Plus size model Tess Holliday just made a splashy appearance on this month’s copy of Cosmopolitan UK—shortly after gracing a digital cover of Self. While many women are wildly applauding mainstream media for featuring Holliday, predictably the images aren’t without detractors. I met Holliday briefly and the experience was so pivotal, I want to share it. Last year at BeautyCon I was covering the red carpet in my role as an editor. My then 12-year-old was obsessed with the YouTube stars that were slated to appear and I got to bring her along.
Holliday came down the carpet and was so warm and looked even more gorgeous in person. She zeroed in on us, explaining how she had an 11-year old son herself. She was sweet and open as we chatted and had the most gracious laugh. I asked her a few questions and she took a photo with my girl. Before she walked away she put her hand on my arm and said, “It’s so great to see a plus size woman here on the front lines representing a big fashion magazine. You go!” That’s when I froze. It might sound silly to someone who never thinks about their weight—that being called plus size would hold so much power. But my daughter and I had never up until that point spoken about my body. How it was so much bigger than her petite frame. I spent the rest of the carpet totally preoccupied with what she was going to think, if she was embarrassed or ashamed of me. I felt so exposed.
We hear all the time how damaging seeing mothers diet and putting down their bodies is to our daughters. So, I did the opposite—I just never, ever discussed my own body or my feelings about my weight. I was careful never to mention a diet (although I was always on one) and somehow in my delusion (I was probably just hungry) I kind of thought my children didn’t notice? Trust me, I realize now how crazy that sounds.
As we walked away from the event, I asked my daughter if that exchange with Holliday made her feel uncomfortable. She looked at me totally puzzled, like she didn’t know which of the many embarrassing things I did, I was specifically referring to. “You know, the fact that she called me plus size,” I said. While my sweet girl is too polite to point out the ridiculousness of my question, I could tell that she was thinking “You are plus size!”
Something changed in me that day and it certainly changed the way my daughter and I talk about our bodies. I acknowledge the fact that mine is bigger and we also acknowledge that that fact is okay. That every body has value and while some might be seen as more desirable in the eyes of our culture, that sentiment is bullshit. I see how my daughter and her friends talk about their pre-teen bodies and their clothing size. Even more sadly, I hear how my nieces and cousins talk about their bodies at even much younger ages. I will tell you this—my son and his friends don’t. We can complain about our boys’ collective Fortnite habits all day long but you know what they are not? Preoccupied with each other’s fucking shirt size.
So, while this gorgeous cover of Tess has a million haters talking about her health and how bad it is for young girls to see this, I can’t tell you how important it is to have representation of all bodies. For every woman and girl. As far as her health, you cannot tell if someone is healthy or not just by looking at a photo of them. I worked in fashion magazines for the last two decades—where was the health concern over the anorexic models chain smoking and doing coke?
And even for a moment, let’s just say Holliday does have health problems. Does that mean she doesn’t deserve to look happy and sexy and be celebrated? Do you really think any of us hating ourselves will make our lives better? As for the concern this cover will “promote obesity” I promise you—with every cell in my body—no girl is going to see this and go home and trash all of her kale and Ashwagandha smoothies and tear up her lifetime membership to The Class. No. One. I promise. But someone out there might hate themselves a little less. Someone may reconsider fat shaming. Someone may accept that women in larger bodies can be seen as attractive and glamorous. Maybe, someone will open a dialogue about how bodies being different is okay and someone living in silence and shame about their own weight might finally be able to address it and realize this “secret” they are living with was never a secret and more importantly, never shameful.
A final side note: While women are tearing each other down for something as superficial as a number on the scale, the patriarchy we talk so much about doesn’t need to work as hard to oppress us. We are doing a fine job of that on our own.