The latest UK Cosmopolitan cover – featuring plus-size model Tess Holliday – has generated so much heated international debate and controversy that local wellness experts and body-positive activists are wondering: What’s the big fat problem?

“Phew, I’m literally a COSMO GIRL!! Can’t believe I’m saying that! Thank you @cosmopolitanuk & @farrahstorr for this incredible opportunity. If I saw a body like mine on this magazine when I was a young girl, it would have changed my life & hope this does that for some of y’all,” Holliday excitingly posted on her social media pages recently.

In the post that started the social media furore, 136kg Holliday is on the magazine cover, wearing an emerald-green body suit and is blowing a cheeky kiss.

But that kiss wasn’t well received by many who attacked the magazine on Twitter for allegedly promoting unhealthy lifestyles and obesity.

“How would you feel if a heavy smoker with emphysema and nicotine-stained teeth was put on the cover of Cosmo? Is it a fair analogy? Discuss,” user Emmy Jewel tweeted.

Another tweeter, Jared Monroe, said: “Amazing how well they photoshopped out the dialysis machine. Tess Holliday’s Cosmo cover is being praised as a huge step forward for body positivity.”

And indeed, kilo for kilo, for as many people tweeting that it was promoting obesity, there were as many tweeting that it was a necessary cover in a world that venerates being “model thin”.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Dr Bianca van der Westhuizen weighed in on the cover this week, saying that, in her opinion, stigma around obesity played a big role and wasn’t exclusive to just South Africa but to the rest of the world too.

“Weight stigma refers to ‘social rejection and devaluation that is accrued to those who do not comply with prevailing social norms of adequate weight and shape’, according to a newly published study in the British Medical Journal.

“A cover like this will not promote obesity in our opinion. Women who struggle with their weight should not be made to feel ashamed – whether under- or overweight,” Van der Westhuizen told City Press.

But obesity is still cause for valid concern.

The foundation said that in South Africa obesity and overweight are a big public-health concern. About half the population is overweight or obese and two in three women and one in three men are regarded as being overweight or obese.

Bianca Tromp, a dietitian at the foundation said that being overweight or obese, especially having an increased waist circumference, increased one’s risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“However, normal weight or even underweight does not necessarily mean that you have healthy eating behaviours and therefore you can also be at an increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

“It is important to note that being overweight is not the only determinant for being unhealthy, factors such as a sedentary lifestyle, smoking tobacco and excessive stress all contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle,” Tromp said.

Wellness and fitness expert Lisa Raleigh agreed.

“First things first, in my experience, skinny doesn’t mean healthy and overweight doesn’t mean unhealthy. Nor does skinny mean beautiful and overweight mean the opposite. We are all so varied in our taste – and shape.

“At the very least, this cover is challenging norms, opening dialogue and acknowledging diversity – as I’m sure it was intended to,” she said.

Asked on the generally held assumption that being overweight equated to being unhealthy, she said: “I have had the full range of clients over the years and I regularly see both extremes: the very slim, who have non-functioning digestive systems, stress hormones through the roof, high acidity and lots of visceral fat [the dangerous fat that surrounds our essential organs]; and the overweight, who can’t shake their excess body fat despite being active, eating well, reaching satisfactory numbers in cholesterol and blood sugar and having low levels of visceral fat.”

However, she said, that is not to say health and shape were always paired in this way, but it was certainly there – and more than one might think.

Raleigh said: “I think by now we’re well aware that body confidence and perceived attractiveness – and sex appeal – live in all shapes and sizes. Many of our historically sexy ladies – think J.Lo, Nigella and Marilyn Monroe – didn’t fit into one mould; and neither should body positivity and confidence. In my opinion, health is key.”

She said: “Strictly speaking, I’d rather be 10kg overweight with a positive internal dialogue, a healthy relationship with food and a score of healthy habits, than deemed ‘perfect’ on the outside and be a slave to self-doubt, have low confidence and not hit those important health numbers, such as cholesterol and blood pressure.”

Ouma Tema, businessperson and plus-size fashion designer and body-positivity activist, said when she saw the cover and the debates that ensued about weight, she wasn’t outraged at the vitriol and hate, but thought, “it’s about damn time” a plus-size woman was on a mainstream magazine cover.

“Tess is known around the world for her body confidence, her career is soaring and she is breaking new ground.

“People love to project their shortfalls in their bodies on others … body positivity is self-explanatory and doesn’t mean anything different just because someone is big.

“It is about being happy in who you are, no one is promoting obesity,” Tema said.

“At the end of the day, I want to buy a magazine that speaks to me and is representative. The challenge now is to see black plus-size women on such covers.”

Holliday wasn’t taking the criticism lying down either.

In an interview with British TV show, This Morning this week, she said: “I’m doing this for women around the world that need to see someone that looks like me to feel less alone and to understand that the way they look is beautiful.

“The majority of my following is not plus-size, it’s very diverse and so, at the end of the day, we all have issues with our body … and I think we can go a long way with a little bit of respect and kindness.”

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