In the October 2018 issue of UK’s Cosmopolitan, “one of the busiest working models today,” Tess Holliday, was featured on the cover (Farrah Storr). The image of Holliday caused quite a stir, because this “Cosmo girl,” an iconic figure who has since the 1960s defined ideals of female beauty and attractiveness, is a white, fat woman who is shown blowing a kiss at her readers while wearing a green bathing suit. The image displays her full body, accompanied by the headline: “A Supermodel Roars: Tess Holliday Wants Her Haters to Kiss Her Ass.” Inside the magazine, writer Farrah Storr teases the article by listing that Holliday “weighs 300lbs.,” “grew up in a trailer in Mississippi,” has “suffered abuse,” and “cried just minutes” before the photo shoot. These “facts” are supposed to support the noteworthiness of Holliday’s presence in this magazine, not only in terms of size, but also of class, upbringing and assertiveness. What follows is Holliday’s story; a woman who, as she formulates it, has “lived in a marginalized body almost [her] entire life,” who has survived abuse, and is now in a business that thrives on sizeism. Holliday’s Cosmopolitan story is one of perseverance, fallibility and success. In that, it does not differ much from other inspirational narratives featured in women’s magazines, despite the size of this “Cosmo girl.” Only that it does differ, as the heated discussions following the revelation of the cover show. They don’t only display the omnipresence of healthism, but also the ways in which fat women’s bodies are still patronized in media and the public.
English television presenter Piers Morgan, for example, addressed Holliday in a public letter published in Mail Online, the online outlet of the UK newspaper Daily Mail. Morgan is known for sharing controversial opinions, and in this letter that begins with “Dear Tess, [w]e don’t know each other,” he diagnoses Holliday as “someone suffering from morbid obesity,” “a fact” he backs up with her BMI. Morgan accuses Holliday of celebrating an “unhealthy” lifestyle and of being an unfit role model. He refuses to believe that Holliday is happy in her body and qualifies his public intervention into this woman’s body by stating that he himself is “no body perfect” at “6ft [and] 215 bs” [sic], and that he is “worried” about her: “The bottom line is that there’s nothing remotely powerful or inspiring about a 5ft 3in person breaking the scales at 300lbs. It’s just a guaranteed pathway to sickness, misery and possible death.”
It has been over forty years since Susie Orbach claimed that Fat Is a Feminist Issue, not only because women’s fat is upsetting to “Western ideals of female beauty” (29), but because, to her, it is a response to sexism and to the fact that “the woman’s body is not her own” (17). “Getting fat,” Orbach suggests, is a “conscious or unconscious […] challenge to sex-role stereotyping and culturally defined experience of womanhood” (15). Orbach has been criticized for her psychoanalytical approach to fatness and “overeating,” especially with regard to the pathologization of fatness, and the conservative image of motherhood and womanhood she conveys. Yet the fact that fat is a feminist issue remains true. The paternalistic tone and male gaze Morgan directs at Holliday exemplify the heightened public scrutiny of women’s bodies. Sexism – in this case the denial of a woman’s ownership of her own body and her own narrative – is disguised as a concern for health. Morgan’s argumentation is very common for healthist discourses that see it as a “moral imperative” to seek health, as Abigail Saguy has phrased it. Holliday, in Morgan’s “logic,” is a harmful role model, because she supposedly does not follow this moral imperative and “promotes a very dangerous message.” He sees it as his responsibility to intervene in her bodily autonomy, turning her body into a public health concern. As a man – despite not being “body perfect” as he claims – he obviously thinks he has the power and right to do so. Sexism and healthism intersect here. The lack of health Morgan has “diagnosed” is utilized to question a woman’s self-determination.
Holliday responded to Morgan’s intervention in a television interview: “I don’t have to prove that I’m healthy to anybody. […] My health is no one’s business.” She rejects self-worth based on ability and the presence or absence of health. Her response argues for an individualist approach to health that is detached from public responsibility, the cornerstone of a neoliberal logic that has transformed health into a continuous project, or, as Juliane Cheek has put it, a “what if” instead of “what is” (974) market: A “what if” market that capitalizes on prevention; a market in which health is not something one has, but rather something one needs to work for, and earn. Health is attached to worth, a conjunction Holliday refuses to accept: “We could go a long way with a little bit of respect and kindness, and unfortunately, that didn’t happen in this case.”
Fat Studies scholars and activists have pointed out that healthism plays off fat people against other fat people, creating a ‘good fatty’/’bad fatty’ divide (see Abigail Saguy, Abby Weintraub, Rebecca Weinberger). The “good fatties” need to prove their worthiness by articulating and performing a healthy “lifestyle” by working out, making the “right” food choices, and, even more importantly, making these choices visible for the controlling gaze they are exposed to. Ultimately, these are expressions of internalized fat hate under the guise of health.
One example of this kind of internalization is the reaction to Holliday’s Cosmopolitan cover printed in the German Curvy Magazine. As the name not-so-subtly suggests, Curvy caters to “curvy” women. It is modeled after traditional women’s magazines and taps into the economic capital of “plus size” (a term used throughout the magazine) women. Each issue displays fashion editorials, presents noteworthy fat women and is structured along the lines of most women’s magazines, ranging from fashion to advice, design and travel.
In the op-ed piece of the winter issue 2018, German blogger Susanne Ackstaller, a self-defined “curvy” also responds to Tess Holliday’s cover (the German translation of “fat,” namely “fett” or “dick” are not used). Ackstaller starts off by announcing that even before the Holliday sensation, “curvys” have known all along that “[b]eauty comes in all shapes and sizes.” Then, like Morgan, she turns to so-called facts. “[O]besity” is not an “accessory” or style, but unhealthy, “period”: “Tess might be an icon, but she is not a role model for me.” She complains that Holliday’s body is treated like an accessory and fatness as a style. Ackstaller then formulates a wish for fat icons who take care of their bodies, who motivate “us” to be healthy despite being “overweight,” through exercising and a “good and healthy diet.” Beauty, she claims, might be independent of size, health is not. Ackstaller clearly assumes that Holliday – a fashion model – does not take care of her body. Her comment exemplifies women’s complicity in denying other women ownership of their bodies and in creating a divide between “good” and “bad fatties,” good and bad citizens.
These responses, which are only two among many, show the pervasiveness of healthist discourses in public negotiations of fatness, particularly women’s fatness. Morgan and Ackstaller, despite speaking from different subject positions, attach lifestyle assumptions and medical diagnoses to Holliday’s fat body, while they simultaneously represent themselves as “good fatties.” After all, as they claim, they seek health and well-being and are therefore comply with what passes as an acceptable kind of fatness. The “logics” of health and beauty – as the example of Holliday’s Cosmopolitan cover suggests – cannot be undone by making space for fat bodies in popular media, as long as other “fatties” or “curvys” continue to participate in its circulation.