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Why the Backlash to Tess Holliday’s Cosmo Cover is Problematic

(Cosmopolitan, 2015)

Tess Holliday is this month’s Cosmo cover girl and though some are rejoicing, others are livid. Holliday— whose mission is to improve the representation of women’s bodies in the media—has modeled for Self, Fabulous and People magazine. She has an audience of 1.7 million on Instagram and founded the Instagram page, Eff Your Beauty Standards.

Some of Holliday’s critics include Good Morning Britain host, Piers Morgan. He hopped on the berating bandwagon, taking to his Instagram account with a picture of the cover and the caption: “Apparently we’re supposed to view it as a ‘huge step forward for body positivity.’ What a load of old baloney. This cover is just as dangerous and misguided as celebrating size zero models.” This is a common opinion among the critics; however the issue I have with the backlash is separate from the health arguments.

For years women have been inundated with images of one acceptable body shape: the thin model. In the 80’s it was Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson (also known as ‘the body’—problematic!) in the 90’s it was Kate Moss, when ‘heroin chic’ was all the rage. What do these women have in common? They are all svelte, hot and white. Today, we have Gigi and Bella, Kendall and the other one with the lips. Oh and look at that, each of them is svelte, hot and white. If you haven’t caught on by now, we are still a society obsessed with being thin, with little room for diverse colour or shape.

For some of us, aspiring to thinness goes hand-in-hand with happiness: if we are thin, we will be happy, because thin people are too good-looking to have problems, duh. The resounding belief that thinness equates to optimum health, as if people who are thin and eat ‘clean’ never get depression, diabetes, or cancer, is absurd.

Now of course I believe in the mental and physical benefits of a healthy diet and regular exercise, and I’m certainly not advocating for us all to sit around eating chocolate cake all day—though I admit the idea is tempting. I simply reject any notion that being thin will protect you from the cruelties life might impart. In my experience I have found that often it’s those who appear less likely to be struck by disease, then those who are pushing past their recommended daily calorie intake, who suffer.

Need I remind you of the offensive disaster that was self-proclaiming ‘body-positive’ Netflix series Insatiable. Sad, overweight lead character Patty becomes sexy and thin after a homeless man breaks her jaw (nice touch) making her unable to eat solids and finally shedding those pesky pounds. Her hotness miraculously cures her of her folly and she discovers how her sexual prowess—another mind-blowing benefit of getting skinny— can be used as a tool of manipulation, as she seeks revenge on her cruel peers.

Never in history have we seen a size 22 model on the front cover of magazine as revered as Cosmopolitan and that’s because we live in a society that glorifies thinness and vilifies thickness. The Daily Mail and other tabloid magazines prove that everyday. They zoom in on ‘unsightly cellulite’, and take unflattering shots of models and actress’s backsides, all for what? Growing up the only images I ever saw were of thin, predominately white, cis-gender women. Magazines with covers featuring women above a size eight did not exist.

On Instagram, my discover section is flooded with before shots and after shots—and none of us want to be the before shot! Who needs a sad, pasty, flabby before shot, when you can be a taut, chiselled, surprisingly tanned after shot? Who needs Tess Holliday when we have fantastic role models like the Kardashians? They’re such an inspiration! With their curvy bodies, I mean, who cares if they capitalise on posting sexy shots of them sucking on appetite-suppressing lollipops to their 100 million followers…they are so empowering.

I think Kill Your Darlings writer, Rebecca Shaw, said it best when she wrote: “Pop-culture’s representation of fat people, women in particular, has always been atrocious. Historically, the two options have been for fat women to be shown as either the butt of the joke, or for fat women to simply not exist at all in the fictional world.”

The Cosmo cover of Tess Holliday subverts everything we thought we knew about fat women; contrary to what the media and Insatiable will have you believe, fat women are capable of intelligence, desirability and self-worth. It’s not Tess Holliday’s cover we should worry about; it’s this endless pursuit of impossible beauty standards—how we idolise the thin and how we denigrate the fat—that’s the real cause for concern.

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