Tess Munster/Holliday is lots of things. She's a mother, a style icon and the keeper of 357,000 Instagram followers. This week, she's celebrating another victory. Holliday was signed to a major modeling contract with MiLk Model Management -- as the "largest" plus-size model they have.
News of Holliday's modeling contract has sparked a noteworthy debate about body image, mainly about whether Holliday is a role model or a problem. People all over the internet are asking: Does she inspire women or encourage them to embrace an unhealthy lifestyle?
“I think we’re the only agency with a model of her size. She is by far the largest model I have in the [Curves] division,” said Anna Shillinglaw of MiLK Model Management in a press statement.
Notice that when they could've called her photogenic, talented or even professional, her plus-sizeness overshadowed that?
Whether Holiday is being celebrated or vilified, this conversation revolves around a binary between skinny vs. fat, thin vs. overweight, healthy vs. unhealthy — such extremes that so many women don't fit into, and if they do, are similarly praised or rejected for. And even if a woman is happy with the way she looks (like Holliday), it creates an atmosphere where other women think they can freely comment on a stranger's body.
To shine some light on this issue, we spoke with psychologist and body image researcher Dr. Renee Engeln for further insight.
In the beginning of our conversation, Dr. Engeln was quick to point out the present pop culture references to "skinny bitches" (such as in "All About That Bass"). But she notes that for most women, it's not as simple as taking two sides in the body debate.
"We’re so used to talking about women as if they were just bodies,” she explains. The real issue is that even the positive sides of stories like this reinforce the notion that it's OK to categorize women by their size. “All these discussions blind us to the fact that these are human beings.”
Dr. Engeln acknowledged that this isn't without some positive effects either. Mostly, if women who are used to not seeing themselves represented by models do feel represented now, then that's still a good thing. The negativity comes from how the coverage of these stories refocus everyone's attention back on women's bodies.
"A lot of women are thinking about their bodies all of the time,” Dr. Engeln says. It’s not enough that this draws women’s attention back to their size, “It’s drawing other people’s attention to women’s bodies so they go online and comment on them.”
Holliday herself is fantastic and inspiring to women, but as Dr. Engeln argues, if her size is solely being used for publicity, then this isn't a mark of any progressive change. The real issue is her story getting caught up in a cycle of media coverage that's more of the same.
"It’s a curiosity to me why the public feels the need to comment at all on what type of women’s body is or is not acceptable,” she stated. "I don’t think women need any help thinking more about whether the size of their bodies or other women’s bodies is OK.”
The fact that women have the most relevant voices when it comes to the body image debate means there's hope for changing the conversation.
“Most women don’t want to spend their time taking sides in a body war," Dr. Engeln said. Instead of our sizes dividing us, she says we should reframe the conversation as grounds to unite on.
"It puts women all in the same camp," she says. "A terrible camp, where they’re thinking about how their body looks.”
And to be fair, we all think that camp is in dire need of a makeover.