“Promoting obesity” may just be one of the biggest moral panics of our time. Tess Holliday, a plus size model and advocate for body positivity, was recently featured on the front cover of Cosmopolitan – a first for a woman who is a UK size 24. While for some this was a triumph for diversity and acceptance of women of all sizes, it seemed that for many, this was a calculated move driven by the “plus-size agenda,” promoting a dangerously high BMI in the name of tolerance. The fire and brimstone reaction of disgust that exploded after the cover was released really said it all. From the outright abusive responses sent to Holliday herself, to the “concern trolls” – those suddenly claiming to be so worried about Holliday’s health despite not even knowing her, and that this cover would cause others to feel complacent in their own unhealthy lifestyles – it is evident that people are still fundamentally uncomfortable with fat people simply existing.
One thing that felt especially sinister about this reaction was the underlying disdain for overweight and obese people that the droves of unqualified online health and wellbeing crusaders expressed in their responses. “If we put an anorexic girl on the cover of Cosmopolitan,” one full-time model, Ianthe Rose, elaborated on twitter, “there would be outrage […] when will the industry start promoting healthy bodies instead of extremes”? However, this simply is not true: the modelling industry is ravaged by disordered eating, and 31% of high fashion models have reported suffering from anorexia and/or bulimia. Many of these models land deals with Vogue and other popular fashion magazines.
31% of high fashion models have reported suffering from anorexia and/or bulimia
The media is littered with images of dangerously thin bodies and many magazines promote disordered eating methods to lose weight, so it is extremely disingenuous to equate one cover featuring an obese woman to decades and decades of subliminal promotion of harmful dieting behaviour and slogans such as “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” (courtesy of the heroin chic icon, Kate Moss). The equivalent would be headlines such as “try this new diet plan to INSTANTLY put on 200lb!” and “get beach-body ready by sharply increasing your calorific intake!” Except when does that ever happen? I think we all know the answer.
The real irony is that this sudden outcry about how harmful obesity is to the body does not hold any weight (pardon the pun) behind it when people go out of their way to crucify overweight and obese women for existing in a public sphere, while ignoring thin people who lead extremely unhealthy lifestyles yet do not face criticism due to their high metabolisms. Let’s bring back Kate Moss for a second – she was, quite literally, the face of a trend called “heroin chic.” This issue is split down gender lines too – James Corden and Rick Ross, two overweight men, have also featured on the cover of Cosmo. Was there such a furore in the 90s about the impact Moss’ heroin usage would have on her extremely thin body, and on her audience for “promoting drug use?” Did people have this same furious energy for the fat men on the cover of Cosmo? Or is the way we as a culture think about the intersection of fatness and womanhood as being synonymous with laziness and poor health fundamentally based on stereotypes, cognitive dissonance and an underlying sense of disgust?
Did people have this same furious energy for the fat men on the cover of Cosmo?
Obese people like Tess Holliday should be able to exist, and be treated with the basic decency that human beings deserve rather than as spectacles to be judged based on size, in a world that “venerates thinness,” as Cosmo editor Farah Storr put it. We live in a culture where disordered eating behaviour is glorified, where an estimated 4 million people in the UK alone struggle with eating disorders in their lifetimes. We also live in a culture where an extremely alarming one in five eating disorder sufferers will die as a direct result of their disorders. We have a duty to represent women of all shapes and sizes in the media instead of promoting one homogenous beauty ideal that holds thinness at its deeply cancerous root. And, fundamentally, the health of overweight and obese people who you do not know personally is none of your damn business.