This summer was a big one in terms of thinking about how we talk about ‘fat’ women today, from the backlash to Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty (which I found genuinely sincere and uplifting by the way), to the storm over Netflix’s Insatiable, and finally to the controversy of self-identified ‘fat’ model Tess Holliday in Cosmopolitan UK. However, unlike the first two, Holliday’s cover was about a real person who Piers Morgan called “dangerous” in the precedent she was creating over body confidence.
The first time I remember being conscious of my body size, I was 10 years old. I was given a framed picture of myself and my three best friends. Four girls with toothy smiles and un-self-conscious poses. But then I looked downed at our bodies. My eyes moved from midsection to midsection – mine was bigger.
There is always that tugging in the back of my mind that trying not to judge my body is the same as not ‘taking care’ of myself
Images are important. As children we notice how we divert from the norm, not only amongst our social circles, but also in the media, which is why we are repeatedly given statistics about body negativity and self-abuse among young women. However, I count myself lucky to have spent my teenage years so exposed to people talking about feminism and how scrutiny over women’s bodies is laced in intense sexism. Despite social signals, I learned that women should embrace their bodies and to reject how others saw them.
But, there is always that tugging in the back of my mind that trying not to judge my body is the same as not ‘taking care’ of myself. That it is irresponsible not to look in the mirror and be worried about the stretch marks and my belly poking out. Am I putting my health at risk? I don’t want to develop diabetes or high cholesterol or heart conditions. What about when I’m older and less able to lose weight? What about if I eventually have children and can’t shed the extra pounds? Do people look at me, someone close to being overweight, and see someone making themself ill if I have a pudding?
The ones who are miseducating the public are those people who use their platform to fat-shame women on the grounds of health
This intense worry, I believe, is a product of a fear-based system which justifies judging a woman by her outward appearance on the pretence of concern over health. In Self magazine, which Holliday graced the cover of in June, the model addressed what are described as “concern trolls”. “People should mind their own business,” she says. Critics like Piers Morgan accuse plus-size models and the publications who publish their pictures of “glorifying obesity”, to which Holliday retorts that: “it’s perpetuating the abuse against bigger bodies and the mindset that we owe it to people to be healthy.”
Because, truly, the ones who are miseducating the public are those people who use their platform to fat-shame women on the grounds of health. They are teaching their audience that it is okay to look at a stranger’s body and feel that they are allowed to make assumptions. They are part of a wider problem of perpetuating myths about bigger bodies. Shows like Netflix’s Insatiable, for instance, imply that being large is simply a symptom of stuffing your face with cake. Stop eating and you’ll be fine.
The reality is that being overweight or obese is a combination of factors including class, genetics, education level, the ability to access fresh food and cooking, access to fitness (time, gym membership), illness, mental health, and more. In fact, being thin does not mean you’re healthy either, mentally or physically. Young people need to be taught that you just can’t look at a person and know whether they are healthy or not, and, regardless, a person’s health is between themselves and a doctor.
Wherever a person is with their health, however, they do have a right to feel beautiful
That is not to say that healthy personal lifestyle choices should not be promoted. It just shouldn’t be done by excluding women. Campaigns like “This Girl Can” promote a positive message about fitness for women, and the same can be done for healthy eating. Why does appearance have to come into it at all?
Wherever a person is with their health, however, they do have a right to feel beautiful. And Tess Holliday is, at least in my opinion, a beautiful woman. Perhaps a more problematic element in this debate is that while publications like Self and Cosmopolitan UK may appear as the progressive party, it must also be recognised that women’s magazines have participated in causing these problems and are now bandaging the wound. The majority of models are still unachievably thin for most women. They have to continue to promote women of all sizes and body types from a variety of backgrounds (it should be noted that body exclusion is often intersected with race).
Magazine pictures are meant to represent an ideal. However, the ideal should not be a uniform kind of women. So, no, Piers Morgan, it is not “dangerous” to show a woman who is confident in her big body – it is healing.