A bitch-fest erupted recently over comments made by 70s cover girl Cheryl Tiegs concerning Sports Illustrated’s choice of plus-size model Ashley Graham for February’s Swimsuit Issue, despite the fact that Sports Illustrated is a magazine dedicated to promoting the epitome of athleticism (clue’s in the title) and Graham looks like the most exercise she’s had lately is rolling around on satin sheets searching for the Tim Tam she dropped. I should be so lucky.

“I don’t think it’s healthy,” said cocaine-era Cheryl of the ‘full figured’ model phenomenon, and boy, did the reactionary masses come down on her like a ton of hot bricks. Tiegs was accused of fat-shamming, equating beauty with weight and forced to pen an apology. Canadian comedian Nicole Arbour, whose YouTube monologue, Dear Fat People went viral because everyone hated it so much, says there’s no such thing as fat-shamming. That fat people made it up, that it’s a race card with no race. “It doesn’t matter if you’re size 2 or 22,” said Graham, who weighs 77kgs (the average New Zealand woman is 72), in response to the furore, “every woman needs to love themselves.”

OK, let’s just breathe for a moment. Of course beauty is not an equation requiring a set weight or specific facial characteristics and Sports Illustrated covers have become more diverse since Cheryl’s time, to include models outside the norm such as Kate Upton (captured in zero gravity at Cape Canaveral) and Rhonda Rousey. “She’s hot,” said the economist, “even though she looks like she’d knock you out.” Hotness sell magazines and these women are proof you can be sexy at any size.

Well, almost any. There’s no denying Ashley Graham is totally gorgeous, and I admire the va va voom she stands for, but I think it matters enormously if you’re a size 22. If you’re a size 22, you can love yourself as much as you want but your family aren’t going to have you around for much longer, and that doesn’t show much love for them. Ha! Fooled you. That’s some fat-shamming right there. ‘Health’ is a common work-around for society’s intolerance, and in some cases, hatred, of fat people. So long as individuals can indulge in ‘concern trolling’ – harassing and threatening under the guise of worry for wellbeing: ‘Oh, I just care about you SO MUCH … please stop doing/being that thing I don’t like,’ they’re able to equate fatness with moral weakness, badness. And isn’t it hypocritical to be preaching faux anxiety about a larger model’s BMI when the really skinny ones are smoking their heads off and eating a box of tissues for dinner?

Actually, I do indulge in a little private fat shamming, most mornings. I might even give my fat a wee poke and call it names. It doesn’t give a monkeys. My fat was made by sauvignon blanc and love. Of pasta. It is, as the economist puts it, “all bought and paid for.”

While fat (the word itself just a descriptor like ‘heavyset’ and not inherently pejorative) models and body acceptance have become mainstream, the issue of fatness is still so loaded it is almost impossible to talk about. “Don’t write about fat shamming!” I was warned, “You’re not fat, it will look bad.” Bog off. Obesity now an epidemic, like cholera with a side order of fries, does the call to embrace your curves and love your body translate to an ambivalence towards looking after it? Are super-sized models sending a message that heart disease, diabetes and cancer are but trifles? I’m all about self-compassion but I grew up in the 1980s, when Kentucky Fried Chicken ads featured two fat redhead twins: ‘and Hugo said you go, and I said no, you go …’ Today that would be a devastating public health announcement featuring Valarie Adams – Hugo and Holly removed from their abusive parents.

How can society hate fat people while fashion loves them? Well, do you remember flares? Ra Ra skirts, double denim and poodle perms? All fashion’s idea. The fashion industry is filled with the world’s meanest mean girls, made nastier by constant hunger and brittle bones. If you think they aren’t laughing behind their hands every time they see Ashley Graham on the cover of something, you’re insane. Do you really think one of the world’s shallowest and most toxic industries has suddenly become a beacon of inclusivity and harmony? There are 78.6 million obese adults in America alone. The plus-size clothing industry, while still in its infancy, is already worth 17.5 billion a year. Fat is in fashion because, just like in the junk food industry, making money is. 

AuthorLisa Scott