The Body Positivity Movement Looks A Lot Like White Feminism: On Tess Holliday & Accountability
The mainstream body positivity movement thrives on capitalism and racism in seeking to only uplift those deemed acceptable enough to qualify as worthy within our marginalization. When we look at major campaigns and strides in this community, the most notable forerunners for high profile body diversity are Tess Holliday, Mary Lambert, Adele, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Schumer, Beth Ditto, Christina Hendricks, Brooke Elliott, Lori Beth Denberg, Lena Dunham, Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsty Alley, and Rebel Wilson. They all have one thing in common too… They’re white. The world doesn’t attach humanity to fat women and femmes of color the way we regard fat white women and femmes. We can’t even humanize Gabourey Sidibe enough to use her name because we attach her most notable and fat Black trope of Precious.
When we look at reality television show representation for everyday fat women (as opposed to celebrities or models), there have only been two notable women who have been centered in their own shows - Ruby Gettinger and Whitney Way Thore - both are white. We can invest in fat white women existing, loving themselves (losing weight or not), and give them space to be nuanced and complicated - but we do not see shows or platforms like that for fat women/ femmes of color unless it is centered on exploitation and trauma.
The most well known plus size models are dominated by white presenting women (re: white or white passing); including Robin Lawley, Ashley Graham, Candice Huffine, Tara Lynn, and Lizzie Miller. When we look at notable writers on fat activism - many of our examples are white (or white presenting)- Jes Baker, Lindy West, Liz Black, Nicolette Mason, etc. And when we dig deeper and look at Plus Size Industry Media Owners such as Jessica Kane of Skorch Magazine, Madeline Figueroa Jones of Plus Model Magazine, Tiffany Kaelin Knight of Skorch Magazine, Velvet D’Amor of VolUp2, Catherine Schuller of Mode, we can see that power exists within who’s sitting at the table in determining representation and providing social platform.
When are we going to address the overwhelming whiteness of mainstream body positivity?
When white women are at the center of the industry and creating the who’s who, it’s easy to connect the dots around the issue of accountability around the exposure of Tess Holliday’s behavior. Tess has been called out for theft in her mishandling of merchandise and t-shirts she sold to her fans. And in her recent interview with Refinery29, Tess was coddled and given the platform to use her white tears to dismiss her behavior. Coded language such as “breaks her silence” and “tormented” is based in privilege of choosing when and how to engage with the people that have a long list of receipts of reaching out to her about the missing merchandise and refunds. Tess may deal with people shaming her for how she looks on a regular basis, but when people are asking about merchandise they did not receive - that’s not bullying. Calling her a “scam artist” or a “thief” in response to not receiving their products or refunds is not bullying. Intentional or not, Tess Holliday mishandled other people’s money/ withheld merchandise from people who trusted her/ her brand. Mistake or not, the lengths people have gone through to get this settled says more about Tess than it says about them. How is it possible to operate at a loss when she did multiple pre-sales to sell the shirts? Why did it take over a year to have this issue resolved? Why are people still being met with excuses and Tess’ feelings about what happened instead of accountability? Why did it take an article to be published about Tess to post a missing order form for other people to come forward about their missing merchandise/ refunds?
How can we trust leaders and role models of body positivity if they’re unwilling to engage in personal and political accountability to our community?
Tess ends the interview/ article with the comment: “What could we achieve if we stopped being so quick to judge and started giving other women the benefit of the doubt, and support them through their struggles?” Tess’ ability to take from her fans, not donate any proceeds to charity, claim that her shirt selling business operated at a loss, and then try to make amends months later through disingenuous third party means is based in her white privilege because she feels protected. Tess’ brand is built upon a racist system that allows her to use her whiteness to remain unaccountable and yet still look like a trustworthy person to invest in because she “made a mistake.” The benefit of the doubt is not afforded to people of color. So when white women do something that borders on meticulous deception for financial gain, it’s still seen as redeemable.
This isn’t a question of if Tess Holliday is a good person or not. This isn’t a question of if Tess meant to deceive her fans or not. This is a question of: Why is it so hard for the body positivity community to hold people like Tess accountable? We must recognize how race, gender, ability, and class play into our ideas of compassion and addressing issues within the movement. As a community, are we willing to risk hundreds of marginalized fat folks being taken from, ignored, and gas lighted, for the sake of Tess’ image for our movement? What does that say about our ideas of infallibility of whiteness and social capital when we are unwilling to validate the people bravely coming forward? Similar to Rebel Wilson’s ‘Fuck Tha Stripper Police’ bit before presenting best hip hop award to make light of police brutality and anti-Blackness, where is the accountability for the people getting the spotlight for being body positive when they don’t value the other bodies (re: people) more marginalized than them?
In addition, we also have to understand how the foundations of movements work in opposition to media ordained leaders of movements. We can never expect for Tess Holliday to lead us into a new age of body positivity not just because she is white, cisgender, able bodied, and has access to economic stability, but because certain levels of white supremacist capitalism participation limits how much she can really change without risking her career and image. Is Tess willing to give up a paying modeling gig to offer it up to a brown skin Black fat femme? Would Tess be willing to give up working with certain high end brands by openly critiquing their fatphobic classist ways of excluding certain bodies from representation and overcharging for their clothes? Would Tess provide economic support to fat femmes of color who are educating her and the rest of the movement about our marginalization? Ultimately, if Tess is unwilling to risk her status for the sake of all of us who are going underrepresented, violated, erased, and excluded from mainstream body positivity and fat acceptance, then she will remain a willing participant within the current system that violates us. And we can expect that she will remain unaccountable while in that position of power.
Is Tess willing to risk her career for the safety and humanity of other marginalized communities within this movement?
In understanding how Tess is unable to maintain her current status and push the movement to new bounds, we can also come to the conclusion that many people within our communities do not want to speak out against people like Tess because it may risk their access to what Tess has - a social platform (re: social currency and power) and access to opportunity (re: able to provide a come up and work with brands that could support that come up). Many folks who are offered these opportunities, will not to risk their claim to fame within our industry and movement for the sake of liberating the most marginalized fat folks of our community. The way white supremacist capitalism is set up- you either get the come up at the cost of everyone else, or you choose everyone else and don’t get a come up. We have to recognize that there are people in this movement (re: folks with certain privilege and access) who may be more concerned with access to the come up, than they are concerned with intersectional body positivity.
If you’re missing the disconnect for why Tess Holliday and other white (and white passing) women in the plus size world have brands and safety nets created in privilege - just think about how beauty standards uplift and center whiteness, how everyone who has ‘clout’ is white and appeals to white consumers, and how the money train operates in conjunction with what’s going to be profitable (re: whiteness, white passing faces). We can look at Tess Holliday making racist commentary on how Black men love her, mishandling money from her fans, and remaining unchecked for her behavior by the industry professionals as an example for why our community and this movement has so much work to do.
Tess is an example set for why we need to have deeper conversations on power and privilege in navigating liberation for fat bodies and the body positivity movement. The white body positivity icons, models, industry participants, and bloggers listed within this article are an example of how this is beyond just Tess. We have to challenge our movement and power systems to include us and value us, especially when we don’t have a social platform or privilege to protect us or finance us. We have to demand our humanity in world where seemingly, our humanity is optional. We cannot be hasty to the reality that accountability, public drags, and uncomfortable conversations will happen and they will be necessary. We will be that much closer to true liberation for everyone rather just the anointed leaders of our movements.