Cheryl Tiegs' Ashley Graham Comment Reignites Debate Over "Unhealthy" Models

Cheryl Tiegs' Ashley Graham Comment Reignites Debate Over "Unhealthy" Models
Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube

Plus-size modeling has gotten plenty of praise for being a force for positivity and inclusivity. But one of the nagging debates around curvier models, often from those in comments sections of articles about them, is that bigger models are "unhealthy."

That's the latest critique thrown plus-size model Ashley Graham's way, from none other than fellow Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue model Cheryl Tiegs. Tiegs, who at 68 appeared on the cover of the famous magazine 33 years ago, was asked by an E! red carpet reporter whether she loves the fact that "full-figured women" are now being included in modeling, like Graham's casting on the cover of the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

"Actually, I don't like it..." Tiegs said, to the apparent surprise of the reporter.

Source: Mic/YouTube

The issue, she says, is that celebrating curvier women encourages unhealthy bodies and behaviors. A waist, she said, should be smaller than 35 inches — at least so says Dr. Oz.

Source: Mic/YouTube

But hey, Graham's face is purdy, at least.

Source: Mic/YouTube

Criticizing Graham and the broader plus-size, body positivity movement at large isn't quite the most popular opinion these days. News of Graham's historic cover as well as her recent successes — ads for NYDJ jeans and Swimsuits for All, a spot on 20/20's #TheYear list of notable people — have been met with widespread praise.

But the critique that plus-size women like Graham encourage unhealthy habits isn't new, nor is it uncommon. As blogger Sarah Conley told the New Yorker, "Being really visible when you're a plus-size woman is not for the faint of heart," given how much heal-focused criticism is tossed around. 

One recent example was when Tess Holliday, the size-26 model who's covered People magazine, found her Facebook filled with comments like "There is no such thing as healthy obesity at this level. [...] This bitch looks like ten packs of chewing gum stuffed in a finger cot. Think that's sexy and admirable? Fine, die slowly on your own goddamned time... It's promoting a life of disease."

Such comments demonstrate another clear issue: The "plus-size models are unhealthy" trope is often deployed as a form of "concern trolling," in which critique and insult of someone's size is disguised as concern for their well-being.

Obesity can indeed bring with it various health threats. But we also know health isn't wholly visible from the outside. A person with a thin waist may be extremely unhealthy for various reasons (say, if they're a heavy smoker) while someone with thicker thighs or curvy hips may have great cholesterol, eat well and exercise often. (That's why BMI is a questionable way to assess healthiness, as French lawmakers recently found out with their controversial measure to regulate the modeling industry by BMI.)

Those who follow Graham on Instagram know that the 28-year-old is committed to health as an avid exerciser. In fact, she recently became the face of a workout clothing line by Addition Elle (a company she also designs plus-size lingerie for) that goes up to a 4XL — a reminder that yes, plus-size women do work out. In fact, the Addition Elle line is just one of several new plus-size exercise brands.

"As far as dressing curvy girls in activewear, I mean, maybe the assumption was that we don't work out but, honey, I work out," she told Mic previously. "I wouldn't be this cute if I didn't work out." 

A photo posted by (@) on

And health and fitness aside? The body positivity movement, which has helped drive the rise of so-called "plus-size models" in fashion, isn't so much about promoting any lifestyle but instead representation. Everyone has their own health struggles, public and private. But in the meantime, women should be able look at the ads, magazines and stores around them and see positive examples of women who look like them. 

As Graham said last year, "I know my curves are sexy and I want everyone else to know that theirs are too. There is no reason to hide and every reason to flaunt."

For what it's worth, Tiegs acknowledged the backlash to her comment with a tweet:

Feb. 26, 2016, 9:46 a.m.: This story has been updated.

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