Beauty, Confidence, and the Concept of Being “Brave”

Tess Holliday has been rocking headlines over the past week when she was announced to be the newest model signed to MiLK Model Management’s roster. At 5’5″ and a size-22, she is (by her own admission) essentially the biggest plus-size model ever to be signed to a major agency, an amazing feat in and of itself.

I’ve followed Tess (known also by her birth name, Tess Munster) on Instagram for quite a while, always admiring her for, yes, her insane beauty and ALWAYS on-point eyebrows, but also for being such a fierce and admirable woman. She is the creator of #effyourbodystandards, a social media movement that preaches and promotes self-love, body-positivity, and acceptance regardless of size.

 
Now, it probably comes as no surprise (sadly) that Tess gets lobbed a lot of hatred and judgment on her IG account. I’d say about two-thirds of her negative comments seem to come from ignorant jerks (via such meaningful and eloquent comments as “Ew!” or “Fatass!” or, best of all, tagging their friends with a couple of laughing emojis), and the rest come from concerned citizens of the interwebs (“She’s beautiful, but you have to wonder if she’s healthy?” or “Her confidence is admirable, but promoting obesity is just as bad as being too thin!”).

Now, I don’t really feel like traipsing down the rabbit hole with regard to the idea of Tess “promoting obesity” because I honestly think that it’s flat-out ridiculous. The fact that Tess exists at her current size in no way means she is promoting or glorifying having a fat body. She’s just Tess. This is not about obesity glorification or the promotion of unhealthy habits. This isn’t even a discussion about Fat Acceptance or Health At Every Size or anything like that. It’s about accepting yourself in general, and I do firmly feel that Tess is a real champion in the body love and self-acceptance sphere.

Of course, haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate, so it’s a good thing that Tess is also a champion of shrugging of them haterz. And even if she wasn’t, she has more than enough loyal fans willing to jump into the fray on her behalf.

Besides, while hateful comments do always seem to find their way onto her posts, the majority of comments are ones of adoration and admiration. There are even quite a few heartwarming stories of the self-acceptance that Tess has inspired in her fans. Which are my favorite ones to read, of course. It’s really wonderful to see how Tess has helped others take steps away from self-hatred and towards self-acceptance.

But, alas, just like the negative comments come in various forms, comments telling tales of self-discovery and acceptance are not the only kind of “positive” comments that I see. No, the one I feel like I see more and more often on Tess’s photos, or on the photos of the many other strong and beautiful plus-sized women that I follow, and even occasionally on my own photos, look a little more like this:

“Your confidence is incredible! You go, girl!”

“You’re so pretty! I wish I had your confidence!”

“Damn girl, work it! Confidence is sexy!”

And it’s these comments that never really sit that well with me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment being shared here. I know that these comments are well-intentioned and, in fact, accurate. Tess is confident, and confidence is sexy. Tess is a very beautiful woman who has no reason not to be confident in her beauty… other than, according to society, the fact that she is fat.

Because people don’t say, “OMG! You’re so confident and inspiring!” to folks who aren’t fat. They don’t say it to your average straight-sized model, or to someone who doesn’t have some kind of obstacle in front of their beauty — whether it be their weight, a scar, an amputated limb, whatever. You don’t say, “I wish I had your confidence!” to someone who has no reason not to be confident. To someone whose beauty you have no reason to question.

It all reminds me of this quote from the ineffably wonderful Mindy Kaling:

It’s the same when people say, “You’re so brave!” I’ve gotten that one, too. Like, really, I’m brave for putting a picture of myself on Instagram? I’m pretty sure that impulse stems out of my personal vanity, not some drawer full of bravery that I have on reserve.

I mean, jumping in front of a car to push someone out of the way is brave.

Standing up for someone being bullied is brave.

Going to teach children in Ghana or build houses in Chile or rehabilitate Russian sex workers is brave.

Having the strength to leave an abusive relationship is brave.

But just, I dunno, living my life at an above-average weight? Not being ashamed of myself because I’m not conventionally thin? Really, that’s what is considered brave? Oookay.

Now, sure, for Tess, maybe it is a little bit brave. But only because she knows that every time she posts a photo of herself online, she’s going to experience so much negativity for it. So it’s not the actual act of putting herself out there that is brave, it’s doing so in our current fat-shaming culture. I know that if I were in her shoes and received the kind of crazy, in-your-face, outspoken hatred that she receives on a daily basis, I imagine it would take a heckuva lot of bravery for me to keep doing what I was doing too.

I don’t think that the general standards of what is considered “beautiful” are really going to change anytime soon. Take a look at Greatist’s article about how the standards of beauty with regard to body shape have changed over the past century to see what I’m talking about. Even with the variations in the cultural norms of the time, there’s not THAT much of a difference in what’s “ideal” — it’s still best to be slim, to be tall, to be white.

But, that being said, I do think that other aspects of our societal attitude towards beauty is starting to shift. It’s becoming more and more acceptable to, well, accept yourself, even if you’re not that perfect size 6. We’re starting — just starting — to put more of an emphasis on how you feel about yourself than how you look to others. On loving yourself, whether you consider yourself a work in-progress or totally happy as-is. And even though there are tons of hateful people and “concerned” citizens and inflated egos that might be working against her, I think that Tess Holliday is helping to tip the scale in the direction of love.

Fatkinis in Paradise

Back in January, my family and I made plans to go on a giant summer vacation together to Cabo San Lucas. It’d be the whole gang — my parents, my siblings and siblings-in-law, my sister’s parents-in-law (they actually have a timeshare down in Cabo, and are prett much the whole reason this thing is happening), Sean, and me — and the timing, I figured, would be perfect! I’d have more than six months to get my body back to bikini-ready shape after typical holiday-season slacking. It was just the motivator that I needed to get back on the wagon and drop some libbies again, right?

Weeeeell, actually, wrong (as we already know.) I have indeed managed to shave off about 20 – 25 pounds from what I had regained, which is awesome, but in the months since I have clearly stopped making any attempts to hide the fact that I’m not actively dieting anymore. And yet, this tropical vaycay was still looming, looming, looming… and I realized that sooner or later, I’d have to face my body and whether it was bikini-ready or not.

Now, first up, my feelings about the term “bikini body” in general can now pretty much be summer up by the following (adorable) graphic:

But even so, hey, I’m not immune to the pressures that society puts on people to want to look a certain way. I mean, I’m a mass consumer of media in all its various forms, so of course I’m not, hahaha. So I would be lying if I said that the idea of baring skin by the poolside didn’t cause me at least a little bit of stress. But you know me, I’ve never really been able to subscribe to the idea that skinny feels better than food tastes or whatever, so ultimately it came down to whether I wanted to get myself all bent out of shape over how I looked at the beach, or if I wanted to, you know, continue enjoying my life the way it is. And I mean, I know I probably sound super douchey saying it out loud, but my life is pretty stellar right now.

S0 since I am, at least currently, totally uninterested in torturing myself both physically and mentally over a vacation (which, hello, is supposed to be relaxing anyway), I came to realize that the best way for me to get beach-ready probably wasn’t to agonize endlessly over my bodily imperfections. No, I’d take a different approach.

Rather than forcing myself to do a juice cleanse in the hopes that it’d shave another 1/4 of an inch off my general body circumference, I decided to do a mental cleanse instead. I rejected the notion that summer is limited to people who wear single digit sizes. I faced the fact that I am really not as important as I make myself out to be, and people out there enjoying their own vacations really don’t give two hoots what I, some random stranger with outrageously colored hair, am wearing at any given time.

I know, I’ve talked a bit about this kind of body acceptance before, of course, because it’s always been true. But my past posts were written with the looming idea that I still needed to lose weight. So, you know, I could love my body and all, sure. But in the back of my mind I was still telling myself, “Just don’t love it so much that you stop wanting to fix it.”

Weeeeell, obviously I have a little bit of a different perspective about things now. I don’t want to have to fix anything anymore. And you can say that’s just me being lazy, but it’s not going to change the fact that I fully embrace the fact that any body really can be a bikini body. After all, just like bodies, bikinis come in lots of different shapes and sizes. And whether you have thunder thighs or flat butt syndrome or belly flab or big boobs or small boobs or no boobs, you’d be pretty amazed at how great a relatively tiny amount of fabric can make you feel, if it’s the right cut.

This idea of there being different swimsuits for different bodies isn’t news, of course. I’ve been reading magazines for years, all offering advice on what swimsuits work best for different body types. Small bust, wide hips, broad shoulders, hourglass, there were options for all, and the features usually even came with photos of real-life women illustrating the effects of properly allocated swimwear.

In retrospect, though, I realize that while these articles might have been a great way to showcase poolside fashion, they still fell into the trap that a lot of  mainstream fashion does when it comes to dressing one particular type of body shape: they don’t really know what to do with it, so they just cover it up. Which, yes, granted, not everyone has a nice flat tummy to showcase between the top-part and bottom-part of your swimsuit, but does that mean we’re not allowed to show it at all?

I have distinct memories of flipping through magazine pages as the feature addressed pear-shaped and straight-shaped and hourglass-shaped figures and showcased adorable, fashionable bikini looks for each of them, only to finally get to the “Full Figure” or “Plus Sized” section at the end and have it be full of one-pieces and tankinis.

Yeah, kinda like that.

And hey, don’t get me wrong, there are some might fine one-pieces and tankinis out there. I’m a big fan, myself.

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Terrible iPad selfies aside, this is literally my favorite suit to ever exist in the history of swimwear. I pretty much just hung around the house wearing it all yesterday afternoon because I didn’t want to take it off, that’s how much I love it. I mean, aside from the whole wet swimsuit + full bladder predicament that surfaces every once in a while, I’m all about the one-piece. But I think you know that really isn’t where my issue lies.

I just don’t love the message that it sends when the media showcase all these different kinds of women looking fab in two-piece swimsuits… except for one kind. Because even larger, thicker, curvier, whatever-er women can still look totally bangable in ‘kinis, and not showcasing that fact, as unintentional as it may be, still perpetuates the idea that we should be hiding our bodies because there’s something wrong with them.

Luckily, I think the tide is finally beginning to turn on that front. Maybe it’s due to the resurgence of vintage-style clothing coming back into vogue (high-waisted bottoms FTW!), or maybe it’s because of body positive figures like GabiFresh (I believe she’s the originator of the term “fatkini”), but either way, I am so on board with all women being able to wear whatever the hell they want and hopefully feeling beautiful and confident while doing so.

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Which is why next week you will see me, proudly rocking my own fatkinis (given how much I’ve admitted to hating the word “fat,” I actually really love the term “fatkini”) and maybe even inspiring other women to do the same. It’s your body, after all. Wear what you want!

And that goes double when on vacation.