The problem with calling Tess Holliday the ‘size 22 supermodel’

It’s just numbers porn.

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If you’ve left your cave (or the bridge under which you dwell) in the past couple weeks, you’ll have heard about Tess Holliday, the “Size 22 Supermodel.” This description has been all over the press coverage—most recently on the cover of People—almost to the point that “size 22” is beginning to seem like part of her name. (I guess “world’s largest” just didn’t sit well in editorial meetings.)

I’m not dissing Tess. I think she’s magnificent, not just because she is freakishly gorgeous, but because she is smart, outspoken, and unflinchingly positive about her body, and she is bringing that awesome message to a national audience. That is a fantastic thing.

That said, I’ve noticed a strange trend in some of the responses to Tess Holliday’s press extravaganza. I don’t mean the people who are all “STOP GLORIFYING OBESITY!” because nobody cares what they think. No, I mean the folks who can’t seem to stop themselves from expressing doubts that Tess is a size 22, often even while professing to be a fan of hers. I’ve noticed this in comment threads all over the place, and on Tess’ own Instagram.

Before I get into why this is happening, it’s important to recognize that fat acceptance and body acceptance are not a monolith; instead, they unfold along a broad spectrum. There are people who ally themselves with these movements because they have radical political reasons for doing so, because of the injury done by medical bias and perfectly legal discrimination, and because they perceive the socially acceptable abuse of fat people as a tremendous injustice that robs people of their happiness and dignity, if not their actual lives.

No matter how you slice it, a “size 22” is a ballpark figure, not a precise measurement, and it doesn’t “look” like any one thing.

And there are also people who simply want to wear cute clothes and be embraced by similar beauty standards to the ones that already exist, just in a slightly curvier form.

Finally, there is the swell of the bell curve, where people land somewhere in between, mixing the personal and the political. I am not here to judge anyone for their reasons for coming to body acceptance. There’s room for everybody here, and I’m not about to tell anyone that they are doing body positivity wrong.

However, I do think it’s crucial that we maintain an awareness and sensitivity of individual differences, remembering that our experiences are not universal; instead, they are influenced by a variety of intersecting issues. Thus, we should always be striving to make fat acceptance as intersectional as possible: Factors like socioeconomic class, race, disability, and gender identity all cross paths in ways that need to be recognized and acknowledged if we’re going to really understand how obesity paranoia is hurting people and how we can stop it.

Unrepentant fatasses like me live in a world in which we do not often see ourselves and our bodies represented—except as punchlines or as tragic, disgusting, and diseased. Then someone like Tess Holliday comes along, who, for a certain group of women, is so close to how they want to see themselves, and it’s natural to feel a sense of ownership. It’s understandable to want to control the few positive representations we do get and to want them to be painstakingly accurate in order to satisfy that hunger to see ourselves validated by the media (which, for the record, we don’t actually need to validate us).

So we wind up with people passionately asserting that there is “no way” Tess wears a size 22. Because of the clear logistical impossibility of guessing a person’s size based on a photograph, I’m willing to wager at least part of this response is coming from people who themselves wear a size 22 and think that they don’t look anywhere near as fat as she does. (And to be clear, some of these comments admit as much.)

They may actually be right. Not about Tess’ size—when Tess says she wears a 22, I believe her—but they may be right that Tess looks different at a size 22 than they do. Bodies are fascinating in their diversity. Every single body is unique, and trying to buy off the rack clothes to fit a unique shape is always a challenge. This is true even of non-plus sizes. Savvy fatshionistas ignore size tags whenever possible and do what we can within the fits-all system we have to work with. 

No matter how you slice it, a “size 22” is a ballpark figure, not a precise measurement, and it doesn’t “look” like any one thing.

More to the point, there is no way of challenging the now ubiquitous “size 22” attached to Tess Holliday’s name in a way that isn’t unnecessary, dismissive, and rude. If you’re suggesting that Tess is lying because she is somehow OK with being a 22 but not OK with being a 24, 26, or whatever number people are seeing, that is unnecessary, dismissive, and rude. If you’re suggesting that she cannot wear a 22 because she looks “too fat” to you and your extremely narrow frame of reference, that is unnecessary, dismissive and rude.

There is no way of challenging the now ubiquitous “size 22” attached to Tess Holliday’s name in a way that isn’t unnecessary, dismissive, and rude.

Let’s not forget that clothing sizes are often ridiculously unpredictable, especially in the plus-size arena. A couple weeks ago, I found myself in a Torrid. This is unusual, as the nearest Torrid to me is over an hour away, and I’m not a huge fan of Torrid’s clothes. Still, it’s such a novelty for me to be able to go into a store where I can try things on—and that is not Lane Bryant—that whenever I’m in a Torrid-adjacent neighborhood, I pop in and look around.

I was looking to replace the pair of jeans I sometimes wear for gardening or own just in case there’s a fire in the middle of the night and I need to throw something on. I picked up a pair in a size 26, because that is my size, or at least what I think of as my size. I went into a fitting room and tried them on. They were enormous. I was shocked.

I stood there feeling nothing so much as denial, wearing absurd clown pants while staring confusedly at my reflection. One of the sales associates knocked on the door and asked if she could get me anything. “I guess… I need a smaller size?” I asked. I was annoyed. Irritated. I like to know my size. I like it to be predictable. I subsequently tried on five pairs of size 24 jeans and they all fit. In fact, a couple 22s even fit me better than the 26.

Before you think, “Duh, you just lost weight,” understand that my body is the same shape and size it has been for many, many years. I still wear a 26 from places like ASOS and ModCloth. If you ask me what size I wear, I will say I wear a 26, even though the truth is that I have a closet full of clothes ranging in size from XL to 30W, all of which fit me right now. I say “26” even knowing that whatever number I pick is completely meaningless. Clothing sizes are arbitrary and vary dramatically both from label to label and even from garment to garment. 

As a fat person, my options are sorely limited. A particular size on a tag says little beyond that.

Calling Tess Holliday a “size 22 supermodel” is the media giving us numbers porn, pure and simple. People who aren’t fat and don’t wear plus sizes don’t know what a size 22 “looks like” anyway, and it doesn’t matter—the number just sounds big, impressive, and sooo much bigger than every other model ever. 

And even if Tess sometimes wears a larger size than all the press is saying, who cares? She’s fat, and she is getting an extraordinary level of attention and praise. It’s spectacular. Why am I supposed to give a shit about which number is secreted away on the label of her shirt? No one is going to allow her not to align herself with a specific size, because culturally we always want to quantify things like fatness. So what does it matter what number she ultimately says?

If Tess doesn’t look like your perception of a 22, the error is with your perception, be your perception that a 22 should look a certain identifiable way, that a 22 is somehow “better” than a 24 or a 26 or a 28, or that looking bigger than your idea of what a size should look like is a troubling thing that must be publicly called out. It doesn’t matter to me if “22” is a strategic choice thoroughly vetted by her modeling agency or if it’s just an effort to move away from the pointless “How big are you, really?” conversation as quickly as possible. 

Calling Tess Holliday a “size 22 supermodel” is the media giving us numbers porn, pure and simple. 

I don’t care what size Tess Holliday wears. I can already see how radically different she looks from every other model in the mainstream sphere and how powerful it is that she is showing up on the Today show and in places like People magazine. What I care about is that she is an outspoken, unapologetically fat woman who seems at this moment to be helping to steer a social and cultural rethinking of what makes an acceptable body. Her size—oddly enough—is irrelevant.

Lesley Kinzel is the Deputy Editor of xoJane and writes about body politics and social justice activism. You can follow her on Twitter @52stations.

Screengrab via LordSpoda/YouTube