There was much talk this week in every corner of the media about the new issue of UK Cosmopolitan magazine which features the high-profile model, blogger and body-positive activist Tess Holliday in a swimsuit.
While there’s nothing surprising about swimsuits on a Cosmo cover, the bold move here is that Holliday is very plus-sized (an Australian size 26) and is heavily tattooed. This is light years away the original glossy Cosmopolitan cover girls of the 70’s and 80’s who were ultra-slim, airbrushed, blow-dried and largely interchangeable.
Cosmopolitan was founded in 1965, and edited by the formidable publishing legend Helen Gurley Brown, who encouraged her young female readers to lead dazzling and exciting lives, filled with travel, fashion, work and sex.
Gurley Brown herself was stick-thin, fixated on dieting, and thought it was impossible for a woman to be at her height of attractiveness unless she had “a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight … not a heavy case, just a little one!” And trust me, she certainly isn’t the only person in fashion magazine history who ever believed this.
The fashion industry has always demanded that models be impossibly thin, deeming one unrealistic body type to be the correct one, and thus ensuring that many girls would use dangerous diet regimes to try to get there.
As one former model who quit the industry commented drily: “To look anorexic, you had to be anorexic”.
For so many decades, there was no representation of body diversity whatsoever, but times have moved on – faster than many of the magazines did.
Social media has produced thousands of new style influencers, such as Holliday, who has 1.6 million followers/fans who share her values of loving and celebrating the body you’re in.
When she posted her Cosmo cover, the “Yes, slaaaay Queen” cheer squad was out in force, but she was also widely and savagely criticised for promoting obesity, with comments that she was encouraging poor health choices that will lead to chronic medical problems in the future. Australian writer and body-positive advocate Mary Madigan thinks this reaction is disingenuous.
“People don’t say Emma Stone is looking too “thin” when she’s on a cover of anything. Or worry that Kate Hudson has “lost too much weight” even if she’s been photoshopped to look tiny.
“But as soon as someone larger is on a cover, suddenly there’s a huge conversation about weight and health. I think it’s all bulls–t – the critics don’t care about Tess Holiday’s health. They just don’t like her because she’s fat,” Madigan says.
“Women are craving diversity,” she continues. “It’s great that she’s on the cover because it’s a showcase of another type of woman. I understand she’s obese, but the media is happy to cover underweight women all the time.
“Women come in all shapes and sizes. Young girls may see covers of thin women and feel pressure to be thin and develop eating disorders. I don’t think young women are going to see Tess on the cover of a magazine and feel the pressure to gain weight.
“But they might start to feel better about themselves. Obese women deserve to be represented – the media are very happy to represent underweight women constantly. But if there’s one image of a bigger woman it sparks a health debate? What is unhealthy is our obsession with size.”