort in my skin was on the first day of the second grade. My father and I were migrating from Papua New Guinea to Hawaii via Brisbane Australia we had a six-month stopover in the sunshine state which meant I had to go to school.

In my seven-year-old mind, I thought going to school in Australia would be like having storytime with Noni from Playschool.

I was so excited. However, by little lunch, my spirit was crushed. I felt so out of place.

I had spent the morning answering ignorant questions like:

Why is your hair like that?

Can I touch your hair?

Can you speak English?

I was so different looking and sounded different.

I was so much taller than the other students.

I was awkward.

It was 1982 times were different.

I was different.

I wasn't like the other little girls. They had shiny long hair with ribbons and pigtails I had a knotty afro and spoke broken English with a lisp.

This is how the battle began, the early eighties in Brisbane Australia.

I have since migrated from Australia to America back to Papua New Guinea and back to Australia living in the same place that introduced me to my first serving of self-consciousness and body shame.

Brisbane is home now and I I still get the odd question about my hair and the answer is still the same - no you cannot touch it.

But I'm no longer the only "different" looking person in the room. We are all beautifully different.

The representation of people of colour is noticeable.

I recently attended an event here in Brisbane that celebrated this beautiful representation of colour and diversity and that was the Pacific Fashion Festival.

The festival has had astounding reviews for its sixth year in a row. The managing committee thrive to "create a cultural spectacle of art exchanged through fashion created by the people for the people to enable and inspire Pacific women, men, and youth to share their talents in a space created for them whilst giving them exposure to the greater community"

They successfully achieve a spectacular show each year and each year the show is bigger and better.

This year's theme was Natula, which is the Tuvaluan word for natural.

The lights dim and the show starts. Drums start drumming dancers start dancing and the crowd starts cheering.

I'm sitting in the audience looking up at the models on the catwalk.

My inner seven-year-old child spirit isn't crushed and forced to feel ashamed and awkward for looking different instead it is awakened, excited and proud to witness the beauty and vibrancy of diverse women.

Diversity celebrated.

Natural beauty celebrated.

Models were different shades of colour, different shapes, different ages, different backgrounds, models that speak different languages, different dialects, and have different stories.

Even the audience was a colourful display of diversity.

All so different but gathered for one purpose.

Besides the display of fashion and the incredible works of designers from all over Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and the Pacific there is so much more to this fashion festival and that is its goal is to inspire Pacific women to start their own businesses in fashion, beauty and design and use this platform to raise awareness for the issue of family and domestic violence in the region.

PFF is a self-sustainable organisation and each year they donate to organisations that respond to violence against women, children and families in the Pacific. This year the PFF donated to Femli PNG in Papua New Guinea, based in Lae and Port Moresby Femli PNG is a local NGO that runs case management centresto assist survivors of family and sexual violence.

This year the PFF also worked with a not-for-profit Brisbane based organisation The Centre for Women & Co that specialise in DV and women's support service in Logan, Beenleigh, and Redlands Bay area.

Founder and Managing Director, Cassaundra Rangip is passionate about community development of the Pacific to include Polynesian, Melanesian, Micronesian and Australasian (Maori, Indigenous and Torres Strait Island Groups). Her opening speech stressed the importance of economic empowerment and that it cannot exist without social empowerment – a consciousness that family and domestic violence is the greatest hindrance to development within the region. She also highlighted the use of the platform was to encourage women in business,create safe spaces for young people to express themselves creatively, to promote gender equity in the Pacific, to promote Pacific products and businesses and to promote diversity and multiculturalism.

This year's keynote speaker Elaine Lees founder of Ahuatanga, author, motivational speaker and domestic and family violence survivor shared her personal story and encouraged women to reclaim our natural birth right of "Mana Wahine" This is a Maori term Mana meaning power and Wahine meaning woman.

Elaine reminded me that there is power in womanhood.

She spoke about her book Emerging from the Shadows and her journey from fear to freedom. The abuse had robbed her of her mana the violence had taken away her power. She reaffirmed how sacred we are as women and how violence against our women turns sacred women into scared women.

Not a dry eye in the house when Ms. Lees used the analogy of weaving to reclaim her mana. Strand by strand she started to weave self-love back into her life.

The PFF President Erue Taunao wrapped up the event sharing her gratitude for the phenomenal team behind the scenes that are passionate and dedicated to the movement. The designers, the models, the makeup artists, the photographers, videographers, back-of-house crew, the cultural team the support team and the mana wahine that sit on the board of the PFF.

In the islands, we say "it takes a village" it really did take a village to create and execute another successful festival.

For me, the Pacific Fashion Festival is much more than a fashion show.

Violence is the biggest setback and hindrance in the development of any society. Sadly the Pacific region has high statistics of Violence against Women (VAW) and Violence Against Children (VAC).

I have been a victim of both physical and emotional abuse. I let someone take my power away from me and I have spent almost twenty years reclaiming my own mana.

So an event like the PFF means more to me than just a day out.

It means that my attendance will help raise money towards supporting organisations that could save a life.

The Pacific Fashion Festival is a movement.

It moves us to make a change.

Listening to Ms. Lees I wondered how many men and women in the audience contemplated how they can regain their power and mana, how will they contribute to ending violence and the silence within our communities?

How can we as a collective group of people help rehabilitate our scared women and transform them into their true form, as sacred women?

It is much more than a fashion show.

Thank you again Pacific Fashion Festival for fighting stigmas, raising awareness, sharing stories, restoring, showcasing and respecting cultural identity, encouraging positive body image, and for continuing to work towards a safer place for women in children.