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Tess Holliday, Society, and Female Body Positivity

I remember the first time I saw myself as pretty, like actually pretty not just telling myself I was when I don’t see it (an effort to try and improve self-confidence), or agreeing with people for an easy life so that no one was concerned about my self-image. Don’t get me wrong! I never doubted that the people who said I was pretty actually thought that, I didn’t doubt when they looked at me, they weren’t disgusted. I wasn’t disgusted by my face either, I just didn’t see myself as pretty, I was relatively indifferent to my appearance, however, I always leaned closer to undesirable that supermodel. That is until I was sixteen, and I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth or washing my face or something silly and mundane like that. While I was doing that, I remember that I turned my head and looked in the mirror and I saw myself, as if for the first time. With shock clearly in my eyes, I remember thinking, ‘wow, am I actually pretty?’. And then I cried. Not sobbing or anything, just some tears at the realisation that for 16 years, I never truly liked my appearance. That I never truly thought of myself as pretty. 

That is one of my saddest, but in a way also one of the happiest memories I have. I carry it with me on the days where I look in the mirror and hate my thighs, or the spots on my face, or the fact that I’m not perfectly skinny like some of my friends.

On days like that, I look back to the memory of my sixteen-year-old self, realising she’s pretty and I hold on tight. And now that Tess Holliday has graced the cover of Cosmopolitan, I can’t help but wonder, if a woman who looked like Tess Holliday (A.K.A. a woman who broke nearly every expectation society had for women’s appearances), would it have taken me so long to get there? Finding out Tess Holliday was on the cover of Cosmopolitans October issue – and in a bathing suit as well – was amazing to me, the thought that girls all over the world were looking at this cover and regardless of race, religion, size, or anything else that society uses to try and divide us, all of these girls were having a single shared thought – ‘If she is on the cover of Cosmopolitan, looking like that, and loving her body, then why the hell can’t I’. I reveled in the idea that, at the very least for a single second, women could stop and think of themselves as beautiful, that for a single second, women could banish the often-overwhelming pressure to look a certain way, act a certain way, behave a certain way and just love themselves in all their brilliant glory. Sadly, that feeling only lasted for a single second, as when I scrolled through the comments I found that while many women were thrilled at the idea of the ‘Eff your beauty standards’ model taking the coveted spot of cover girl and showing beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Many others were disgusted at the idea of a major magazine ‘promoting’ obesity. What I had seen as a brilliant step forward for women everywhere to reclaim their body confidence and self-love from those who tried to tear it away, others were disgusted at the very same idea. 

Society loves to govern women’s bodies, to tell us what to wear, how to act, how to speak, how we shouldn’t complain and how with a pretty face like that we really should smile more or well scare all the good guys away. Society loves to tell women that we should be skinny, but not too skinny, we should have some curves but not be too curvy, and we should really only be curvy in the right places, how well always be too fat or too thin, or how were ‘fat-thin’ or ‘thin-fat’ or whatever other crazy idea has come into play and how we should never, ever disagree or complain because then well be called angry, while our male counterparts who display the same behaviour are branded as powerful and opinionated. However, with Tess Holliday’s cover, it wasn’t as simple as basic fat shaming, as it became a health issue. People quickly began to suggest that in the same sense of there being a minimum weight for models (created in an effort to reduce anorexia and bulimia in the modelling industry), that perhaps there should also be a maximum weight limit. And speaking honestly, this is the only point that made me stop and think; ‘maybe they have a point’. Before quickly determining that at least right now, the answer is no. There should not be a maximum weight limit simply because it’s not the same. The problem with models that are too skinny (i.e. under the minimum weight) is that we live in a society where that would be perceived as beautiful, as a goal weight, how skinny women should be therefore encouraging women to try and become that skinny. We live in a society were seeing an anorexic model could be the starting point of someone’s mental illness. However, this is not the case with models such as Tess Holliday or any other plus-size model, as it sends the message that you don’t have to be a certain weight to be perceived as beautiful, but rather that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. When a young girl sees Tess Holliday on the cover of a magazine, surrounded by images of thinner models, she will see that beauty doesn’t exclusively come in sizes 2-6. That she can be beautiful and love herself and regardless of her dress size, she can be a cover girl. Tess Holliday’s Cosmo cover serves as a grain of hope in a sea of darkness.

The way we present women to the world, effects women everywhere and how we see ourselves. For example, last year when I was at the gym, I was sitting outside waiting for my friend when two young girls came out. One was tall and skinny, while the other was short and plump, neither could be defined to be even remotely fat, both were beautiful. From what I could understand, it sounded like they had weighed themselves before starting their workout and had come out now that they’d finished to weigh themselves again. They quickly started to compare weights and talk diets and all I could do is sit in complete disbelief. Is this what the world has come to? While I can’t say what had led the girls to behave like this, I can say that perhaps if there were more covers with bigger models on them, if there was better representation of diverse bodies in the media, or even if part of health education was loving your body, then maybe these girls wouldn’t have weighed themselves twice within the hour, because maybe they wouldn’t have seen weight in the same way, maybe they wouldn’t have thought beauty only came in one size. Furthermore, it would be wrong of me to not point out the sexist culture in this. When overweight male celebrities are on the cover of a magazine no one bats an eyelid, but models such as Karlie Kloss can gain weight in her hips and thighs – areas where most women gain weight during puberty -and lose work because of this, despite still being skinny, still being beautiful, then there’s clearly a problem. And it’s not that Tess Holliday is ‘Glamorizing obesity’ but rather that society is used to governing women’s bodies and rejects the idea of them looking, however, they naturally do. If a model gaining a little weight makes her less desirable for work, when all the weight gain has done is made her look more like the average women, then that is when we have a problem.  

Beauty standards change over time, look at Marilyn Monroe for example, in her time she was considered the definition of beauty and she was a curvier girl. Going even further back in time to when Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth were on the go, it was desirable for women to be curvier with wide hips for birthing. Back then being bigger meant you had more food and were richer, can you believe that there was a time where being fat was considered high class and to be skinny was undesirable? No? Then you probably also don’t believe that at the same time women would put on white face paint to make them look paler, as the darker skin complexion was an indication of working in the sun and therefore being poorer. Then again, maybe that is easier to believe as even today people still bleach their skin lighter to fall in line with beauty standards.  For centuries society has changed its mind on what is the ideal body type for women is, never stopping to allow women to just see themselves as beautiful without the burden of having to be careful of how much make up we put on so we’re not told we’re been ‘lying’ about our appearance (we’re not), or being careful or what clothes we wear in case we’re ‘asking for it’, because, apparently, that’s still a thing.

Tess Holliday’s Cosmo cover is the perfect example of what self-love and beauty should be, because at the end of the day it is wrong that a young girl waited until she was a teenager to wear a bathing suit to the beach for the first time, it’s wrong for women to suck in their belly when taking pictures because they’re ashamed of their looks or want to be seen as thinner and more attractive, its wrong for girls to decide what to wear and not to wear based on what other people might say, it’s wrong for two young girls to go the gym and be so wrapped up about how they look that they weigh themselves multiple times in one hour and stress when the scales don’t change, its wrong for girls to go 16 years without seeing themselves as beautiful.            3                                                                           

But most of all its wrong that in 2018 people don’t realise that not every fat person wants to be skinny, and that its no one’s business what women choose to eat, or dress, or how much exercise we do. A woman’s body is her business and hers alone and no number of angry tweets is going to change that. Tess Holliday is not the thinnest model in the world, and maybe her weight might put her health at risk, however she’s a grown woman who likely has a good doctor, she can make her own decisions and I highly doubt that seeing her on the cover of Cosmo is going to inspire someone to gain weight but rather inspire them to love their body. Women throughout history have put their health at risk to try and meet societies beauty standards, if society can change its mind on what beauty is, then it’s high time the world changes its mind on how we treat women. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, of all races and religions. Everyone can relate to being insecure with their body, so maybe it’s a good thing that Tess Holliday is on the cover of Cosmo because maybe letting a woman promote self-love and body positivity – in all shapes and sizes – is quite the bad thing that people think it is. So, following Tess Holliday’s campaign, eff your beauty standards and love your body, we only get one go at life, don’t spend it trying to fit someone else’s standards.

Second year Psychology student @ University of Aberdeen
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