There has been quite a storm about Tess Holiday’s appearance on the front cover of the October edition of Cosmopolitan. Piers Morgan certainly provoked debate with his controversial statements. The debate is important if sometimes ugly.
Why can’t a beautiful woman be on the cover of Cosmo if she is obese? And yes she is beautiful. What is beauty? Does it have to conform to certain norms and sizes? Beauty is about the charisma and personality someone projects, the smile in their eyes, the general comfort they have in their own skin. And it is in the eyes of the beholder too. Your biases and assumptions can get in the way of seeing beauty where that beauty is not conventional.
Is it, as some say, glorifying obesity? Wasn’t there a protest about size zero models being on front covers of magazines? They are too thin, too unhealthy, bad role models etc. Surely this is hypocrisy? I suppose this is a reasonable response. However, I feel there is an oversight in this suggestion.
Thinness was demanded of models. That was the look that was asked for and so models became thin to be on the catwalk, on glossy mags and posters. This was what was presented to us as beauty. Unusually thin, thin to the point of malnutrition. Along with airbrushing and photoshopping to present an image of beauty that is not easily achievable for most women. There was little diversity in shape and size in that image of beauty. To work in that sphere, to be an average size 12/14 was considered way too big. That made girls who wanted to make it in that industry eat too little. It encouraged eating disorders and body dissatisfaction well beyond the fashion and modelling industry. It is right that the size zero norm of the modelling world has been challenged. Yet it still is an industry that promotes thinness as the ideal, thinness that is unobtainable for most women.
Tess Holiday has made it in an industry that still has very confined limits on shape and size. She has demonstrated that you can be famous and successful enough to be on the cover of a glossy magazine in spite of that. But she takes a lot of criticism and hate along with the success. The criticism of Cosmo for having her on the cover was an example of it. I suspect many of the critics hadn’t read the article that went with it. It is so easy to throw out criticism but really you should make the time to read the full story.
I am not a magazine kind of girl, generally. I flick through them in waiting rooms but after having commented on Twitter I wanted to read the article if I was to comment anymore on this story. Her message is a very different message. She got on the front cover of a glossy mag despite her size. She worked hard to do so and from difficult beginnings. Her message is of acceptance and self esteem. That beauty can come in different shapes and sizes. If anyone was to think that she was encouraging people to go and eat whatever it took to look like her missed the point.
She was not making a statement about health except maybe on mental health. That weight stigma is a thing and that we should be careful of language that would be unacceptable if we swapped the word ‘fat’ with race, religion, sexual identity etc.
Obesity is a part of the public health problems that we face. But the way in which the focus on obesity reduces health down to calories and kg is not going to address or fix the health issues we face as a population. It could be worsening the health both physical and mental of many people.
If any person looked at Tess in her swimsuit on the front cover of Cosmo and got a little closer to allowing themselves to go swimming rather than waiting until they have lost some weight before donning a swimsuit then that is wonderful. So many people who are or perceive themselves as obese, put off doing things that are healthy – either for their body or their mind – until they lose weight. Like going to the doctor when they have a worry about something.
This year’s World Obesity Day is tackling the issue of weight stigma. Have a look at the website to find out more about what weight stigma is and if you want an interesting read about obesity that just shows things from a different perspective then read this article from HuffPost.
The work on portion sizes, reformulation, calories and marketing of energy dense food that is not rich in other nutrients or fibre is really important stuff. We do need to improve the food environment, improve the price balance and availability for foods that most people could do with eating more of etc. There needs to be more done that makes moving more and physical activity accessible for all. These things help to improve behaviours that are associated with weight gain and poorer health.
We also have to remember that obesity is not a behaviour, it is a product of many things. Behaviours and personal choice are part of it but genetics, the environment, economics etc cannot be ignored. Similarly, we cannot ignore the fact that poverty and personal circumstances affect risk of obesity because it is harder to have access to things like better food, safe space to be active, time to make changes, access to support and information that promotes and enables better health. Addressing some of those inequalities would help countless people improve their health.
Many people have failed to lose weight or have lost weight and regained. Does that mean that there is no point in changing behaviour to make themselves healthier? People who sit very nicely in the healthy weight bracket – do they not need to concern themselves about healthy behaviours because they are ‘thin’? Health messages are important for everyone regardless of weight and the sooner we move weight off its pedestal and make it more equal to other parameters of health the better.