As a child, Hunter Athena wanted to be a performer – or, more specifically, a model or actor for Disney.
“That was one of my biggest dreams growing up because I wanted to be famous. But there was no such thing as plus-sized models. Those people existed. they just weren’t allowed to model,”Athena says.
Athena also had very little experience with plus-sized clothes. It wasn’t until they moved to the States at the age of 18 that they were truly able to get a taste of fashion beyond the “granny clothes”at Penningtons.
“I remember walking into Forever 21 and finding this whole plus-size section,”Athena recalls.
“I swear I dropped $200 that day.”
Playing with makeup and fashion was something that gave Athena the confidence they needed to get in front of the camera when they moved back to Calgary four years later.
“I see all these other people that break out into the plus-size modelling world. And, I still don’t see disabled bodies that are fat and doing that. I see disabled trans activists and they’re models, and they’re breaking down those barriers. But they’re all thin and they’re all white. And there’s no diversity in that.”
Determined to change that, Athena started their Instagram account @prairie.queer in January 2018.
Armed with their cellphone and a portable tripod purchased from Amazon, Athena set out to the nearest bus stop and took what would be their first Instagram post. But it wouldn’t be their last.
Since then, the non-binary, disabled, plus-sized 23-year- old has pursued their dream of becoming a model while advocating for fat acceptance along the way.
A key stepping-stone in Athena’s modelling journey was coming to terms with their gender identity.
At the age of 14, Athena attended Camp fYrefly, a leadership retreat for youth who are queer or trans or who have parents that are queer or trans.
Athena had recently come out as bisexual and has a transgender father. But there had been little talk of what lay between cis and trans on the gender spectrum in their family.
Athena came home after that summer and immediately got a “queer haircut” and performed in their first drag number. It wasn’t long after that Athena began to identify as a trans man. “I was like, ‘I really don’t feel like a girl. But the only other option is being a boy.’”
Modelling at the midway. Photo courtesy of Hunter Athena
After two years though, even that didn’t sit quite right with Athena.
“I kind of went back and forth between either displaying as a boy or a girl.”
It wasn’t until Athena moved to the States that they learned about what it means to be non-binary. At this time, Athena was still constantly being referred to as a girl, something they put up with, despite their discomfort.
“I didn’t really say anything because I didn’t know how to say anything,”they admit.
But, upon returning to Canada four years ago, Athena had had enough.
“It’s they/them or death,”they say with a laugh.“That’s when I started saying,‘No, I’m non-binary.’I started asserting myself, I came out officially and I stopped waffling so much.”
No longer suffocated by unfit labels, Athena began to explore their newfound confidence in the world of makeup and fashion. It was a change from their life as a trans man when Athena was constantly trying to cover-up.
“I like a masculine aesthetic but I don’t like it when I’m trying to hide.”
One of their favourite looks today is a chest binder with a button-down shirt and a skirt.
“I’m excited to start playing with some gender fuckery for my content.”
Another thing Athena hopes to utilize in their modelling is their mobility aids.
Athena has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which means their body doesn’t produce collagen or even know what it is. While that disorder allows Athena to bend their joints at impressive angles, they also become hyper-extended, which can lead to dislocations and breaks. That means they have to take extreme care when navigating icy Calgary winters.
“As a fat person I experience a lot of hate. Everyone wants to play doctor.”
“I’ve crossed the street and had my ankle just hyperextend and sprain randomly. I have no control over my body a lot, which is really weird and foreign. It’s really scary when you have no idea what your body can do next.”
To combat hyperextension, Athena is equipped with a pair of leg braces. When they participated in a 2019 fashion show, designer Jason Way came up with the idea to make those braces into art.
He wove a fake vine through them, garnishing each with red roses. Athena walked down the runway in a moment they described as “beautiful.”
However, Athena hasn’t repeated that moment because no shoe properly fits their braces. And, while Athena could switch to knee braces, those would require a referral from an orthopedic surgeon or cost a flat rate of roughly $5,000 apiece. A referral would be simple enough. But there is something standing in the way:
“My family doctor is worried about the orthotics surgeon wanting to prescribe weight loss.”
Whether Athena loses weight or not, the fact of the matter is that their body still won’t produce collagen. Moreover, such a prescription is something of a double-edged sword: Athena needs knee braces in order to physically be able to work-out.
Unfortunately, these types of medical barriers aren’t rare for fat people. In fact, Athena is hesitant to talk about the specificities of their disability due to the possibility of backlash and unsolicited observations.
“As a fat person I experience a lot of hate. Everyone wants to play doctor.”
By referring to themselves as simply “disabled” rather than as someone who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Athena is able to cut back on a lot of hurtful comments.
But, even offline, Athena still has to deal with the ramifications of their weight.
“The world is not made for fat people,”as Athena puts it.
They require a seatbelt extender.They do not sit comfortably on airplanes or busses. They even have to go all the way to Sunridge Mall to find a movie theatre with large enough seats. And it is for these reasons that Athena advocates for fat liberation rather than just body positivity.
“You need to learn body positivity to reach out and love yourself,” they explain. “But I think you need to push that
envelope even further. I want you to fight for other people. I think that you should use your privileges, if you have them, to help pave the way for bodies that don’t have the same privileges.”
“You might hate your body or dislike it. But you have medical access. You can sit on a plane, train, bus, car just fine.”
All people, regardless of weight, have the power to be allies for others, they add.
“Allies should hold up the ladder for you to climb up and yell if they see the cops. They’re not supposed to speak for you. They’re going to stand up to oppression when they see it. And that’s really huge.”
While continuing to be an advocate for fat acceptance, Athena is also promoting the change they wish to see by planning to produce their own “all-fats, femmes and thems” drag and burlesque performance later this year.
“We want to show off our sexy bodies to perform. Fat bodies deserve to be on stage just as much as everyone else.” And these shows aren’t the only big changes on the horizon for Athena. They’ve recently been signed to Zebedee Management, an agency that specifically seeks out models with disabilities and has photographed advertisements for major businesses such as Target and Disney.
Moreover, Athena’s presence in the industry is already opening doors for more diversity.
Last March, Athena was shooting some pictures in Kensington on a beautiful spring day. A professional photographer, Rosie Lee, was also in the area shooting another model.
Athena had just ordered an Uber when they were approached by the photographer.
“She was like, ‘Can you wait?’I need to shoot you.”
Athena recalls that the photographer hadn’t had any experience shooting non-binary or disabled people up until then.
“She was like, ‘I want to shoot more disabled bodies and gender non-conforming bodies. Do you know any that would be interested in modelling?’”
Athena was able to get several of their non-conforming friends in front of the camera and will be shooting with Lee later this year in a“glam mermaid”and a“sea witch”look.
Athena is hopeful those shots will wind up in a magazine, along with any shoots they get from their agency.
Though Athena has faced many obstacles on the journey of following their dreams, they remain hopeful about the future of modelling and for others like them.
“We are on the tip of an iceberg. We are changing the face of couture. We are changing the world right now, and it’s huge.”
Athena in a power chair at the zoo. Photo courtesy of Hunter Athena