LOUISE O'NEILL: Women have been told that we should aspire to thinness

I was pleasantly surprised to see Tess Holliday on the cover of the October issue of Cosmopolitan.

Holliday, who is a size 26, has become an important voice in the fat acceptance movement, especially with her #EffYourBeautyStandards hashtag on Instagram. Holliday is not the first plus-size woman to be featured on the cover of a mainstream magazine, but having worked in fashion myself, I am familiar with the not-so-subtle decisions to choose ‘beauty shots’ when it comes to a final cover image; the focus being on a woman’s face rather than her body.

That is what makes Cosmo’s cover so revolutionary. Tess is in an emerald green swimsuit, inviting all of us to join with her in her obvious enjoyment of a body type that is all too often ridiculed.

I found my reaction to the cover interesting. Ten years ago, steeped in fear and self-loathing and believing that the only way of being beautiful was to be thin, I would have looked at that photo and my stomach would have turned in revulsion.

I would have seen it as a manifestation of my worst nightmares, and would, no doubt, muttered self-righteously about how ‘unhealthy’ she was, ignoring the fact I was alternatively starving myself or making myself vomit after meals so that I could simply feel adequate.

Now, after many years of working on my own issues with body image, I could look at that issue of Cosmo and think Wow, Tess Holliday is so beautiful.

Tess Holliday on the cover of the Octiber issue of Cosmopolitan
Tess Holliday on the cover of the Octiber issue of Cosmopolitan

I often talk about how toxic social media can be, but following fat models and fat activists or just looking at fat women with amazing style in great clothes forced me to completely re-evaluate my own preconceived notions around beauty and weight.

Even the word ‘fat’ is seen as an insult rather than a descriptive word. It has no greater meaning than ‘thin’ or ‘tall’ or ‘short’; it is we in modern society that have attached negative connotations to it, making it a word that denotes shame.

I wonder what it would have been like to have seen Holliday on the cover of my favourite magazine when I was a teenager, what the impact on my sense of myself and my own body might have been, rather than ‘What The Stars Really Weigh’ features that only perpetuated my anxiety that my body was unacceptable.

Of course, there has been backlash, and of course, Piers Morgan is involved.

Returning to Good Morning Britain from his summer break, he interviewed Farrah Storr, the editor of Cosmopolitan, and slated the choice of cover girl.

Telling Storr she was “celebrating morbid obesity,” Morgan took to social media later to say the cover was “just as dangerous & misguided as celebrating size zero models” when Britain is battling “an ever-worsening obesity crisis”.

Given the reaction to his statements, there are many who agree with him, but I would argue it’s a false equivalency to draw a comparison between the two. I can tell you from personal experience that when you are extremely, even eye-wateringly thin, people do not recoil from the sight of you.

They are not disgusted by you, and while some are concerned, that concern can be tinged with envy. “I’d love to be anorexic,” people would say to me with a laugh, “but I don’t have the willpower for it,” and I’d smile, trying not to think of my parents’ faces as they cried and told me they were afraid I was going to die.

While being anorexic is seen as a result of self-control, studies have shown that fat people are often seen as ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’ without any actual evidence to suggest this is true.

We’re told fat people are a burden on our health services and are costing the rest of us money.

We seem to think this gives us the right to take the moral high ground, although I’m not sure how shouting insults at fat women in the street or trolling Holliday because she refuses to hate herself or scowling aggressively at a fat person who has the temerity to be sitting next to you on a flight can be deemed as taking the moral high ground.

Do you take the moral high ground by attacking people who smoke?

Who drink to excess? Who eat fast food? Who have unprotected sex with people whose sexual history they’re unsure of? Or is all of your opprobrium reserved for fat people? And if so, where is the compassion? The empathy? Why can we not be kind to one another?

When Piers Morgan said that “it’s not right to encourage people to feel inspired by very, very fat people or skinny, skinny rakes”, he is completely ignoring the fact that all any of us, and women in particular, have ever been told is that we should aspire to thinness, leading many of us to despise how we look.

One magazine cover won’t negate those years of conditioning, but it is a step in the right direction. Perhaps one day there will be women of all shapes and sizes celebrated in the media, women of different heights and weights, races and ethnicities.

Maybe every young woman will be able to see her reflection and realise her body, whatever it might look like, is beautiful in its own right.


READ: People Like Me. From teenage mother to Senator, Lynn Ruane has experienced more in her 33 years than most people will in a lifetime. Her memoir tells her extraordinary story with humour, warmth, and compassion. This might be the most important book you’ll read in 2018.

BUY: Carter Beauty, the new range of makeup from the unstoppable Marissa Carter, looks set to be a smash hit. It features 103 products all under €15 – and keep an eye out for the Louise “Word of Mouth” lipstick. It was named after me!

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