“Weighing in” on the Tess Holiday Cosmo Cover

This particular subject does not exclusively pertain to pole dancing but I thought it was worthy of a blog post.  A couple of weeks ago, the British edition of Cosmopolitan magazine unveiled the cover of their September issue featuring plus-size model Tess Holiday. She appears in a beautiful green one-piece swimsuit, hand on her waist and blowing a kiss to the viewer. She looks beautiful, confident and, most importantly, unashamed to display a body that does not conform to western beauty standards propagated by the media and visual culture. While the body positive cover garnered praise for giving visibility to a portion of the population that is under-represented in mainstream pop culture, it nevertheless received some very public backlash. Figures such a British television personality Piers Morgan slammed the magazine and body shamed Holiday in an open letter, chastising her for promoting or glamorizing obesity. Many people online weighed in claiming that the increased representation of bodies that are more “Ruben-esque” is normalizing obesity. This seems quite contradictory considering that, according to the CDC, 71.6% of people (2015-16) are overweight in the United States. So in actuality, being overweight is, well, normal. While I am not saying that this is a good thing in terms of a populations’ overall health, it does make me question the nature of this whole Tess Holiday debacle and this backlash against the body positivity movement.  At its core, it is not about the fear of “normalizing” something that is in fact already the norm, it is rather about shaming and continuing to marginalize people who are overweight while ignoring that an out-of-control, media-fuelled consumer culture has been partly responsible for causing overconsumption in all its manifestations as well as promoting unrealistic beauty standards and negatively impacting body image. We already know that the media influences people, but it hasn’t been a problem when it does so by featuring what we as a society understand to be beautiful: the young, the thin, the tall, usually the white and now occasionally the curvy as long as it is accompanied by an impossibly small waist. The anger is not doing anything to help solve the problem. Will increased representation of plus-size people exacerbate an obesity epidemic? Are we all going to gain weight because we see the image of a bigger woman on the cover of a magazine? Is this really a health debate? Or, as previously mentioned, should we examine instead the influence the media has had, from promoting overconsumption to negatively impacting women’s body image and self-esteem through its use of women’s bodies to sell every product under the sun and enforcing unrealistic beauty standards? I stress WOMEN here, because the construction and consumption of images of women has historically been devised to satisfy a male heteronormative gaze. And we drank the cool-aid so to speak. But that is a different blog post.

As a fitness professional having worked in the industry for 18 years, let’s start with the health question. Is being overweight or obese healthy from a medical standpoint? The very reductive answer to that question is no. It increases your chances of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, not to mention the intense pressure it places on the skeletal system.  Does good health necessarily mean being smaller?  It is important to also consider a person’s body fat percentage as an indicator of good health, and it is a measurement which does not necessarily correlated to a person’s size and therefore how they look. Having a body fat percentage of over 32% for women is understood as an indication of obesity. This does not necessarily mean that you are a size 18 or above. You can very well be of smaller stature, never exercise and therefore have a higher body fat percentage and little muscle mass. Furthermore, because fat weighs less than muscle, on the scale, that person’s weight would not reflect what we would typically construe as unhealthy (that person can weigh 118lbs and be over 33% body fat). Would this person be considered obese? No. Are they ‘healthy’? Not really. But would they be judged in the same manner as a person who looks overweight and who therefore gives the visual cues associated with a state of poor health? No. The point is that size is not the only yard stick for measuring the state of someone’s health but it is a yardstick for social acceptability.  Socially and culturally, size has become the overriding criteria for judging a person’s perceived health, but also, much like skin colour (it is important not to ignore race…Tess Holiday is an obese woman on the cover of a magazine, but she is also has the privilege of being white, a dominant criteria when it comes to western standards of beauty), their beauty, their worth and their character. Needless to say, this is a problem which, I would imagine, prevents people of bigger stature from feeling fully accepted and would greatly impede many men and women from participating in various fitness activities that could help improve their overall health. Pole dance can perhaps be even more intimidating especially since it requires you to wear very little clothing and lift your own bodyweight. Many people in our community are trying to give more visibility to plus size polers. Roz de Diva for example has pioneered plus size poling in a manner which is not only body positive but also encourages people of all sizes to get fit and feel confident. This makes our sport more inclusive and places more emphasis on learning a new skill and letting go of inhibitions than solely on loosing weight.

So, does the representation of plus-size people in media irresponsibly promote an unhealthy lifestyle? In my opinion, it is no more irresponsible from a health standpoint than the image of 5’9”/100lbs models that have dominated catwalks and fashion magazines since the 1990s. My point is that neither is adequate. However the argument pushed by the likes of Piers Morgan and others who claim that giving plus-size people more visibility will normalize and encourage obesity are missing the real point; that the unrealistic standards of beauty and size, often conflated with the idea of health, that have flooded our visual and pop culture have already caused a great amount of damage. Their ire is misdirected and frankly hypocritical as the media has been pushing damaging and unrealistic standards of beauty for decades and normalizing the erroneous notion that extreme slenderness or exaggerated body types whose proportions are unachievable for many, necessarily equates to an image of health. Health cannot simply be reduced to one’s size or body type. Mental and emotional health for example are equally important to consider but are given dangerously little attention. I do not believe that having a 300lbs woman on the cover of a magazine will encourage women to actively gain an extreme amount of weight. Our fitness and beauty obsessed culture, especially in the era of Instagram, is not conducive to that happening but most importantly, that form of reductive argument effaces and ignores emotional health issues, such as anxiety and depression, that can lead to or exacerbate weight problems (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/obesity.aspx). The point that Cosmopolitan was trying to make is that visibility is important. It is important because it implies acceptance and forces us as a society to question what we have been culturally conditioned to deem acceptable, beautiful and worthy. This is refreshing coming from a beauty and fashion mag whose bread and butter has been teaching women how to be more desirable, kinky, sexy and hot for men. However problematic, I appreciate the somewhat ironic self-reflexive gesture.

Finally, it is important to stress that health is not reflected in extremes. However no one ought to be body shamed, whether you are naturally thin and are shamed for your lack of curves or on the bigger side and deemed to have a few too many. If we want to fix the obesity problem, shaming people who are obese and denying them representation is not the way to go. We have to ask ourselves what constitutes health from a physical, mental and emotional standpoint. As it pertains to lifestyle, I believe that it means having a healthy and intuitive relationship with food; overeating, extreme calorie restriction or heavily regimented diets that are not sustainable are all unhealthy approaches and demonstrate a problematic relationship with food. Just as a sedentary lifestyle or an obsessive fixation with working out both demonstrate dangerous extremes. Instead, let’s focus on achieving a balance that is sustainable, one which can be consistently and happily adhered to over time while also giving equal importance to our individual and collective emotional health. Support, compassion and empathy are necessary ingredients and not just icing on the cake.  

Sonja Sloane

NB: And good lord, men seriously need to stop commenting on women’s bodies! Piers Morgan’s constant comments on women’s bodies come from a place of entitlement and misogyny that makes him little better than the cat caller on the street. It’s still objectification except in this case it is served with a side-order of condescension and somehow made acceptable by his pro-health argument and public platform.