Size Matters: How Tess Holliday Can Usher In A Larger Discussion About Standards Of Attractiveness

“I’m too sexy for my car too sexy for my car,
Too sexy by far,
And I’m too sexy for my hat,
Too sexy for my hat what do you think about that…”
Right Said Fred

(NOTE: Please see special announcement at the end of today’s column. Thanks!)

The past week saw People magazine at the center of yet another controversy when it featured on its cover one Ms. Tess Holliday, hailed as the world’s first BBW Supermodel, at 5’5″, 280lbs and wearing a 22 dress size. Like People’s previous “beautiful people” cover last year, which featured “12 Years a Slave” award-winning actress Ms. Lupita N’yongo, we were all treated to yet another lecture, er, discussion, about the harmful effects of putting women into a rigid corset of beauty standards that weren’t just constricting for them, but ruinous for society as a whole. Because People magazine, which has always been about bigging up the lives of the Beautiful People in its pages, has become something of a cultural signpost along these lines for our society at large, they are seen as setting beauty and attractiveness trends for our national heartthrobs and “it girls”, while preaching, er, teaching us all that “beauty is subjective, not objective” and to be proud of who and what we are. Many folk of the social justice warrior variety will noddingly approve of such notions, finger wagging that within Diversity itself – a watchword in our time to be sure – is an infinite combination of wonderous attractiveness.

Except only when, it really isn’t.

That’s because your correspondent has found that after perusing another famous People product – the “Sexiest Man Alive!” covers extending back to its earliest beginnings three decades ago – what American women actually do in terms of what gets their motors running, and what they tout in terms of what society “should” find attractive, are two very different things. Based on my research, courtesy of People magazine’s website, while women want “society” (read: men) to have a more forgiving view toward what they deem as hot, women themselves seem quite content to reserve the right to be very myopic about what makes them tingle downstairs.

Let’s Count The Ways

Here is People’s entire list of sexiest man alive covers, the latest of which was for 2014, and the earliest one that I could find being for the year 1985; beside the name of each “sexy man” is the year they made the cover of People for the honor, and their height:

2014: Chris Hemsworth 6’3″

2013: Adam Levine 6’0″

2012: Channing Tatum 6’1″

2011: Bradley Cooper 6’1″

2010: Ryan Reynolds 6’2″

2009: Johnny Depp 5’10”

2008: Hugh Jackman 6’2″

2007: Matt Damon 5’10”

2006: George Clooney 5’11”

2005: Matthew McConaughey 6’0″

2004: Jude Law 6’0″

2003: Johnny Depp 5’10”

2002: Ben Affleck 6’4″

2001: Pierce Brosnan 6’2″

2000: Brad Pitt 5’11”

1999: Richard Gere 5’11”

1998: Harrison Ford 6’1″

1997: George Clooney 5’11”

1996: Denzel Washington 6’1″

1995: Brad Pitt 5’11”

1994: People didn’t run a “Sexiest Man Alive!” cover for this year

1993: Richard Gere (de facto sexist man alive featured on the cover with his then-wife, supermodel Cindy Crawford)

1992: Nick Nolte(!) 6’1″

1991: Patrick Swayze 5’10”

1990: Tom Cruise 5’7″

1989: Sean Connery(!) 6’2″

1988 John F. Kennedy, Jr. 6’1″

1987: Larry Hamlin 6’1″

1986: Mark Harmon 6’0″

1985: Mel Gibson 5’10”

Two Major Observations

Well, there you have it folks – the Sexiest Men Alive!, so deemed by People magazine, for the past three decades. What they have to tell us about proxies for American mainstream desire on the part of the country’s women – to put it bluntly, what they find attractive to the point that they are willing to part ways with disposable cash – is quite distinct. In particular, that American women like their men tall, ripped, square-jawed, and of course, White. Keep in mind please, that the average height for adult American men is 5’10”, while American adult men standing at 6′ or above only makes up about roughly 15% of the same adult male population. As you can see here, there are precious few “average” American men listed above, an overwhelming majority of exceptional men on the list, and two lone standouts, both along racial and height lines, respectively. Certainly not representative of the American male population over the past three decades, I would think.

Sure, one could argue that 1996, the year Denzel made his one and to date, only appearance on the cover of People in this regard was a bit before Idris Elba, Lance Gross, Morris Chestnut or Lenny Kravitz’s time, and I for one wouldn’t dispute that; still, it’s interesting indeed to observe the fact that since then, there hasn’t been not just another Black man, but a man of color period, to grace the cover of People in this way. And while you could point out the fact that Tom Cruise, most certainly the runt of the litter here, has made the cut, we also have to note that that was a quarter of a century ago, while men who were notably taller than he – Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Richard Gere and George Clooney – have made the People cover, twice.

Moreover, staying with Cruise for a moment, because women tend to get antsy being called out on their heightism: let’s make something crystal clear. Cruise is as known for his million dollar smile and leading man looks despite his lack of vertical cred, as he is for his thing for Scientology and penchant for being a perennial box office draw. Per his Wikipedia entry, he was Hollywood’s highest-paid actor in 2012 (since then outpaced by another short guy, fellow Avenger to Hemsworth’s Thor, Robert Downey, Jr. – Iron Man – officially listed at 5’8″), and fifteen of his movies have made in excess of $100M USD each, in the United States alone. “Mission: Impossible 2”, for example, made upwards of $600M USD worldwide, back in 2000. Currently, Cruise stars in the fifth installment of the franchise, which is set to open worldwide next month – and it would not surprise me in the least if Cruise has made more money in sheer box office recepts for his movies over the course of his career, than the rest Sexiest Man Alive! list of actors combined. Cruise is the exception that proves the rule as per above: that short(er) guys have a chance with the ladies IF they are, well, exceptional, and way beyond the norm at that. Oh, and loaded. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that Tom Cruise is to Hollywood, what Prince is to the music world.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Let’s look at this another way, one that should be by now, painfully obvious in its conspicuous absence: Bruce Lee, to this day more than four decades after his death under mysterious circumstances, remains the first name in martial arts films. Yet, by the data we have above from People’s own website, he would have had little if any chance to make the cover of their “Sexiest Man Alive!” issue – he’s both Asian, and 5’7″. Nor would Jackie Chan, at 5’9″, or Jet Li, at 5’6″. As Eddie Huang, creator of the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” recently noted to Bill Maher, Asian guys have at least as hard a time in the dating market as do Black women because of their not being perceived as “manly” as other of America’s men – for which he was roundly excoriated by Black feminists. Studies of all kinds on the matter have consistently found, that women of all races in the western world rate Asian men dead last in terms of desirability and sex appeal; in this regard, People’s “Sexiest Man Alive!” covers – some three deacades’ worth – corroborates the data.

Yes ladies, let’s talk about “diversity” in what beauty and attractiveness standards really is.

The Kevin Hart Test

In her recent article discussing the appearance of Ms. Holliday on People’s cover, Ms. Lisa Respers France of CNN, bemoans People’s apparent racially tone deaf insensitivity toward BBWs of color, most notably Black. While I have my own reservations as to Ms. France’s motivations for making such a big stink over the whole thing in light of the fact that, as she freely admits herself, the Black press in the form of Ebony and Essence are certainly no strangers to bigging up Big Gals on their pages and websites, I can see her point if indeed the name of the game is “diversity” in beauty/attractiveness standards. So, with that idea in mind, if I could chop it up with Ms. France – or better still, if I could be the proverbial Ant-Man in the room and sit-in with her and her lady friends dishing on their heart throbs – I would be very curious if Kevin Hart’s name would come tumbling out of her mouth?

You see, while I can’t speak for Ms. France, what I can say – and this is backed up by quite a formidable amount of anecdotal evidence on the part of others – that ladies like her who may find themselves unconventionally attractive, still very much prefer guys who are as conventionally attractive as they come – starting first and foremost with height. Hart, who has made a career out of literally clowning himself for his lack of stature, is 5’3″ – and when I’ve been among Black women I am keen to toss his name out there to see what they have to say in response. Only after a bit of gentle prodding and prompting, do I get a few weak hands going up into the air in support of what he has to offer – nothing like the near-jumping out of their seats (and often wholly unsolicited) exhortations that “Idris can get it!” and “Michael Ealy! Gurrrrlll…” and so forth.

Also, I find it odd that Ms. France this year – and a battalion of Sistas last year during the Lupita Debate – were so keen on upbraiding society on a whole for questioning the beauty bona fides of Ms. N’yongo – while being utterly silent on nearly three decades of virtually all-White leading men on People’s covers. Maybe they were satisified with the singular appearance of Denzel; maybe they were slow clapping on the putting green with their White sisters in tingly approval of Pitt, Cooper, Clooney and Tatum. Whatever the excuse, er, reason, for their silence, the fact remains that while Black women seem to be quite up in arms about who goes on People’s cover when it comes to them, they don’t seem as animated when it comes to guys. Maybe it’s because, like their White counterparts, they too have a rather narrow view of what makes a man sexy, regardless of race – like we see in the case of Mr. Hart – and they’re quite satisfied with what they see as per the list above?

This is important, because the past few decades have seen initially Black funny men like Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx – both standing at 5’9″ – transition from standup comics and wisecracking sidekicks in flicks to serious actors and sex symbols in their own right. Murphy got the romantic lead in the early 90s classic “Boomerang”, while for his part Foxx put his thing down in the more recent Quentin Tarantino vehicle “Django Unchained”. Hart has yet to garner such a role, and, if the list as we have it above is anything to go by, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Ladies’ Choice

As I’ve been saying over the course of this article, while women exhort men in our time to be more expansive as to what they find hot in women, women themselves seem quite cool with keeping what they find sexy in men quite narrow and rigid. As the aforementioned People list above clearly shows, one is hard-put to find many Reuben Studdards, Jonah Hills, Jet Lis, Kevin Harts or John Goodmans included. Nor is this anything new; Paul Newman was knockin’ em dead way back in the day, while guys like Ernest Borgnine played parts like “Marty” and led a group of misfits in “McHale’s Navy” – hardly the stuff of heartthrobs and moist panties. One gets the sneaking suspicion of “do as I say, not as I do” and “keeping my attractiveness standards for me, but challenge them for thee” with these gals. It certainly seems that way in both straight porn for men, and as well for romance and erotica – effectively “porn for women”, Black or White.

For example, taking up the latter point first: as the book “A Billion Wicked Thoughts” makes clear, romance and erotica novel writers pretty much adhere to the script of what makes a desirable man and it looks like it was ripped from the three-decades long list of Sexiest Men Alive! above: the male protaganists are tall, chiseled, square-jawed and White. I know, I know, that’s not the case in Black erotica – fair enough. Toss in Denzel for your template and take it from there.

My point is that you ain’t likely to find any soft cuddly teddy bear type guys, no short guys and the like. Even in Feminista Jones’ first try at penning steamy (and kinky) fiction, the main two male characters, who were also rivals in the book, were pretty much standard fare as per the People list above – the only difference being that they were both Black and one of them had long locs. Still tall, ripped and leading-man handsome, though – this, despite the fact that in real life, Ms. Jones’ guy comes a lot closer to Cruise’s height, than “Marcus”, the 6’5″ former NFL pro that sounds like he was modeled on Richard Sherman. She could have just as easily wrote about a male lead who came closer to her real guy in real life, but didn’t – and for good reason: because (Black) women like to look up – not down – at their leading men, and Jones, who stands at 6′  and is a BBW herself, of all people, is keenly aware of that fact.

“Cash rules everything around me, cream get the money, dollar-dollar bill y’all”, indeed.

Going to the first point, what Lupita and Tess have in common is that the world of porn has confirmed that there are scores of men who think that they are the bomb – indeed, perhaps the most interesting thing about the porn world today, is it’s laser-guided precision focus on niche markets, which makes it possible for a White, BBW, tatted-out Rockabilly chick like Holliday, or a Black-as-the-ace-of-spades, chiseled, short-haired chick like Lupita to find a not insignificant niche of men who will pay quite handsomely to see them in various states of undress, and, of course, to see them being skewered by venerable swordsmen of the era. Compare and contrast that to the romance and erotica lit market, where aside from surface things like skin color and other minor cultural stuff, the male leads are amazingly and to tell you the truth, as the People’s list above attests to (remember, four guys have been featured on the cover, twice), mind-numbingly constant.

Then theres the fact that BBW women (and other women deemed to fall outside of the mainstream of American attractiveness), when they can choose it, don’t seem to go for the “off brand” guys – indeed, in BBW porn, one of the first things you notice straightaway, is the fact that ALL of the male actors are porn analogs to the People list above – tall, chiseled and ripped – and if you do find a short(er) guy in the bunch – and they do exist, like Shorty Macc and ManDingo – they are, ahem, “exceptional” down below, if you catch my drift. The porn world equivalents of Tom Cruise and Prince, if you will. Ron Jeremy-looking types are few and far between.

Add to this the fact that both Holliday and N’yongo have been able to parlay their unique looks into real hard currency: both have high modeling contracts and/or endorsements (I think Lupita is also a Cover Girl makeup model/pitch-lady, in addition to a high-post acting career that garnered her an Oscar, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that Holliday has or will have secured similar deals). Compare that to Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Kevin Hart or John Goodman: are ANY of these guys gonna be modeling Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, exotic cars, topshelf liquors or for that matter, hawking Axe deodorant anytime soon? To ask the question, is to answer it. No, in order to be an effective pitch-man in terms of endorsements and the like, you pretty much have to be a Don Draper/Jon Hamm clone – or damn near it.

It would seem that if anyone here needs to open their minds to the varied ideals and realities of attractiveness, it’s women toward men – not the other way around.

A Personal Note

In my research and preparation for today’s column, I read up on both Holliday’s feature article in People, and as well France’s own travails – and they are travails. No matter what one may think of heavier than average ladies in our time, etc., I would like to think that we all can agree that being downright mean to someone for simply existing, especially when they’re simply going about their own business, is out of line. For what it’s worth to these two ladies, I most certainly can dig it – I too have faced bullies while growing up.

But what was strange for me, was the fact that while guy bullies were easily dealt with enough by a flurry of well-placed punches to the head and face, the mean-spiritedness I faced on the part of the girls back then was a completely difference animal. You see, back then, I was quite short – about 5’5″ or so, and was told by the doctor while my mother sat nearby, that I wasn’t likely to grow much more than that. I eventually made it to Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr.’s stature, but I was well into adulthood by then – and the ladies of my attentions were keen to inform me of that fact, in quite blunt and to be frank, abusive language. Indeed, I was rudely put down and scorned for something I didn’t ask for, had no control over and could do nothing about, during this time of year, prom season. I had asked more than half a dozen female students out, and they all shot me down in the most ruthless of ways, simply for my lack of height. And while I could have gone on the prom if I really wanted to – there were several young ladies who wanted me to ask and take them – they were, to be frank, rather homely. And so, I decided to just sit it out. It was to be the first of many long nights in quiet contemplation that led to the man I am today.

Whenever I recount this story to friends and folks, I’m always told that said gals back then were jerks and to simply “move on” – but as I inform them, I would be happy to do so if I weren’t constantly reminded of it. In my adult years, I’ve been just as ruthlessly scorned by ladies for my lack of height as I was back in high school, which lends credence to the old adage that high school never ends. As I’ve gotten older, it has gotten better, if by better it’s meant that ladies don’t put as much focus and importance on male height. The only problem with this is, well, they’re older, and all that comes with it – usually kids; usually extra weight; usually psychological baggage and usually in the form of being done dirty by a conventionally tall guy.

In other words, the ladies reconsider guys like me when they have to. It’s a tough and admittedly bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it I did, and today, I take it all in stride, usually politely declining offers and the like of attentions from the ladies.

I don’t mention all of that to elicit pity or sympathy, only to cement the case that this entire discussion about reconsidering beauty and attractiveness standards will be at best half-assed and at worst utterly disingenuous, if women themselves don’t take a long, hard look at their own ideals of male attractiveness. For example, on the questions of height and race – two very distinct and conspicuous factors involved in the People magazine list of sexy men above – women have some deep soul searching to do. And that’s not even including “body acceptance” – most guys won’t have the time or genes, to bulk up and cut up like Ryan Reynolds or Chris Hemsworth. And just like heavier women may have faced cruelty at the hands of others and notably men, shorter men or men of less desirable races – like Asian men – have faced unbelievably cruel remarks and the like from women – often, the very same women who make a big production out of the need for society to see them as desirable.

Women want men to take the speck out of their eye to see the whole of womanhood in all its permutations as beautiful; fair enough.

They can start by taking the plank out of their own eye that blinds them to all but a very small slice of men.

*SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: I am very happy to announce the launching of my YouTube channel! Please head on over for more on this current issue, and for many more podcasts of yours truly in action on the issues of the day. Subscribe and tell all your friends! Help me build up the channel, so that I can continue to be a voice for you. Thank you!

Recommended Content

Skip to toolbar