The other day I came across an article entitled ‘Facebook was right to remove an advert featuring plus-sized model Tess Holliday’. Starting with the line ‘Images of significantly overweight women are as damaging as [images of] size zero women’, this article explains that promotional material featuring Holliday was banned from Facebook because the images were showing a state of health or body weight as being either ‘perfect’ or ‘undesirable’. The professionals running this promotional material appealed to Facebook on grounds of body shaming, and the Facebook corporates eventually ruled in favour of the professionals and the ban was removed.
The article argued that Facebook should have maintained the ban because Holliday is promoting an ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle; that the term ‘body shaming’ needs to stop being used as an excuse for ‘unhealthy’ bodies to continue existing; that Holliday’s flaunting of her fat body on Facebook ads sends just as terrible a message to impressionable youths as equivalent ads featuring very thin models; and that Holliday would not have been able to get away with any of this if she were an underweight model. There were also some scary-sounding statistics on the prevalence of obesity and a couple of emphatic assertions that nobody who is fat can also be healthy – the typical tropes that come with any piece of writing with a fatphobic and bigoted point of view.
It was the author’s blatant ignorance, more than anything else, that really hit a nerve with me. This author genuinely believes that public images of a fat model are as harmful as public images of a very thin model. This is a conclusion the author has reached without even the slightest understanding of the society and culture in which they, the author, reside. In a society as relentlessly fatphobic as ours, it is impossible for fat models to cause the same sort of harm as thin models can do.
The fact that we live in a fatphobic society cannot be denied. One only has to look at how fat people are treated in the media, education, the job market, the health sector, and the high street, to see that fat people are discriminated against in big ways. What might not be so clear is that our society also has very narrow female beauty standards, These standards both define ‘beautiful’ as young, thin, white, tanned, feminine, and cis-gendered; and say that anybody who does not fit these standards is ‘wrong’ in some way. Whether we like to believe it or not, the vast majority of us are influenced by these standards and our desire to adhere to them.
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One group of people who are particularly aware of the influential power of beauty standards is marketers. In order to make whatever they are selling appealing (especially if what they are selling is beauty-related), they know that it is going to be best to use models that reflect our beauty standards. That is why well over 90% of the models you see advertising clothing, cosmetics, nutritional supplements and other tangentially beauty-related products are white, young, feminine (if women), cis-gendered, able-bodied, and thin. Indeed, the thinner the better, hence the prevalence of very underweight models.
This is yet another way in which the society we live in is disproportionately over-representing the most privileged of us. That is bad enough in itself from a social representation perspective. But in this particular case, the overexposure also serves to reinforce our society’s narrow beauty standards. The more the narrow beauty standards of our society are reinforced by the continued overuse of very thin models, the more people will try to achieve these standards by any means necessary, which then leads to the problematic behaviours we talk about when we say that campaigns featuring underweight models should be banned. Banning some of these campaigns can be thought of as a preventative measure – a small step to try and stop the vicious circle of reinforcing beauty standards in its tracks.
On the other end of the scale, there is Tess Holliday. Holliday is not only fatter than most models, but she is also fatter than more than half of the general population. Using Holliday and other models like her – models who very obviously do not fit society’s narrow beauty standards – on the very same platforms normally dominated by only be most privileged of us, has the potential to not only widen beauty standards, but break them down altogether.
The author of the article is clearly worried that showcasing fat models like Tess Holliday will make impressionable young people believe that they need to become size 26s to be beautiful. I sincerely hope that that idea seems as ridiculous to anybody reading this article as it did to me just then as I typed it.
Fatphobia is much too potent a societal force for that outcome. No young person will look at a picture of Holliday and think ‘I wish I were as fat as her’. Being fat puts people at a disadvantage in our culture, and while not everybody may be aware of how far-reaching fatphobia is, most people are at least subconsciously aware enough to know that they do not want to be fat. Images of Tess Holliday are not going to change that.
All Holliday’s pictures are doing (apart from, presumably, advertising on behalf of whoever has hired her), is introducing the idea that beauty comes in more forms than what we normally see. That is a very important message for people to learn, and blocking Holliday and other fat models under the misguided idea that exposure to such models will be harmful, conversely prevents the breaking down of narrow beauty standards that our society desperately needs.
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I am far from mindlessly optimistic when it comes to the relationship between fatphobia, narrow beauty standards, and the advertising industry. I know that it is going to take a lot of time and hard activism before fat models (or short models, models of colour, non-cisgendered models, disabled models, etc.) are given enough visibility to accurately reflect the diversity of the world around us. However, somebody like Tess Holliday represents a positive step in the right direction. Giving fat models more visibility helps to broaden and break down society’s narrow beauty standards, and as such, we should be doing everything we can to make sure fat models can be seen.
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[Feature Image: A photo of Tess Holliday. She has long brown curly hair, a black shirt with a pink heart in the middle that says ‘Eff Your Beauty Standards’, and a grey and black polka-dot skirt. To the left of her it says, ‘THE REALITY IS I AM FAT. IT’S A WORD. IT’S AN ADJECTIVE AND I DON’T CARE.” The background is blue. Source: Youtube]