Melissa Chan-Green denounces Louise Wallace's obesity comments, reveals her own body image struggles

AM co-host Melissa Chan-Green has denounced a series of remarks made on live television earlier this week by actor Louise Wallace regarding "fat women", doubling-down that she "strongly" disagrees with Wallace's viewpoint.

Appearing on AM on Wednesday, Wallace - who formerly starred on the reality television show, The Real Housewives of Auckland - courted controversy by claiming "fat women" featuring in fashion campaigns are contributing to the "normalisation" of overweight physiques, suggesting that "distinctly overweight" models could be playing a role in the increasing rates of obesity.

Her comments followed reports this week that Kiwis are now requiring knee surgeries at far younger ages due to a significant increase in the rate of obesity post-COVID-19, with more than a third of New Zealanders now classified as clinically obese, according to body mass index (BMI).

"I think, unfortunately, we have normalised the idea of being overweight. When I was overseas quite recently, you would pass by these huge ads for fashion [brands]... and there would be distinctly overweight women - like, dare I say it, fat women - in these ads, advertising clothes, and that is now seen as normal," said Wallace, who appeared as a guest on AM's daily panel.

"You don't have to be skinny, you just have to be normal. I look at all of us, and we're normal [sized]... You either advertise with people who have what I would see as 'a normal body' - maybe a size 12 or 14. You put a size 18 there and people think that's normal and healthy."

Despite pushing back against Wallace's stance on several occasions, Chan-Green revealed to AM on Friday that she has since been subjected to hurtful backlash online by people who claim she should have done more to challenge the actor. However, she maintained she clearly disputed Wallace's argument and made it evident she strongly disagreed with her views.

"It was a view I didn't agree with, I quite strongly didn't agree with at the time, and I challenged her with a couple of questions during the interview," Chan-Green said on Friday morning. 

"I thought I made it clear, but could I have challenged her even more? Yeah, in hindsight - absolutely. I was probably a bit taken aback at the time."

The actor and director courted controversy earlier this week when she suggested "fat women" appearing in fashion advertising were "normalising" obesity.
The actor and director courted controversy earlier this week when she suggested "fat women" appearing in fashion advertising were "normalising" obesity. Photo credit: AM / Supplied

Speaking to the camera, Chan-Green said she has since received confronting comments on a photo she shared to her social media on Thursday, admitting the backlash "cut deep" as she herself struggled in the past with a negative body image.

"But subsequently, to receive comments yesterday on a picture I posted of my own body, kind of cut deep, because I work in an industry where our looks are commented on constantly," she continued. 

"For many years, my mental health was tied to the number I saw on the scale. In recent years I've done a lot of work to free myself of that. I've had a baby, naturally I've put on weight, and I'm so proud that I no longer feel any pressure to change my weight. I feel more comfortable in my skin than ever before. 

"So I think the suggestion that I condoned remarks like that was far from the truth."

Chiming in, fellow co-host Ryan Bridge noted that Wallace has a "strong opinion" and doesn't have a problem with airing it - but the actor is also "open to hearing other people's opinions and learning from other people as well".

'What she said was her opinion, and to me it was wrong'

Also weighing in on the controversy was retired professional boxer, motivational speaker and Dancing with the Stars New Zealand contestant, Dave 'the Brown Buttabean' Letele.

Appearing on AM following Chan-Green's remarks, Letele admitted that he believed Wallace's viewpoint was wrong - but acknowledged it was still her opinion.

Letele, who was once clinically obese, is also the founder of BBM, a programme centred on reducing obesity amongst Māori and Pacific people in New Zealand through an educational and motivational approach. 

BBM, which runs free boot camps in the community, offers programmes to help people lose weight in a healthy, sustainable way. It also focuses on people who are morbidly obese and suffering with physical and mental illness.

"I'm not here to bash up on her. What she said was her opinion, and to me it was wrong. What we do in BBM is teach health and with that comes positive body image, feeling good about yourself. It's not just about the number on the scale, it's about how you feel up here about yourself and having that good self-esteem," Letele explained.

"Seeing someone that looks like you, whether it's the size or even ethnic background, seeing someone on a billboard or on TV, it's good for you. It's good for our kids to see, it's aspirational. I think her views were just her reality. My reality is that we're helping people who are 300kg with long-term health conditions… there's so much more to it than just being overweight."

Dave Letele working out
Dave Letele, who was once obese, is now helping others to lose weight and overcome their physical and mental conditions. Photo credit: BBM

Chiming in, Chan-Green added that a person's weight and clothing size is not necessarily indicative of their health, noting that people with fuller physiques can be just as healthy, if not healthier, than people with smaller frames.

"Health is not about size or the scales and that's a lesson I had to learn. I've been smaller and I've been bigger but that doesn't mean I was healthier at those different stages."

"One-hundred percent. Look at some of these models - look at bodybuilders. They're at their least healthy when they're on stage," Letele added. 

"They're deprived of food and water, but they look amazing. Then you've got really thin models who are not healthy. You look at the BMI measure, that is so outdated - by BMI, I am morbidly obese."

Bridge noted that not long ago, the fashion industry actively promoted thin, sometimes unhealthily thin models, and introducing more diverse body shapes was a countermovement against years of 'heroin chic' and size zero frames dominating the highly influential space.

"If someone is morbidly obese, if someone is too skinny by society's measure, whatever that is, should they be in advertising? Should they be promoted?" he asked Letele.

"There's no point shaming anyone. Here's the real issue… these fast-food chains and fizzy drink companies are in the most deprived areas, there's no secret… when you're bombarded by it, you've got both parents working two, three jobs, there's no time, what are they going to get? They're not going to go to the supermarket and get a nice, healthy meal and go home and cook," Letele responded.  

"These companies should be made to reinvest into healthy food, to put subsidies on it, and not as a tax - because we'll still buy it. These companies, like pokies, like alcohol, should be made to give back to the communities they're having the biggest impact on."