In A World Of Watered-Down 'Body Positivity,' The Tess Holliday Self Cover Is A Radical Choice

Women’s media is one of the worst offenders when it comes to making women feel terrible about themselves, and it often does so under a veneer of empowerment.

This week, Self magazine unveiled its first digital cover, featuring a surprising photo choice: plus-size model Tess Holliday, posing in diaphanous fuchsia, her bare back and one of her upper arms forming the center of the image.

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This was surprising because Self has historically been a “fitness” magazine, and fitness is usually code not for metabolic health or fun, fulfilling physical activity, but for women who look a certain part ― women who are most often slender, muscular but not so muscular as to seem “unfeminine,” and conventionally attractive in a modelesque way.

So it was unexpected to see Tess Holliday’s body showcased on the cover ― and doubly so to see it alongside the headline “Tess Holliday’s Health Is None of Your Business.”

As a fat acceptance activist for two decades, who literally wrote a book on the topic and spent several years writing and editing essays about fattery for mainstream media, I was astonished.

I instantly imagined the popular response to such an in-your-face cover choice. What? But that’s bonkers, people would say. Look how fat she is! Of course her health is our business! Her whole body is our business! Fat bodies are, after all, still perceived as public property ― reach a certain stage of fatness and you will rapidly learn that people feel entitled if not compelled to tell you what you are doing wrong, even if you are total strangers, because being that fat evidently means you cannot be trusted with your own body and are in need of outsiders to instruct you on the finer points of body-having.

Point being, this cover ― and the whole “Weight Issue” of which it is part ― felt like an actually radical moment in the miasma of half-baked and tentative “body positivity” spreading through public discourse over the past few years.

Fat activism originated in the late 1960s with the creation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, and developed more radical approaches into the 1970s with the creation of the Fat Underground, a more explicitly activist movement.

I found fat activism in the late ’90s, when I discovered Susan Stinson’s mesmerizing coming-of-age novel Fat Girl Dances With Rocks in the old Tower Records on Boston’s Newbury Street. Shortly thereafter I ran across Marilyn Wann’s seminal fat activist book Fat!So?, and issues of the lesbian zine FaT GiRL.

I was 20 and had already spent most of my short life dieting, and I was sick of failing at it; even before being exposed to these ideas, I’d begun to suspect that the problem wasn’t with me, but with the diets themselves, and the culture pushing me to look differently than I did. These books showed me a world in which women were fighting back against these pressures ― asserting their right not only to be seen as fat people, but to be respected and valued as well.

I thus became active in fat acceptance, eventually co-moderating the LiveJournal Fatshionista community, at the time one of the largest and most active internet spaces of its kind.

This experience was transformative for me on multiple levels. It created an opportunity to collaborate with a huge collective of like-minded individuals. It developed leadership skills in me that I never knew I had. And most of all, it threw a spotlight on the need for intersectional approaches to body politics ― approaches that consider not only bodies that are merely fat, but also bodies that are fat and disabled, or fat and black, or fat and poor, or fat and queer, and so on. We argued and commiserated; there were fights and revelations. It was a magical space for a while, not only for me but for a few thousand other people.

Fatshionista was also an explicitly politically motivated community that was slowly taken over by a vocal minority, and eventually a majority, of people who were only looking for places to shop and wanted nothing to do with body politics at all. This shift would be paralleled in the culture at large with the mainstreaming of the now ubiquitous “body positivity” ― a toothless, deradicalized version of fat acceptance rooted in a vague advocacy that all bodies are OK.

Body positivity can now be seen in the Instagram posts of decidedly not-fat women from sea to shining sea, and while it might seem like a good thing ― surely we want women of all sizes not to hate their bodies, right? ― it is ultimately the defanged corporatization of a radical activist movement, in which companies work to steal women’s self-esteem only to sell it back to them using the language of activists who were fighting against the popular reliance on consumerism as a source of validation and self-worth in the first place.

For example, a plus-size clothing retailer employs body-positive language to portray buying shapewear as an “empowering” decision that “allows” a woman to wear a bodycon dress. A soap company tells women that all ― well, most ― bodies are “beautiful,” relying on this association to make women think their product will make them feel better about themselves. Truth is, you can wear a bodycon dress without shapewear, soap won’t make you any happier with your appearance, and you can’t get self-esteem from a store.

Body positivity takes a movement that sought to rewrite the conversation about bodies and weight and acceptability, and turns it into a series of marketing catchphrases ― or, as a recent Racked takedown calls it, a “scam” ― while erasing years of effort by activists who laid the groundwork for fat acceptance as a means of improving the lives of actual fat people.

It’s not too far a stretch to say that fat acceptance saved my life, so I get very salty about the way body positivity has co-opted these radical efforts while eliminating some of the fiercest tenets of the movement.

Fat activism does not strive for assimilation, or goalpost-moving in which the range of acceptable bodies is slightly expanded while still excluding people past a certain weight. Where fat activism interrogates and subverts a culture that tells fat women their bodies are revolting and must be hidden, body positivity lauds average-weight women who advocate for loving your “flaws.” Body positivity turns dieting into “clean eating,” it asserts that no body problem is so great that a solution cannot be bought, and it suggests that literally anything is “body-positive” so long as the person engaging in the behavior thinks she is doing it out of a positive impulse ― even if doing so reinforces damaging cultural assumptions about bodies and weight. In fact, this is actually the opposite of a body-positive movement, hashtags notwithstanding.

But now, here we are: Tess Holliday is nearly topless on the cover of Self, her voluptuous back rolls unaltered and in full view. And as cynical as I have become on the subject of fat acceptance as a mainstream topic, I looked at this and thought, in spite of myself ― finally, someone is trying to do this right.

From Holliday’s declaration that she has given up trying “prove” her worthiness by asserting that she is one of the “good, healthy” fat people (“By telling people that you see a doctor, and telling people that you’re healthy, it’s perpetuating the abuse against bigger bodies and the mindset that we owe it to people to be healthy. The reality is I don’t owe you shit and I don’t have to prove that I’m healthy or not, because it is nobody’s business”), to the methodical takedown of what we actually understand (and don’t understand) about the connections between fat and illness, to personal essays from Jes Baker, Sonya Renee Taylor and others, this issue ― guest edited by Ijeoma Oluo ― has been handled remarkably correctly, especially for a magazine that has been responsible for decades of toxic messaging to women about weight and health.

It feels almost like a penance.

And penance is due. Women’s media is one of the worst offenders when it comes to making women feel terrible about themselves, and it often does so under a veneer of empowerment. You may be fat and ugly now, but follow our advice and you can be thin and beautiful! Just buy these things and do this work and if you are pure and dedicated enough it will happen for you. And if it doesn’t, that’s your fault. You did something wrong.

Self’s Weight Issue steps outside that script in a dramatic way. It conceives of a world in which fat bodies are valid as they are, regardless of how healthy they may or may not be, and takes a stand against widespread stereotypes about fat and health.

This may seem like a small thing, especially in an era where it feels as though the world is falling apart around us, a little more every day. But we need liberation from the tyranny of culturally mandated body loathing more than ever. We need to each of us understand that we are valuable and have contributions to make, and those who would mock or deride us need to understand that as well.

We need the energy we have poured into loathing our thighs or our upper arms or our bellies to work toward improving our world; we can’t afford to spend our time worrying about how well we fit a superficial ideal. Because this is what a fat-fearing culture does ― it tells fat women they must disappear, and it tells not-fat women they must be ever vigilant, lest they fall into a dangerous place. All of this sucks up energy and attention that we could put to better things.

Self, unexpected as it may seem, is leading the way.

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