Size 22 Tess Holliday makes modeling history. A better concept of beauty?

Tess Holliday is the largest plus-size model with a contract with a major modeling agency. Are definitions of beauty evolving?


Tess Holliday just became the first ever plus-size fashion model to get a major modeling agency contract. Does that mean fashion has gotten in step with singer Meghan Trainor in getting to be "all 'bout that bass, with no treble" over plus-size beauty?

Ms. Trainor’s hit song “All About that Bass” is the plus-size girl anthem that shot to the top of Billboard’s charts as part of the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack release and its YouTube video has attracted 541 million views.

Ms. Holliday (formerly known as Tess Munster) is a size 22, 5-foot-5 and doesn’t even fit the regular plus-size mold, according to Cosmopolitan Magazine.

She is a galaxy away from a size eight, which some fashionistas consider a plus-size. “A plus-sized model, in the past, was a size 10-12 – up to a size 18 for fashion. Now, they are calling a size 8 – plus sized,” shares Anthony Higgins – director at MSA Models, according to an article in NYCastings

Judging from the explosion of supportive tweets on Twitter following the announcement that Holiday had signed with MiLK Model Management in the U.K., making her the largest woman ever signed to a major modeling agency, many hope this will lead to a break from fat-shaming – and another step toward redefining beauty as something more than the impossible Barbie Doll figure. 

However, Northwestern University Prof. Renee Engeln, an expert on "objectification theory," body image and the media, says in email that, “The amount of fat-shaming Tess is subject to on a regular basis suggests many simply aren’t ready to challenge their notions of what beauty looks like. But for those who are ready, Tess’s self-confidence could be inspirational.” 

“If Tess remains an outlier, little change is likely. It takes more than one model to start re-shaping how we think about women’s bodies.”

Ms. Engeln does her research as part of the university's Body and Media Lab (BAM), which explores issues surrounding women’s body images, with a particular emphasis on cultural practices that create or enforce the frequently contentious relationship women have with their bodies.

“Our culture makes it incredibly difficult for heavier women to feel attractive,” she says. “We are bombarded with messages suggesting that any woman over a size six should hide her body in shame.  From that perspective, signing Tess to this contract was a delightfully subversive act. Plenty of women have bodies shaped like Tess’s body. There is absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be able to see a model who looks like them.”

Englen, who did her own video on Trainor's song says she's not a fan of the beauty concept it defines saying, "In an ideal world, women wouldn’t have to worry about being 'perfect from the bottom to the top.'  Wouldn’t it be great if we could worry about our intellect and our character and not the appearance of our bodies? I’m all for a more diverse perspective on female beauty, but what we need even more is simply less emphasis on female beauty." 

Trainor’s signature song extolls:

Yeah it's pretty clear, I ain't no size two
But I can shake it, shake it like I'm supposed to do…
If you got beauty beauty just raise 'em up
'Cause every inch of you is perfect
From the bottom to the top…
You know I won't be no stick-figure, silicone Barbie doll,
So, if that's what's you're into
Then go ahead and move along

Because you know I'm all about that bass,
'Bout that bass, no treble…
But I'm here to tell you that,
Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top…

Engeln concludes, “We put women in a terrible bind. So often, they hear that what matters most is their beauty.  But then we provide such a narrow definition of beauty that they always feel they’re falling short of the standard. If models like Tess can help to expand the definition of beauty, that’s a positive step.”

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