Empowering or Unhealthy: The media weigh in on plus-size modelling

By Amelia Chadwick z5016373 (H12A)

Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated (SI), a magazine perhaps more famed for the beautiful women of their ‘Swimsuit Edition’ than their sporting content, made headlines when they featured their first ever ‘plus size’ cover girl.

At an Australian size 16, Ashley Graham ‘made history’ as the curviest woman ever to receive the prestigious title of cover model for SI’s Swimsuit Edition; a feat met with overwhelming positivity and support from the media, sparking headlines such as: Ashley Graham Covers The ‘Sports Illustrated’ Swimsuit Edition Because #Progress’ (Refinery29), Ashley Graham Looks Amazing on the Cover of Sports Illustrated’ (New York Magazine) and ‘Sports Illustrated Makes History With Ashley Graham Cover’ (Bustle).

A topic of great social significance in the 21st century, many plus-size modelling advocates have long argued that increasing ‘body diversity’ in the modelling industry is essential for changing normalised perceptions of ‘unrealistic beauty standards’ (Kovar, 2009); which can be physically and psychologically damaging to girls and women and often lead to low self esteem, depression and eating disorders (Grabe, 2008).

With research on the issue becoming particularly loud in the past few years, the majority public opinion has largely shifted to reflect the negative findings on the matter and support for the ‘plus-size’ and ‘body positivity’ movements are at an all time high (Bazillian, 2016). The attitude is one that has also been largely adopted by the media, where issues regarding plus size models are generally approached supportively or objectively. However, with growing body positive movements encouraging the acceptance of all body types and the use of plus sized models becoming more ‘mainstream’, there have also been expressions of concern.

Several opponents to plus size modeling argue that using plus size models actually encourage obesity, claiming the more we include bigger models in mainstream media, the more ‘normalized’ having a larger figure becomes. In line with this view, plus size Sports Illustrated cover girl Ashley Graham has been criticized for encouraging ‘unhealthiness’ owing to her plus-size figure. Several public figures, including former Tory MP Edwina Currie, YouTuber Nicole Arbour (of ‘Dear Fat People’ infamy) and former Sports Illustrated cover girl Cheryl Tiegs, have all publicly staked claims that Graham is ‘obese’, ‘unhealthy’ and a figure generally detrimental to public health.

In seeking an inclusive insight as to the media portrayal of the plus size modeling trend, beyond just reporting on the ‘new feats accomplished in the movement’, I have chosen to analyze the way in which the media portrays plus size modeling as a healthy and positive movement, even in the face of criticism from public figures. In doing so I will examine articles addressing claims that plus size modeling supports an unhealthy lifestyle or encourages obesity, with reference to articles exploring comments made by Currie, Tiegs and Arbour about Ashley Graham.

 In analyzing media coverage on the matter I found number of articles, including (but not limited to) the following:

  1. Ashley Graham is beautiful, curvy and the picture of health – but is she really obese? (The Daily Mirror)
  2. There’s an ugly backlash against the plus-size model Sports Illustrated put on its cover (Business Insider Australia)
  3. Edwina Currie slams plus-size models and claims size 14 is obese and unhealthy (The Sun)
  4. Ashley Graham: Size 14 women are ‘obese and heading for diabetes’, says former Tory MP Edwina Currie (The Independent UK)
  5. Edwina Currie calls size 14 model Ashley Graham ‘obese’ in attack on curvy catwalk stars (The Daily Mirror)
  6. Cheryl Tiegs, Who Is Not a Doctor, Says Cover Girl Ashley Graham Is ‘Unhealthy’ (Jezebel)
  8. Size 14? Edwina Currie says you’re obese (Metro UK)
  9. Cheryl Tiegs Doesn’t Think Sports Illustrated’s Fuller-Figured Model Ashley Graham Is ‘Healthy’ (US Weekly)

On quickly assessing the general ‘vibe’ of these headlines, we may note that the majority seemingly come to the defense of Ashley Graham and plus size models. Words like ‘slammed’ and ‘attack’ negatively assess the comments, making them seem cruel and unfounded. We also see a trend of positive evaluation directed toward Graham and plus-size models, with terms such as ‘curvy’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘curvy catwalk stars’ being used to describe the group. The frequent inclusion of ‘size 14’, which is the average dress size in UK and USA, is also noteworthy, as it serves to make the ‘criticisms’ seem particularly outrageous; implicitly conveying that it is ridiculous to suggest a woman of this ‘average’ could be obese.

For the purpose of analyzing the most prevalent media portrayal of this topic, I will refer mainly to two articles that have taken the majority stance: reacting defensively to criticism of plus-size models as ‘encouraging obesity’. Firstly I will examine a views journalism piece by Mallory Schlossberg for the Business Insider Australia titled ‘There’s an ugly backlash against the plus-size model Sports Illustrated put on its cover’. Secondly, I will look into a hard news piece: ‘Ashley Graham is beautiful, curvy and the picture of health – but is she really obese? by Rachel Dobson for the Daily Mirror. I will also make reference to a third article, in support of findings from my main articles: ‘Cheryl Tiegs criticises Sports Illustrated for ‘glamorising’ size 14 model Ashley Graham, causes enormous Twitter row’ by Olivia Waring for The Metro UK. By utilizing these varied sources, and addressing several matters regarding the proposed notion that plus-size models are ‘unhealthy’, I aim to illustrate how the media is generally supportive of ‘plus-size’ modeling movement, portraying the industry as having several perceived benefits on society.

Looking firstly into Mallory Schlossberg’s piece ‘There’s an ugly backlash against the plus-size model Sports Illustrated put on its cover’, we are able to immediately identify that the piece is not supportive of criticism against Graham or plus-size modeling. By describing the criticism as ‘ugly’ Schlossberg negatively evaluates the validity of the criticism, painting it in a disagreeable light and setting the tone for her article.

The article was published in the Business Insider Australia on the 28th February 2016, a publication generally noted for its professional and educated readership. The publication as such generally maintains a progressive stance on matters like plus size modeling and body positivity. It is thus understandable that in her opinion piece, Schlossberg addresses her audience as though they agree with her positive view on plus-size modeling, taking the viewers agreement for granted from the lead:

‘When Sports Illustrated announced that curvy supermodel Ashley Graham would be featured in its annual swimsuit edition, there was a lot of positive feedback.

After all, Graham would be the first truly plus-size woman to be featured in its pages.’

Here, Schlossberg addresses Graham’s cover as though it is something deserving of positive feedback. She uses the phrase ‘After all’ to imply that Graham being the first plus-size model to be featured in Sports Illustrated is indeed a feat worthy of positive reaction. We might identify here that the author is assuming the readership already shares her worldview (that the increased integration of plus sized models into the mainstream media is a positive thing), and thus does not require convincing with justifications as to why it is positive. She then goes on to address the criticism of Graham:

‘Still, despite the celebration surrounding Graham’s success, some vocal outliers have criticized Graham.’

A negatively geared characterization of Graham’s criticizers as ‘outliers’, depicts opponents to plus-size modeling as an outcast group. She implies this group falls outside the general social norms embraced by most, who have reacted to Graham’s accomplishment with a ‘celebration of Graham’s success’ – strengthening her portrayal of plus-size modeling as something to be embraced.

Introducing Teig’s comments, Schlossberg describes them as ‘lambasting’; a negative evaluative term that suggests the author finds her comments overly harsh. The author then addresses one of Tieg’s main claims:

[for a woman to be healthy] your waist should be smaller than 35…That’s what Dr. Oz said, and I’m sticking to it’

Schlossberg counters this claim by trivializing the integrity of her source, TV doctor Mehmet Oz by saying his ‘…credibility has been called into question’. She supports this claim by hyperlinking to a supporting article about Oz titled ‘Half the things the most powerful doctor in America recommends don’t seem to be supported by science’. In doing so, Schlossberg is able to externally justify her refute and imply it is widely known Oz is not the most ‘credible’ source.

Schlossberg then issues an appeal to facts in a bid to expel notions put forth by Tieg that plus models can’t be healthy as well as ‘plus-size’, and will ‘suffer in the long run’:

‘The joke’s on Tiegs, though, because when Graham appeared on “Good Morning America” in November alongside a size 2 model, several tests revealed that both she and the thinner model had healthy blood pressure, HBA1C, and LDL levels. They both were in good shape, too.’

This appeal to fact employs scientific proof as evidence of Graham’s physical fitness, dispelling Tieg’s claim that plus-size women are not healthy. Informing the readership that both of the models exhibit healthy test results despite their difference in body shape works to support Schlossberg’s central claim that ‘healthiness and ‘plus-sizeness’ are not mutually exclusive’. In utilizing ‘fact’ Schlossberg also makes her opinion seem more credible than Tiegs, who ‘the joke’s on’ – a phrase implicitly attacking Tieg’s character, suggesting that in Tieg’s attempt to make Graham look bad, she has only reflected poorly on herself.

Schlossberg then goes on to dispel criticism by Nicole Arbour that suggests plus size women cannot be athletic (and thus, healthy) by informing readers that Graham is athletic, despite being plus-size:

‘Arbour denounced Sports Illustrated for putting Graham in a “sports magazine that celebrates athleticism,” but Graham works out. A look at Graham’s Instagram page proves that’s true.’

In support of this claim Schlossberg presents the above Instagram image as evidence. Not only does this image serve as visual support for Schlossberg’s claim that Graham is athletic, and by default healthy, but the inclusion of the original caption serves to portray Graham as promoting such traits in others. An example of this promotion of health may be identified in the use of the hashtag ‘moveyourbody’ – a tag presumably included by Graham to encourage others to partake in exercise.

The strategic inclusion of this particular image and caption implicitly conveys the positive influence that Graham, and other plus models, can have on the health of others even in their day-to-day life. In solidifying further the implication of Graham as a positive health role model, Schlossberg includes a quote from Graham in which she explicitly outlines that being a plus size model doesn’t mean she promotes obesity.

“There’s a [size] double 0 now. It’s a little scary on both spectrums of weight. I’m not a promoter of anorexia. I’m not a promoter of obesity. I think we have to promote women to be healthy at every size as long as they’re getting off the couch and moving their body,” she said to Ellen DeGeneres.”

By quoting the model being criticized Schlossberg adds another layer of characterization, wherein not only are plus-models viewed as ‘healthy’ themselves, but they are also portrayed as wanting to promote health to others; as is supported by the inclusion of Graham’s quote ‘We have to promote women to be healthy at every size’.

 In the hard news article Ashley Graham is beautiful, curvy and the picture of health – but is she really obese?’ for UK tabloid-newspaper The Daily Mirror (29/2/16), Rachel Dobson also writes on the criticism of Graham and plus-size modeling as ‘encouraging obesity’ – this time in relation to criticisms by former UK MP Edwina Currie. Unlike Schlossberg, who refuted the validity of criticism with counter argumentation and factual claims, Dobson maintains an objective news style throughout her article (with the exception of the odd evaluative term), allowing her strategically curated ‘expert’ opinions to do all the convincing for her. She begins:

Edwina Currie has caused a storm with her comments about the 29-year-old model from Nebraska – but experts say the former MP has got it all wrong’ [Lead/Grab]

‘She’s [Graham] beautiful, curvy and the picture of health…Most women would kill to look like the 29-year-old from Nebraska.’

 ‘Yet former Tory health minister Edwina Currie, on BBC Breakfast on Sunday, accused her of being obese, and said Ashley was in danger of becoming diabetic, and even of developing dodgy knees and hips. She was panned for her opinion but defiant Edwina told the Mirror that showing pictures of plus-size models is encouraging obesity.’

Like Schlossberg’s article, from the outset of her article Dobson suggests the unpopularity of Currie’s view (‘she was panned’) and divergence from social norms and opinions (‘most women would kill to look like the 29-year old’) that Currie’s views on Graham represent, implicitly suggesting she must be wrong about these opinions if they are so disagreeable to ‘most’ people.

The article promptly dives into exploring a range of oppositional responses from several ‘experts’ who reject Currie’s view. Firstly the article introduces commentary by Natasha Devon, Ashley’s friend, [and] former model…who now advises the government on mental health and body image, and runs charity [sic], the Self Esteem Team’.

Devon’s areas of expertise, outlined by Dobson as being ‘mental health’ ‘body image’ and ‘self esteem’, are all areas very publically recognized as being linked to the adverse affects of the modeling industry—making her ‘expert’ opinion on Currie’s claims seem particularly credible to the reader. Her quoted material directly refutes Curries claims of plus as unhealthy, saying:

 “Human bodies come in all different shapes and sizes, and models like Ashley provide much needed diversity on our high streets. There is no evidence to suggest that plus-size models make us eat and eat and try to gain weight. But models who are size zero can act as a trigger for girls vulnerable to eating disorders.”

 “We need to teach our children that there is not just one way to be healthy. Bodies come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes and, with the right food and exercise, they are all healthy.”

 The constant reiteration of human bodies as ‘coming in all shapes and sizes’ tied with the idea that you can be healthy in any one of these, is something made very explicit in quotes by Devon, who argues: “you can be a size 14/16 and eat healthily and exercise regularly, or be a size zero and be healthy’. Dobson also includes a quote from Devon in which she rebuts claims by Currie that plus models encourage obesity, by issuing an appeal to fact and comparison:

There is no evidence to suggest that plus-size models make us eat and eat and try to gain weight. But models who are size zero can act as a trigger for girls vulnerable to eating disorders’

Here, Dobson advances an argument that there is no evidence as to any detrimental health impacts of plus-models, whereas slim models encourage poor health habits. This inclusion implies plus-models are a beneficial addition to the modeling world as they remove pressures from ‘vulnerable’ girls who have been lead to idolize slenderness. The author then includes a quote from Devon directly accusing Currie of being not credible:

“Edwina Currie’s comments are ill thought out. She doesn’t have a great track record in what she says and I wonder if she’s said this to be inflammatory.”

Through the inclusion of this quote, the author substantiates an ad hominem argument against Currie, in which she remains ‘impartial’ as it is not explicitly her opinion given. By leaving it to her third party sources to question the credibility and ‘track record’ of Currie, Dobson is able to simultaneously lowers Currie’s perceived credibility and heighten the integrity of her experts – whom are all too familiar with Currie’s past ‘inflammatory comments’.

Dobson also mounts an argument against Currie’s claim that plus models cause obesity, referencing Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum, who campaigns to get the government fighting the obesity epidemic’. As an expert who, owing to his job title, is presumably very knowledgeable on the obesity epidemic, the inclusion of his outright statement that ‘Edwina’s comments are ridiculous,’ and that ‘Pictures of Ashley are not going to entice an women to become obese,’ further substantiate an ad hominem argument against Currie’s credibility. These inclusions also seemingly aim to put to rest claims that plus-size models and the obesity epidemic may be linked, relying on Fry’s opinion that plus-women will not ‘entice’ women to become obese – despite a lack of factual justification.

Outside of utilizing the quotes of experts to substantiate an argument that plus size models are indeed healthy; Dobson includes multimedia to implicitly reinforce this.

The above video of Ashley Graham working out is inserted in the post towards the end of the article. Like Schlossberg’s article, the content has been sourced from Graham’s social media account, however it’s location in the article has little relevancy to the text above or below. Instead the video, which shows Graham performing an intense work out, serves to visually remind people nearing the end of the article that indeed plus models are inarguably fit and healthy—because isn’t athleticism is the ultimate demonstration of these traits?

Following suit with the trend to include content from social media in order to reinforce a message, in her article Cheryl Tiegs criticises Sports Illustrated for ‘glamorising’ size 14 model Ashley Graham, causes enormous Twitter row’ for The Metro, Olivia Waring lists various tweets from the public’s response to Tiegs comments. In doing so, Waring reinforces the lack of progressiveness of Tieg’s comments by way of third-party opinion and advances an ad hominem argument against Tiegs and her ‘right’ to comment:


As with the first two articles, the inclusion of numerous disagreeing third-party opinions (this time in the form of tweets) again enforce the notion that Tiegs’ comments are not in sync with socially normative opinions on the matter, and thus should not be agreed with. These inclusions work to position readers to agree with the ‘majority’ opinion, without Waring having to explicitly state her view.

The author then discredits Teig’s suggestion that plus models are unhealthy because ‘your waist should be smaller than 35 [inches]’ and states that Graham’s waist is in fact, below that size anyway:

‘Tiegs – the first woman to appear twice on the cover of SI’s swimsuit issue – is apparently unaware 28-year-old Ashley’s waist size is actually 29.5 inches.’

Including this fact, despite the questionable nature of Tiegs’ suggestion that ‘waist measurement directly correlates with health’, is particularly telling as it suggests even though Tieg obviously thinks otherwise, Graham even meets the cutoff for her numerical standard of ‘health’.

Waring proceeds to end the article with an appeal to comparison wherein she insinuates that even ‘Barbie’ (a doll that has historically represented only the ‘ideal body’) has already embraced the body diversity movement, while Teig’s opinions situate her as lagging behind the progressive majority of ‘21st century’ thinkers:

‘Come on, Cheryl. Even Barbie’s already adapted. It’s time to join the 21st century.’

Ultimately, the aforementioned articles have provided just a small sample of the media’s positive portrayal of the ‘plus-size movement’. On a whole the media seemingly portrays the trend as something to be considered ‘progressive’ and ‘perfectly healthy’, often implying the trend has significant benefits on society (such as a positive influence on health and body image). By focusing on these three articles, which specifically address criticisms of the movement as promoting ‘obesity’ or ‘an unhealthy lifestyle’, we have been able to garner a more insightful look into how deeply engrained this positive and supportive stance really is. While Schlossberg’s views article relies much on factual appeals to portray plus-size models as healthy role-models, it also encompasses much strategic quoting to discredit criticizers and position readers to view their critiques as being outside of the social norms. This is a theme common across the articles, and both Dobson and Waring also utilize quotes to suggest opposition to the movement is not socially acceptable. While Dobson’s piece was on a whole ‘objective’, the utilization of three expert opinions and strategic quoting resulted in an article which skewed readers to understand the expert opinions as being more credible, and thus to adopt their view that ‘plus modeling and health are not mutually exclusive’, and that the movement encourages a healthy lifestyle.








Grabe, Shelly, Janet Hyde, and L. Monique Ward. “The Role of the Media in Body Image Concerns Among Women: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental and Correlational Studies.” Psychological Bulletin 134.3 (2008): 460-476.

Effects of the Media on Body Image by Allie Kovar, Vanderbilt Univeristy, April 30, 2009: https://healthpsych.psy.vanderbilt.edu/2009/BodyImageMedia.htm









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