The importance of plus-size model Tess Holliday’s Cosmopolitan cover

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Plus-size model Tess Holliday is the cover model for Cosmopolitan UK’s October issue, a milestone in the body-positive movement for which many people have expressed support. Others, however, are not happy. British TV personality Piers Morgan, for example, spoke out against Tess Holliday’s cover, claiming that supporting it “is just as dangerous and misguided as celebrating size-zero models.” Cosmo UK editor Farrah Storr clapped back in defense of the cover, stating, “This is one cover, which has a larger lady on the cover, in a sea, in a world, in a culture which has venerated — since I can remember — thinness.” This exchange was just the tip of the iceberg of a larger debate over the current status of our society’s beauty standards and how body image is portrayed in the media.

Storr’s point about the modelling industry’s historic lack of representation of larger bodies is based in fact. For years, advertisements and the media have reinforced unrealistic standards of beauty for women. It’s been well documented that the vast majority of images in the media are airbrushed and digitally enhanced to make the models look inhumanly perfect. A study by Dove found that two-thirds of women felt inadequate as a result of images of models on magazine covers. These are exactly the reactions the beauty industry hopes for, as they’re crucial to helping the beauty industry make close to $450 billion annually. Promoting an unattainable body image encourages women to continue to spend their money to buy products supposedly designed to help them reach that particular aesthetic.

In recent years, however, plus-size models have become more accepted and employed by the fashion and media industries than perhaps ever before. Models like Holliday herself started to gain attention and followers on social media in recent years by calling for, and offering more varied depictions of, women with diverse bodies. A number of plus-size models launched social media hashtags to make their own missions into a wider movement — Holliday herself started a viral hashtag called #EffYourBeautyStandards. The plus-size model movement was notably born in the context of an era in which other online campaigns highlighting the need for diversity in many different industries gained traction as well. For example, at around the same time, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign targeted the lack of diversity in the film industry.

But despite this growing acceptance, plenty of plus-size models still face vicious backlash, especially in the form of some people’s argument that the representation of average women, and the attempt to empower them to love their curves and cellulite, is actually a negative promotion of unhealthiness. This claim, however, fails to recognize the research that shows obesity is not necessarily an automatic indication of being unhealthy. For example, Everything you know about obesity is wrong, a recent feature published by HuffPost, reports that health and weight are not always synonymous to each other; one cannot judge whether or not a person is healthy based on their weight alone. While measurements like BMI have long been considered standard metric for determining health, more current studies show that factors like blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels are actually more accurate measurements of whether or not someone is at risk of heart disease, diabetes, and strokes.

The fact is, these critics do not understand that plus-size models are not promoting the notion that people should be any particular size, but rather attempt to promote positive body image at any size. Models like Tess Holliday and other players in the body positivity movement promote self love and self acceptance, putting a spotlight on how damaging fat shaming can be in doing so. In fact, what those concerned about the health consequences of obesity often fail to acknowledge is that fat-shaming can often lead to negative health effects, too, like depression and eating disorders.

While the rise of plus-size models is a great start towards progress, this recent backlash to Holliday’s magazine cover proves that we still need to do more to make our society’s beauty standards more inclusive. First, women need to continue to take back the way our bodies are represented by the media industry despite the backlash we still face when we do so. We need not only more amazing, beautiful women like Tess Holliday, but also women in high positions in the media, like Farrah Storr, who refuse to conform to the idea that only certain kinds of bodies should be featured on magazine covers. And no matter whether they are plus size or not, all women should support plus-size women working hard to change the toxic cultural norms about the  way we women should look.

More articles by Category: Body image and body standards, Media
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Margaret Mandeya
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