Weighing in on Tess Holliday

HOLLY HUDSON discusses the controversial new status of plus size model Tess Holliday.

Last week, the modelling world was turned on its impeccably coiffed head of hair by the relatively unknown model Tess Holliday. But what caused this media sh*t storm and had heroin-chic puritans cowering in their Manolos? The fact that Holliday has become the largest plus size model ever to sign to a major modelling agency.

Everybody calm down. All that’s happened is that a UK size 24 woman has become a model. According to her website, Holliday, real name Tess Munster, is a “Plus-Size Model, Make Up Artist, [and] Body Positive Activist”,  having launched her #effyourbeautystandards campaign in a bid to encourage all women to reconsider their perceptions of beauty and to “love their bodies”. But, branded ‘a walrus wearing clothes’ by one particularly angry commentator, many have criticised Holliday for being too plus sized.

It is comments such as these that have raised a polarising question: exactly how plus sized is too plus sized? According to a number of critics, Holliday is promoting obesity; an unhealthy body shape that has the skinny, celery-munching, Mulberry-toting Tatlerites attacking the model left right and centre.

We’ve been told so much about the risks of obesity that we know them like the back of our hand: heart disease, diabetes, premature death – the list continues. For some, Tess is as much of a negative role model as an anorexic woman at the other end of the scale. Indeed, obesity is no laughing matter and it is a serious illness that needs to be warned against and dealt with properly. But I can’t help but think that for every Tess Holliday, there are about a thousand unhealthily thin models with their image out there for all to see.


Image source: http://tessmunster.com
Image source: http://tessmunster.com

One of Holliday’s recent Instagram pictures of herself bikini-clad includes the caption ‘this has ZERO to do with health’. Emphatic indeed. I’m not sure I can support her refusal to address the issue of health, which is important no matter what size you are. Her tendency to avoid the issue in interviews concerns me. She recently commented that health is an active ‘choice’ for everyone, but surely everyone would choose to be healthy given the option?

But I can’t help but wonder how different the modelling world, and indeed public perception of beauty standards, would be if there were more Tess Hollidays in the public eye. I’m not saying everyone should be encouraged to be a size 24, but surely it’s not a bad thing for women to have positive examples of body self-confidence in the media. This is Holliday’s overarching ethos: to have confidence in your body, whatever shape it is. This is a mantra that the fashion industry has apparently been preaching to us for the past 5 years, and yet, we’ve seen barely any evidence of the industry actually practicing what it preaches. Flicking through Vogue and Tatler only reveals a continual obsession with sullen cheekbones and thigh gaps. Tess Holliday is, hopefully, the beginning of a new influential movement in the elitist modelling world: one towards complete body confidence, that’s not afraid to stand up and say it’s ok to be whatever size you’re happy and healthy in.

On the other side of the fence, the majority of people – us normal sized folk with normal lives who are not surrounded by Kate Moss lookalikes on a daily basis – are rejoicing. Upon recently asking my flatmates, all media and pop-culture savvy humans, if they could name any famous plus sized models, the only one mentioned was Crystal Renn, a UK size 12. Let’s face it, in the real world a size 12 doesn’t classify as ‘plus-size’; that’s ‘normal size’. The majority of plus sized models are only around a size 16, which, as the average UK dress size, doesn’t seem like such a confident middle-finger to the teeny weeny models dominating the industry. Four dress sizes bigger, Holliday is indeed a renegade.

There is, then, a faint glimmer of hope. The majority of articles on Holliday have been supportive of her breaking into the modelling world; then again, no reputable publication would allow a “hate the fat girl” article to be published in our politically correct 21st century. Similarly, the recent debate between naturally skinny girls and skinny girl haters has been treated with kid gloves: body image will always be a sensitive issue. But it’s clear, at the very least, that public reaction to larger women seems to be advancing. Yes, it’s ok to be whatever size you’re naturally inclined to be; and yes, there is a place, albeit small, in the modelling world for larger, body confident women. We aren’t all Karlie Kloss and Joan Smalls sized, and nor should we want to be.

Image source: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/article/TMG9524919/From-cocaine-to-eating-cotton-wool-balls-how-models-stay-thin.html
Image source: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/article/TMG9524919/From-cocaine-to-eating-cotton-wool-balls-how-models-stay-thin.html

The thing that saddens me most about the debate surrounding her is the light it sheds on the obsession with perfection that still plagues the modelling world. People are getting all worked up over the fact that someone got a job that is normally reserved for much thinner women. Seems pretty ridiculous when you reduce it down to the facts, doesn’t it? The fact that most of the criticism thrown at her comes from other women is doubly disheartening.

Sadly, I fear that the debate over plus size models will continue for a long while. Until women of Holliday’s shape are accepted as a normal part of the modelling world, which it definitely isn’t right now, our catwalks will continue to be dominated by 22 inch waists. I for one will wholeheartedly support anyone with the confidence to attempt to change the attitude of the fashion world’s unhealthy, elitist inner circle. #Effyourbeautystandards.

CategoriesHolly Hudson