As a young girl, Sharon Dumas-Pugh was obese, weighing more than 200 pounds. Typically, she was teased by her classmates and skipped school to avoid the name-calling, laughs and glares. She was lonely and her self-esteem plummeted. Ultimately, she got behind in school and had to work harder to keep up.
As an adult, Dumas-Pugh’s outlook on life didn’t change much. She still had low self-esteem and felt that men weren’t interested in her. She tired of being lonely and feeling inadequate. She decided to make a change: She starting selling Mary Kay cosmetics, began playing with makeup and hair, and eventually lost 100 pounds. As she became more confident in her look, Dumas-Pugh decided to share, teach and train others in what she’d learned.
In 1982, she founded the group Full and Fabulous to encourage full-figured women to build their self-esteem and create a better self-image. “I was blessed with ideas for plus-sized women to feel good and confident about themselves,” Dumas-Pugh says. “It’s my purpose. It’s a state of mind, not a dress size.”
In light of her troubled school years, Dumas-Pugh decided to create a group specifically for plus-sized teenagers.
She founded the National Association for Full-Figured Teens in 1986. Dumas-Pugh says chapters sprang up in Atlanta, Ga., and Columbus, Ohio, but died over the years. She says she’s recently received calls from people in Florida and Minnesota who are interested in starting their own chapter. The Detroit chapter, Teens at Large, promotes self-esteem, healthy living and eating, etiquette and exercise. For $5 a week, participants learn to dance (ballroom and hustle), bowl, skate or participate in the step or cheer teams, which appear at church and community organizations. There’s a free debutante ball each spring, where the teens perform in a choreographed opening number, listen to speakers and participate in a mother-daughter fashion show. There’s even a summer camp with tennis lessons, swimming and educational lectures (Detroit Health Department representatives come to talk about human sexuality and STDs).
Being a part of the program has made a difference for Tiffany Colson, who’s been enrolled for two years. “When I meet people, I introduce myself with a positive adjective for every letter in my name,” says the 12-year-old student from Detroit. “Hi, I’m Tiffany. I’m T-talented, I-interesting, F-funny, F-friendly, A-artistic, N-nice and Y-young,” she says.
Colson’s mother has noticed a significant change in her daughter. “Her grades improved,” Cynthia Rayner says. “She gets the word out to other plus-sized teens and brought a lot of them on board. She’s been helping out a lot of the girls. Her attitude’s great. She used to have a terrible one. She’s got a lot more confidence.”
In 2004, Dumas-Pugh decided to take things one step further, and founded the Plus Size Michigan Idol contest. On a cold December Saturday, women are gathered inside the basement of an old hospital on the East Side of Detroit, anxiously awaiting their audition. A makeshift stage and runway are set up along the far wall, and a couple of Teens at Large members are sitting in the audience. First to audition is singer Elicia Batties-Charnoske. She belts out a spine-tingling rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” She came prepared to sing only one song, but chants of encore prompted her to select and perform another one, a gospel number, of course.
Kandace Makuannen, a Wayne State communications graduate, came to try out her modeling skills; she says her experience was so positive that she plans to keep up with the organization, even if she doesn’t win.
Nikkia Tisaby modeled for Kmart during her preteen years, attended modeling school and knows “the walk.” However, as she gained weight, she lost her confidence. She came to boost her self-esteem — and to win (after all, it’s still a contest).
All three women will continue on to the 11th annual Health, Beauty and Self-Esteem Expo, held this weekend in Southfield. One top winner in each category will receive $500 cash, a professional photo portfolio and a professional stylist for the photo shoot. The winners will tour and perform on weekends at other expos in Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The Detroit expo will feature special activities for kids, cooking demonstrations, free makeovers, hair, fashion and bridal shows, aerobic demonstrations and guest speakers.
Through her efforts, Dumas-Pugh has had a profound impact on many women. Indi Ellington, who was enrolled in Full and Fabulous, moved on to become became associate director of the group in 1995.
“I’ve never told Sharon this. She’s been my mentor and helped build my self-esteem. I thought I was ugly and fat,” Ellington says with tears in her eyes. “Full and Fabulous helped me feel confident about myself. Now I am married with three kids. I was a single parent on welfare for years. She helped me; now I just want to help others.”
The 11th Annual Health, Beauty and Self-Esteem Expo is Jan. 28-30 at the Southfield Pavilion (26000 Evergreen Rd., Southfield), 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon-6 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $10 and are available from Ticketmaster or at the door. Rhona A. Mays is an editorial intern at Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]