The great weight debate

15 Oct 2018

By Desiree Loh

GRAPHIC: CLARA TOH


A 165 centimetres and 130 kilograms, American model Tess Holliday does not seem like the typical choice to grace the cover of a magazine. In fact, Holliday’s appearance on the cover of Cosmopolitan UK’s October issue may even be shocking to readers who are used to seeing skinny women dominate the fashion industry.

Defying beauty standards, Holliday, who is clad in an emerald green one-piece swimsuit, is seen blowing a kiss to the reader. The caption on the cover reads “A supermodel roars: Tess Holliday wants the haters to kiss her ass”.

The US size 24 model’s body mass index (BMI) of 47.8 places her in the morbidly obese range. A healthy BMI ranges from 18.5 to 24.9, and anyone with a reading above 30 is considered obese.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe that magazines should not place obese models on their covers as this normalises and even glorifies obesity, which has adverse effects on one’s health.


In the name of diversity

Supporters of the body positivity movement may argue that in an industry notorious for its narrow standard of beauty, Holliday’s cover has been a victory for the plus-size community.

In the fashion industry, “plus-size” refers to US sizes eight and above. The average American woman is between a size 16 to 18, according to a 2016 study from the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education.

Most of the models who appear on the covers of mainstream magazines are “straight-size”, a term used to describe models who are the standard industry size, which ranges from zero to four.

In a 2016 study, website The Fashion Spot looked at 679 cover stars across international magazines, and found that only six of them were sizes 12 and up — a dismal 0.9 per cent.

In a sea of straight-size models, any inclusion of larger-bodied women is regarded as an improvement in representation for this often overlooked group.

Last year, the darling of the plus-size community Ashley Graham broke barriers by becoming the first plus-size model to appear on the American edition of Vogue. Posing with straight-size stars like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, the size 16 model held her own.

Holliday’s Cosmopolitan debut was seen as another spotlight on plus-size women and praised by social media users.

A user who goes by the handle @LifewithPugs tweeted: “If I had seen plus-size women like me on magazines growing up, it wouldn't have taken 25 years to love my body. Thank you @Tess_Holliday.”

Putting plus-size models on covers is a celebration of diversity. For the many plus-size women who grew up without seeing someone of their body shape being represented, these covers may help them be more accepting of themselves.


Inclusivity versus exploitation

The fashion industry has long been slammed for promoting unrealistic body types by using extremely skinny models. For years, the industry has been accused of promoting unhealthy body images to women and and ignoring well-documented health problems experienced by underweight models.

However, steps have been taken to rectify this problem. In 2017, French luxury groups LVMH and Kering, which house top brands such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci respectively, pledged to stop size zero models from participating in catwalks and advertising campaigns.

In the same year, the French government also passed a law requiring models to have a medical certificate confirming that they are not dangerously underweight.

Magazines are now choosing to put plus-size models on their covers instead, in the name of body positivity and inclusivity. That said, the media should not merely jump on the body positivity bandwagon and recklessly peddle messages of self-acceptance.

Being overweight can result in a plethora of problems such as kidney diseases and Type 2 diabetes. In 2013, the American Medical Association officially recognised obesity as a disease that could cause heart attacks and strokes, among other negative effects on one’s health.

In addition, a 2018 US-based study published in JAMA Cardiology found that middle-aged obese women were 85 per cent more likely to suffer from a heart attack, stroke, heart failure or cardiovascular death than women at a normal weight.

Overweight and obese women should therefore not be lauded as beacons of self-love when their health is clearly at risk.

Putting overweight and obese models on covers is essentially as harmful as using size zero models — magazines are merely swinging from one extreme end of the weight spectrum to the other, without considering the negative repercussions.


Detriments of representation

Still, some people may argue that readers will not aspire to become obese simply because they see such a body type being represented. Cosmopolitan UK editor Farrah Storr used this line of defence to justify her decision to place Holliday on the cover.

Speaking on British talk show Good Morning Britain, Ms Storr said: “Are people going to look at that and go, ‘Do you know what? I’m going to go and mainline doughnuts, this is what I want for my life’. Of course not… I’m celebrating her. I’m not celebrating morbid obesity.”

While there is truth in these arguments, placing obese women on magazine covers may normalise obesity.

In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, researchers found that “the use of acceptance cues of larger body types increased unhealthy behaviours” such as eating greater portions of unhealthy food.

When participants of the study felt that having a plus-size body was socially acceptable, they displayed a lower motivation to engage in healthy behaviour.

The appearance of obese models on the covers of mainstream magazines signals that society should be more accepting of them. These editorial decisions may be well-intentioned, as we should not judge people by their looks, but they could also appear to endorse obesity and lead to a misguided acceptance of it.

People who are already overweight or obese are especially at risk. While inclusivity in representation can help plus-size women be at peace with their bodies, it may ultimately give them an unwarranted sense of validation that prevents them from improving their health.