People are concerned – so very, deeply, concerned – that Tess Holliday is going to make you fat. They are so very worried that, in appearing in a swimsuit on the cover of this month’s British edition of Cosmopolitan, the American, size 26 model and author is promoting, even glorifying, as unhealthy an ideal as a size-zero colleague. In taking the spotlight, they believe that Holliday is effectively telling you to reach for another Walkers Grab Bag and not stop until you need to be bed-bathed. There will be blood, and grease, on the editor of Cosmopolitan’s hands.
Naturally, self-appointed women’s body-shape commentator Piers Morgan was among the most troubled and yet he seemingly spoke for many, including a number of high-profile women either unacquainted with, or untroubled by, the facts. A recent post of the cover (over 15,000 likes and climbing) on his Instagram account was captioned with the words: “As Britain battles an ever worsening obesity crisis, this is the new cover of Cosmo. Apparently we’re supposed to view it as ‘a huge step forward for body positivity’. What a load of baloney.”
He and his many supporters are technically right. We are in the midst of an obesity crisis. One in five children enters school overweight. By the time primary school ends, that figure has risen to a third. Two-thirds of adults are overweight. At this rate, we will only become heavier. And, while at the other end of the scale, there is also a very real and disturbing rise in anorexia and bulimia, overweight people still vastly outnumber their underweight peers.
But the clue is very much in Morgan’s caption. To say that promoting only slimness, ignoring fatness, disallowing women over a size 10 any kind of positive public profile hasn’t worked would be a gross and demonstrable understatement. Our culture continuously tells people they’re too fat and our population just gets fatter. Every social advantage and incentive is afforded the slim. We’re told every day that thin people are happier, more successful, richer, sexier, healthier, better dressed, more comfortable, more welcome than the overweight, and how do we collectively respond? By piling on the pounds. Even if manners and basic kindness are irrelevant to the weight crusaders so panicked by our ill-health, the cold hard fact is that telling people they’re too fat to be seen has failed on an epic scale.
What if we, say, stopped slating big women, vilifying plus-size models, suspiciously eyeing the shopping baskets of overweight Britons, and instead, for once, acknowledge that our approach is not working and it may be time to change tack? How about we stop describing women’s bodies to them whenever they have the audacity to show them? How about we stop cheerfully blurting out, “Eat less, move more!” as though no one over 10st had ever considered this radical notion? What if we stopped treating the majority of women like some dirty secret too dangerous for public consumption? Maybe, just maybe, acceptance will breed body positivity and good health in the way negativity has, quite spectacularly, not.
Maybe, just maybe, acceptance will breed body positivity and good health in the way negativity has, quite spectacularly, not
When experts and the broader population now accept that the cultural pressure to be thin can trigger eating disorders in the already mentally vulnerable, it’s baffling as to why it’s so hard for us to imagine that the same pressure and messaging can also contribute to disordered overeating. It is illogical to expect a culture of body shame to foster anyone’s respectful relationship with their body. Telling people – especially women – that they have every reason to hate their larger bodies hardly makes it tempting to pull on some Lycra to let gym-goers to have a pop, too. Anxiety and self-loathing breed neither confidence nor motivation in anyone.
Unless, of course, no one is really worried about the unknowable health of Tess Holliday, nor about the health of any overweight or underweight person outside of their immediate circle. The likely and uncomfortable truth is that people are unhappy that she’s seemingly happy and successful when she visibly has no right be. Look at any Instagram post of any large woman and see classic mass-trolling hidden behind a smokescreen of head-tilted concern. It’s more socially acceptable to be insulting about someone’s body when you say it comes from a good place. But this is as disingenuous as the belief that crashing into someone’s nice day to tell them their body is revolting, unhelpful or unhealthy is somehow going to make them feel good enough to suddenly change their lifestyle. There is no justifiable reason why large women should be invisible in the media they consume, in the glossy advertising that chases their dollar as much as anyone else’s. Let’s own it, not pretend to be dealing in health when we are dealing purely in aesthetics.
Besides, comparing Tess Holliday, one large woman on one magazine cover in a world in which we are fed a daily diet of imagery of thin women, is false equivalence on a laughable scale. There is a huge difference between normalising obesity and simply humanising it. Tess Holliday’s weight is not typical or mainstream, and her role is not as a preacher or enabler. Apart from it being inconceivable that a young woman would look at another and suddenly decide to become obese, Holliday is not telling you or anyone else to look like her, live like her or, in fact, do anything at all. She is merely existing without apology, refusing to hide herself away to make us feel better, to bow to the trolls, at whatever cost to her personally.
Looking at Tess Holliday doesn’t make me want to gain weight, but she does make me feel a damn sight less anxious and self-critical than some clean-eating influencer peddling an eating disorder as “wellness” on Instagram. Is there a middle ground, where average-sized, healthy women – from sizes, say, 12-18 – are celebrated? Certainly. But the way to foster and encourage that cultural shift is not by being prescriptive and exclusive about the shape and size of a woman’s body – Tess Holliday’s, yours or mine. It surely begins with the acknowledgement that beauty, aspiration, success and joy come in different packages. That all women matter, that all of us are worthy of respect.
Until then, let’s not convince ourselves that we are part of the solution by claiming it’s not mental ill-health, poverty, the loss of cooking skills, advertising, the easy and cheap availability of high-sugar convenience foods, the selling of school playing fields, the eating of chips, pies or any of the other proven factors contributing to obesity that make us, as a population, overweight. Let’s not refuse to join the dots between the vilification of large people that’s existed in our media since we can all remember, or its escalation since the social-media revolution, or our sedentary lives spent staring at smartphones. Let’s not play along with the ludicrous notion that a rise in obesity can be caused by one woman, on one magazine, saying, “I am here, I am alive, I am happy and you cannot break me with unkindness”. Because it doesn’t take a genius to see that this reductive, simplistic, lazy and more convenient argument is a big, fat lie.