Why Does Tess Holliday, The Size 22 Model, Make Us Uncomfortable?

Tess Holliday has been making headlines ever since her campaign called #effyourbeautystandards came to the spotlight. There has been A LOT of conversation about the implications of having a size 22 model in the public gaze, especially with her recent contracts into mainstream modeling agencies. There are those who believe that this is good for body diversification in the realm of media representations. Indeed many people in the so-called fat acceptance movement have hailed this as a victory. There are those who disagree, and believe that Tess’s media attention is the glorification of one extreme over another; who have questions about health and wellness, and the implications of this for a country that struggles with obesity.

I decided to dialogue with one of my favourite health professionals, Jordan Parker. As a matter of full disclosure, I used to take Parker’s classes when she taught at my health club when I first moved to Chicago, and we built a friendship from there. She has since moved on to do environmental work and advocacy. But having had years of experience in the health and fitness industry, and a psychology background, I believe her expertise and knowledge made her a great candidate for this conversation.

Thought Catalog:  Hi Jordan, can you tell us a little about yourself? Your background in health, fitness, etc.

Jordan Parker: Sure. I was an asthmatic child with quite a few health problems – allergies, eczema, etc. – and got into sports when I was really young. It was incredibly helpful for my self-esteem and made me feel “normal” and powerful. I’ve been active my whole life. I started competing in triathlons in my early 20’s, and became a personal trainer and fitness instructor shortly after. I worked in the fitness industry for over 15 years.

For several years I taught classes full-time, specializing in high-intensity interval training, strength training, and indoor cycling. I worked with clients one-on-one for many years previous to that, and then found the energy and community of classes more exciting. I’ve always been a big proponent of strength training for all populations. It’s important from a health perspective and also from a psychological one. Being strong physically has always helped me be stronger mentally.

Jordan Parker
Jordan Parker

TC: Getting right to it. Tess Holliday has received a lot of media attention. Firstly with her #effyourbeautystandards campaign, and secondly making strides in the modeling world. What is your first reaction to the unceasing talk about her body?

On one hand, it seems like there are people who believe that this is really breaking barriers in terms of body acceptance or body diversity, as far as media representations are concerned. And on the other hand, there are people who are saying that her being in such spotlight “promotes” obesity. What are your thoughts?

JP: When I first saw photos of Tess Holliday, it was pretty shocking, of course. I can understand why she is getting the attention she is – because she is extreme. We Americans love our extremes. Not only is she overweight, or obese; she is morbidly obese. So of course this is going to get some attention. I think it’s important to identify what her message is. From the little I’ve read about her – interviews and pieces – it seems that her message is more along the lines of “Fuck you all, I’m fat and I love it!” rather than “I’m fat and I’m healthy.” There is a big difference there.

“Fat shaming” is definitely something we hear a lot about these days, and I can understand the issue. On one hand, every person has a right – and a duty – to accept and love themselves for exactly who they are. This internal acceptance and validation is critical for all of us. I’m not sure if Tess’s message is that she truly loves herself – and she is validating herself from within – or if she is looking externally for validation around being morbidly obese.

If she has come to love herself, I say more power to her. It is from this place of self-love that we can actually make the most powerful changes. I have seen many obese and morbidly obese people struggle in the gym and in their lives because they hate themselves for being fat. Paradoxically, if they can accept and love themselves for who they are – fat or not – it makes losing the weight all that much easier. I’ve seen it.

“Either end of the spectrum does a disservice to “beauty standards,” because regardless of what is happening at the extremes the average woman lies somewhere in the middle: and that is what we don’t see very much.”

If people who are obese/morbidly obese can find this place of internal validation and acceptance, then their lifestyle and weight becomes their choice; not society’s. And I think this is one of the big issues here; obese and morbidly obese people feeling the massive amount of pressure and shame from society to be thinner.

In a large sense, Tess is “taking back the control” of her body through her modeling. Whether or not this is really what is going on psychologically for her or not, I’m not sure. Regardless, the images send the message that she is okay in her body and it’s her body: she can do what she wants to with it. She gets to decide. And I think that is a good thing.

Another angle in terms of the message her images are sending however, is that it is just another form of fetishization and commodification of female sexuality. Tess Holliday’s images are really no different than anorexically-thin or airbrushed models: it’s just the other end of the spectrum. Either end of the spectrum does a disservice to “beauty standards,” because regardless of what is happening at the extremes the average woman lies somewhere in the middle – and that is what we don’t see very much.

About as many women look like Tess Holliday, as look like Gisele, at least in my opinion. The average woman is still not represented and seen as “beautiful.” She has to be either a perfected version of herself or an extreme/garish caricature of herself – she can’t just be herself. That is too boring and “normal” I suppose, at least in the media. As far as Tess Holliday “promoting obesity”…I don’t think people watching her get to decide what she does or doesn’t promote. She is presenting an image, and we get to decide how we interpret it.

TC: I really liked what you had to say about the notions of America’s extremes. It’s something that as an outsider looking in, who is invested in the culture, I am constantly informing people of this perspective. And it’s not just limited to health, fitness, and wellness. But I do have this theory that some people are “angry” at Tess or at the industry or the situation, for this lack of “average-” sized bodies.

But I also wonder if some of this anger or displeasure or discomfort with Tess receiving this media attention comes from something else; maybe a certain societal envy, if you will? People who are eating healthy and are fit, and are in general, conscious of their body in a positive way are not necessarily rewarded as perhaps someone who they deem is not “worthy” of this attention. Because they, according to society’s rules, are doing the “right things” for their body, and just on face value, Tess supposedly isn’t. What do you think about that? Do people just feel that the “wrong person” is being rewarded?

JP: I think as we starting digging into the layers of meaning and dynamics going on in society at large, this topic becomes fascinating pretty quickly. You’re definitely on to something when you talk about society’s “anger.” I agree, it’s much more than just being dissatisfied by truly “average bodies” being underrepresented in the media.

Two things came to me when I read your question. The first is that I think one source of this anger comes from people looking for external validation for their appearance. I’ll use myself as an example: For all of my 20’s and a large portion of my 30’s a primary motive of mine to work out was to be attractive and “hot” in society’s eyes. My intensity working out – and my motivation to work in the fitness industry – largely came from a place of feeding off that external validation I got for looking great in my size 2 Lululemon.

“When we stop looking externally for validation and attention, we become less concerned about who else is getting attention.”

It wasn’t until I tore my ACL in a fluke accident and was forced to take some time off that I really went in-depth into who I am and what my motives really are. From the thousands and thousands of people who I personally trained and taught in my fitness classes, I can say first hand that the majority of them wanted to look good to others; and that was a primary motive for coming to the club or the class.

I also noticed an intensity among women who were in their 30’s and 40’s, and starting to experience some of the natural progression of aging. There was almost an obsession with preserving youth, with showing up and working out hard every day, in an attempt to compete with the nubile 20-somethings next to them on a bike or a mat. I also worked in high-end clubs like Equinox, where you would be likely to find a Gisele next to you in yoga but absolutely not a Tess Holliday.

So, what I’m saying is when our motive for working out is primarily to look good to the world, there is a sense of weakness and judgement that comes along with that. Because we’re always looking for external validation, we’re constantly sizing up the “competition.” Now I work out because it’s good for me and I love how it makes me feel more than anything. I’m not attached to the size of my little workout outfits or the feedback I’m getting on my body. I’m not attached to the “scene” in a particular class or the status of being “FNC” (“Front And Center” – it’s true, this is actually a “thing”).

I feel more comfortable in my body and less attached to what people think about it. And because of this, I’m much more easy-going and accepting of the Tess Hollidays of the world, because I’m me, and she is her, and that is okay. When we stop looking externally for validation and attention, we become less concerned about who else is getting attention.

The second thing that I thought about when I was reading your question is the work ethic in America. We have an idea that work should be rewarded, and when someone is obese or morbidly obese, we assume that they aren’t putting in the work. We assume that they’re not physically active, but it also goes beyond that. We also assume that they are just lazy period, and aren’t being “productive.” I think this is another thing that makes us “angry”. We feel that we should be rewarded for being “healthy, productive, and working hard,” while obese and morbidly obese people should not.


TC: So many excellent points and ones that definitely crossed my mind as I was thinking and reflecting about this topic. But I do want to ask about these preconceived notions we have about appearance and health. I think people who are adequately educated on health and fitness know that “health” does come in different sizes. But the question I have is can health really come at any size? I am admittedly skeptical that it can.

But beyond that too, I have my qualms with the so-called “fat acceptance” movement. Notwithstanding there is something to be said about fat prejudice that I think we all grow up with, then culturally, perceiving American culture outside of a citizen’s perspective, I do think that I grew up in a home and a culture where to me, this movement seems quite politically correct, and isn’t necessarily achieving the outcome – health – that we can all agree is most important in conversations about body.

So, what, if any, are the misconceptions about “being healthy at every size?” And is it really that “fat acceptance” becomes not a way to end fat shaming but rather a way of glorification of fat? (And should “fat” be glorified? And are we prejudiced if we don’t think it should?)

JP: This is such an interesting topic – we could talk about this for hours! Health absolutely cannot come “at any size.” Can someone be “healthy” and be carrying around a few extra pounds? Absolutely! Can someone be “healthy” and be obese or morbidly obese? Absolutely not. First let’s just talk about the logistics of being obese or morbidly obese for a minute. There is the physical limitation of just moving all that flesh around, unfortunately.

Let’s be honest: Tess is not going to be riding a bike, jogging or hiking anywhere. Her range of motion and flexibility are severely compromised simply because there is so much fat on her skeleton. So logistically being that large severely inhibits a person’s ability to move. And if you can’t move, that’s a major health problem. Human beings aren’t designed to sit or lie around all the time. Moving keeps us healthy. And this is probably the primary reason why obesity and morbid obesity are directly linked to a whole litany of health issues: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, stroke, cancer, etc. etc.

“We all have advantages and disadvantages physically and environmentally just like we do socioeconomically.”

When we see someone like Tess Holliday can we assume that she is most likely completely sedentary and unhealthy? Yes. We can assume that. It’s the same as assuming a person in a wheelchair cannot walk. What we cannot assume, however, is that her physical state is entirely within her control or is necessarily her choice.

There are so many reasons why someone may be obese or morbidly obese. For example, childhood obesity is at an all-time high in this country. And it is extremely likely that those children will all become obese and morbidly obese adults. (Plenty of research indicates that a person’s metabolism and “set point” are blueprinted in childhood and adolescence. Therefore, if a child is obese or morbidly obese it will take a Herculean effort or surgery to be lean and fit as an adult.)

If a child was less fortunate in the genetic lottery and was raised in an environment where inactivity, sugar, and stress were all staples, can we really assume his or her obesity is a choice? I stop short of saying anyone is a victim – because I fundamentally believe anyone can change – but the cards are definitely stacked against some people, starting in utero. We all have advantages and disadvantages physically and environmentally just like we do socioeconomically.

What I’ve seen happen is that overweight children or adults often cross the threshold into obesity or morbid obesity, and when this happens they enter a series of feedback loops that are almost impossible to reverse. Once you have reached a certain body fat percentage, it becomes harder and harder to physically move. Then you become less active, and gain more weight; and then you become even less active…you see where this is going. Rather than criticize Tess Holliday, we should be criticizing parents who allow their children to sit on their devices all day and eat crap.

What we may see as a “fat acceptance” or “glorification of fat” movement is, in my opinion, really about validation rather than fat. Because fat is so visible, and we live in a corporeal world, people who are obese or morbidly obese face so much more discrimination than someone struggling with a mental health issue who can mask it from society. Or, someone who is anorexic whose clothing covers up the protruding bones.

I think one of the biggest problems here are the assumptions we make surrounding an obese or morbidly obese person’s worth as a person and control over their lives and bodies. Are they most likely sedentary? Sure. You can see that. Are they unhealthy? Absolutely. Is it as simple as them “getting off their asses and going to the gym”? Hell, no. Besides genetics and childhood obesity, mental health is another important variable to consider. We all know someone who could easily be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But if that person is our boss, our president, or even just an interesting friend, we’re so much more forgiving of their neuroses.

If someone self-medicates with food and alcohol and happens to wear it on their body every day for everyone to see, we feel entitled to come down on those people harder than everyone else. We’re blind to many of the issues that are rampant in our society, but because fat is so visible we hone in on that.


TC: I have to wrap this up otherwise we’ll be here for ages. And I definitely agree with a lot of what you say. But in comparison with many cultures, I think that American culture really needs a societal reflection on food and its relationship with food. Because the reality is many countries and cultures don’t suffer from this health problem. (Even where there are those who do.) But again it might be an intercultural prejudice I might have too, especially coming from a home and culture where food is enjoyment but it is not medication or a source of abuse. Ultimately I think “excess” and “extremes” is the norm in much of American food culture.

Now all that aside, and this may seem contradictory after we’ve just analyzed the implications of Holliday’s media attention, but should we even care? Are we “allowed” to care about the size of other people’s bodies? It seems to me that you can’t have this conversation without ultimately bordering on policing women’s bodies, which I think society does a “good” enough job of that already.

Is it problematic to have this conversation, and do we ultimately mask our concern for Tess’s body as a health concern, when really we’re just engaging in a certain kind of policing? For what it’s worth, I think the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and I think the conversation can be a good one. But I also fear that not only the intentions might be impure in some of these public conversations, but the consequences amount to negative outcomes for how we look at and talk about women’s bodies, which always seem to have such a strict gaze. In those important and famed words: The body is not an apology.

JP: I completely agree with you that the line between healthy discourse and policing – particularly women’s bodies – is often a blurry one. Bring up the topic of breast implants, Botox or any other type of cosmetic surgery, and see what happens. I think that every creator of content and viewer of content is entitled to engage in discussion about that content: we are all active participants in the ongoing creation of our cultural narrative.

That being said, I think simply discussing the difference between analysis and policing is a very effective way of identifying the latter. Tess has put herself out there and by nature wants people to talk. And I think this is a positive. Where it becomes negative is when people make assumptions about the internal life of Tess beyond the images we are viewing. We can fairly accurately assume that she is inactive due to the sheer amount of mass she is carrying around, and we can also correctly assume that being morbidly obese is unhealthy.

The emotional reactions around these images, however – “Tess is a fat pig, she has no business getting attention” – are really what we should be examining. As I mentioned, obesity and morbid obesity are complicated issues. It’s not just a matter of being lazy or gluttonous. Has anyone considered that perhaps Tess has gone through life not feeling seen, and this is the first shot she’s had at really feeling seen? Isn’t that what all of us want in some way, to be seen for who we really are and not our external beauty, status in our professions or bank accounts?

“But, especially in this addicted, extreme, overworked society, do we have a right to place ultimate value judgements on other peoples’ lifestyles as if we know what it’s like to be them?”

We absolutely have a right to discuss Tess’s images. But we don’t have a right to decide how she became the way she is, what her psychological landscape is like, or her intrinsic worth as a person. Some people may claim that we do have a right to police “unhealthy” behaviors such as smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyles, etc. They are all burdens on the health care system, is one argument. I agree, those things are burdens on the healthcare system.

But, especially in this addicted, extreme, overworked society, do we have a right to place ultimate value judgements on other peoples’ lifestyles as if we know what it’s like to be them? Maybe some people just can’t handle life without a cigarette. Is that much different from someone buying wine and cupcakes at Whole Foods and indulging in front of the TV to “unwind”? Maybe being morbidly obese feels like a life sentence to Tess, and it’s actually the best that she can do. Maybe she’s come to terms with who she is and wants to be seen for more than just her body. And that is something I think all of us can relate to. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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