After amassing a global fan following online of close to one million, the cover of People's 'Body Issue' and contracts with major modelling agencies - MiLK Model Management and Bella Model Management - Tess Holliday is receiving praise for redefining beauty. But, is Holliday's rise to fame and social acclamation potentially causing more harm than good?
Far from the typical model, Holliday (whose real name is Ryann Hoven) is a UK size 22 and stands at 5'5". The 29-year-old does not fit the prevailing and stereotypical beauty ideals for those in her profession, but she has plenty of confidence and charisma, which has undoubtedly hooked supporters. She also has a ‘I don’t give a f—k’ attitude towards her weight and the many offensive comments that netizen’s have hurled at her, tweeting in May this year “To the people that fight on my social media: I don’t give a f--k. Get a therapist, phone a psychic or eat a f---in burger… grow up.”
The Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-based model sees herself as a "body positive activist", spearheading the #EffYourBeautyStandards movement and receiving praise from media outlets and consumers alike. Holliday has become synonymous with 'body diversity' campaigns, which have been gaining traction anyway thanks to the many debates over ‘what is beautiful’ and what actually counts as being ‘plus-size’? In her campaign to alter the stale beauty ideals of popular media, she has put one step forward, proving that size does not define beauty.
Her strength and resilience in the midst of harsh criticism and horrific online trolling is inspiring and in so many ways, she is the wake-up call the media has been waiting for. Given the relentless talk of size-zero in fashion over the last decade, it is definitely a refreshing change in conversation. There has undoubtedly been a need in recent time for wider acceptance of women’s bodies, given the unhealthy and unrealistic pressures put on them, largely by the advertising and fashion industries.
However, in a world where we are all obsessed with political-correctness, I can’t help but feel that the blind acceptance of so-called 'body diversity' campaigns and the hailing of Holliday as an icon is pernicious. With a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 42, Tess Holliday is medically considered morbidly obese - a fact that is often excluded from the media or the cries for acceptance and diversity.
In praising Holliday for breaking down ideal body stereotypes and in waving her flag for the many ways in which she is changing our perception of what women should look like, we are in many respects also condoning young women eating too much food, carrying excess weight, not exercising enough and putting their bodies at risk of terrible, life-shortening diseases. This worries me. It is not politically correct for me to say that and it’s also not very “pro-Holliday”, but this isn’t me being offensive or bullying, slinging insults at Holliday like many others online – rather, just a case of me saying that maybe someone round here also needs to consider the bigger picture for those she inspires and what the subsequent health ramifications are.
In today's modern society, obesity is at an all time high, having doubled since 1980 to 1.9 billion adults, as noted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – that’s 13 per cent of the global population. WHO have also acknowledged that being overweight or obese is far more dangerous and causes many more deaths than being underweight does. It’s a problem only being exacerbated further by the proliferation of junk food, takeaway restaurants and high-sugar ready meals, and is responsible for the growing rise in those suffering from chronic diseases and conditions such as cancer, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, liver disease and the risk of stroke.
As mentioned before, Holliday calls herself a “body positive activist” – and while, yes, that does mean we are thinking about women of all shapes and sizes in a more positive way, having a healthy approach to body image would surely be better? Isn’t it more positive to encourage women to eat well, look after themselves and exercise?
I’m not talking about taking things to extremes and leading a life of diet and deprivation, but I cannot see why we should either celebrate those that are ridiculously skinny or seriously overweight without just accepting that there is a happy medium in the middle, which is really where aspiration should linger. Beauty standards should be grounded in health first-and-foremost. Size does not equate to beauty as Holliday is working tirelessly to prove and we are all different, but size does equate to health, and that is what we should be focussing on more as a society.
In the same way that we speak out about anorexic models on the runway and in modelling campaigns - Saint Laurent had their advert banned in the UK last week for using an “unhealthily” thin model - the same should apply to those at the other end of the spectrum. We need to stop being politically correct and worried we might offend and instead, start talking about health and what this actually means in real-terms, both for how women look and feel. We need to start championing the healthy body as the ‘ideal’, and in glossy magazines, we ought to fill the pages with a diverse range of healthy bodies in a way that both informs and inspires the individual.
In many respects, despite all the “f—k you” attitude and celebration of her size, Holliday has likewise recognised the impact of her excess weight on her health and has hired a personal trainer and is undergoing a nutritional overhaul. This really is being “body positive” – let’s hope it’s another way in which she inspires, showing that health, not beauty, should be a standard we all aim for.
Words: Jamal George-Sharpe
Photography: Heidi Calvert