Tess Holliday is as real as real gets. Over the phone, she tells me she’s sitting in a room surrounded by vintage items and fast-fashion pieces that would make Marie Kondo’s “cute little brain explode.” She calls herself fat with the same confidence other girls exuberate when they gloat about their size two pant size, she’s quick to open up about the trials of her self-described “trailer trash” Mississippi upbringing, and, most importantly, she isn’t afraid to call out the fashion industry on it’s shallow, surface-level bullshit.
“If they’re making plus-size clothing, why aren’t I seeing it in the campaigns or the ads?” she asks. “I get that you’re ‘diverse’ in your sizing, but are you really diverse in your messaging, your advertisements, in every aspect of your brand as a whole? Probably not.”
Despite the odds that have been thrown her way at rapid-fire speeds throughout her life, Holliday has prevailed headstrong. Over the past decade, the model and body positivity activist has become a modern phenomena: she’s landed on major magazine covers like Cosmopolitan UK and Self, created the viral campaign Eff Your Beauty Standards, and has become a role model for women (and men) of different shapes, sizes, colors, and sexual identities, showing that the world of fashion is no longer a courtesy to size zero elitists. Below, Holliday opens up about self-love, the highs and lows of working in such an exclusive industry, and more.
Being vulnerable is an issue that most of us have, but you’re very vocal about your life on social media. How are you able to let your guard down?
“I just think of my fans as an extension of my family; sometimes I feel closer to them than with my own family. I was always really honest and transparent with everybody, and I feel like it’s special to be that way because everything on social media can feel extremely inauthentic.
There’s also a lingering feeling of superficiality; some people create a whole new persona for social media, and that’s just not me. I want to be the person I wish I had when I was a kid. I don’t want to pump out ingenuine bullshit. We already have enough of that.”
You’ve been critical about other models denouncing the term “plus size,” and you consider it more of an empowering term. Why is that?
“It’s not that I would describe it as empowering, but the reason why I use the term is because I am plus-size. If a young person googles ‘model’ on the internet, we all know who we’re going to see—Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, those kinds of girls. If you google ‘plus size model,’ you’re going to find me. There’s been a lot of people who have wanted to do away with the term ‘plus size.” But for me, I think it’s something we need. Representation is so important to help shape the world and people’s perspectives. If someone sees a body that doesn’t look like them on the cover of a magazine, someone who’s just living their life and being happy, then that could have a really big impact. We have bigger problems in the industry that we need to focus on taking care of, like actual size inclusion and racial diversity, and I think we should be focusing our energy on those issues instead.”
You created the platform “Eff Your Beauty Standards,” which is also hailed as a safe space for the online community. In the troll-filled internet world, how do you keep the platform truly a safe space?
“It’s not easy, but I have a big team that works to make sure the trolls and negative people are at bay. But it’s hard. We constantly have conversations about what people are saying on ‘Eff Your Beauty Standards.’ Sometimes I’ll comment back to people on Instagram, and sometimes I’ll have other people from the Eff Your Beauty Standards team jump on. We just want to make sure that people can really express themselves as honestly and fluidly as possible.
“Part of what I want to do with the page is to educate the public about things they usually don’t see on social media, or in any media for that matter—like trans men having their periods, for example. I remember we did a post about that a few months ago and people went crazy. Some people were extremely pissed off about it, saying ‘You shouldn’t be posting this, I don’t want to see that when I’m scrolling,’ But I’m proud of how we went about it, because we found a way to turn a tense situation into an education moment, and we helped bring different communities together. In hindsight, maybe we could’ve done a better job about it, but at that moment, we did the best we could.”
How would you define self-love?
“Sometimes, self love isn’t always taking bubble baths, reading books, and meditating. Self-love is doing the hard work, like cutting someone out of your life that’s toxic, going to therapy, or unfollowing people on social media that make you feel bad about yourself. Some people may see that as being selfish or narcissistic, but it’s not—it’s you doing whatever you need to do to protect yourself. Self-love is doing what you have to do to become the person you want to be. Also, being okay with spending time with yourself is another major part to it. People look at me all of the time and think that I have it all figured out, and I feel like I’m in a good space right now because I put in all of the work I needed to make myself a stronger, more balanced person.
“Self-love is knowing that your love and happiness are important. Not everyone wants to put in the work, and I get it, because it can be exhausting and time-consuming. But I’m finding that when I don’t want to put in the work, things around me start suffering. It kind of snaps me back to reality to think, ‘Shit, what am I doing? Who am I letting into my life that’s messing with my flow?’ With self love, I had to learn how to create boundaries for myself, and for other people, on what I will and won’t allow. That can be excruciatingly hard, but now I’m so much happier to be able to be honest with people. I used to be such a people pleaser and it was really destructive. I’ve learned to put myself first.”
As a wife, mother, and body positivity activist, how has the definition of love evolved for you?
“When I started out, my oldest son Rylee was only three. So, I guess I started my modeling career about 10 years ago, which is weird because, I didn’t even realize that until just now.
“When I started modeling, I was not even mentally capable of even understanding what self-love meant. I wasn’t comfortable in my skin, and my older son’s father was not very supportive of me modeling. He was supportive of me, but he didn’t really understand why I wanted to model.
“When I started modeling, I was put in positions where I felt uncomfortable in front of the camera, and I didn’t want to wear certain things because of my body, which is funny now. I look back at photos, and I’m like ‘Fuck, I wasn’t even fat.’ I was lost, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. And going back to why I find it so easy to be honest with people, the reason is because I basically grew up in front of all of these people. If it weren’t for my fans, I wouldn’t be here today; I wouldn’t be talking about the life that I have.
As my career evolved, I got married and had another kid. I feel like my whole definition of love shifted because it used to be very one-sided. But love is so complex, and now that I love myself and the body that I live in, I wish that I would have been able to love myself 10 years ago when I started this journey. Love is not easy, and I’m not just talking about romantically. Every aspect of love is so complicated. Now, I’m better at knowing what I need in my life, and I think that goes back to self-love—just understanding and creating things for myself and exploring what makes me happy.”
How would you describe your style?
“Funny you asked me that, because someone tagged me in something the other day and it said I was a style icon, and I don’t even understand how I can be a style icon when my style is so all over the place. I just wear whatever I want to wear. In my day-to-day life, I’m very lowkey—black jeans or leggings with crop tops and boots. I have these red and black cowboy boots that I alternate between. That’s my everyday casual style, with a denim jacket on top. I guess people will say that’s boring, but nothing I do is ever boring. I really love kitschy, vintage-inspired clothing. I really want to dress more over the top but my stylist won’t let me. I’m like a cartoon character.”
We all care too much about how other people are going to look at our outfits. I do that all the time—I have really cool clothes still hanging in my closet because I feel like people are going to think I look crazy.
“Yeah, you can’t do that. I wear whatever I want to wear, and I like to use my fashion to be a little provoking. I want people to say ‘Well fuck, she’s fat as shit. Her boobs are out, her stomach is out, and she doesn’t even care.’ I want you to know that you can wear whatever the fuck you want. I think if you’re not having fun with fashion, then what are you doing? We should be able to express ourselves with clothing; fashion is meant to be fun and expressive. My style icon is Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Most of my style icons are cartoons, so I guess that says a lot about me!”
How do you use fashion and beauty as tools of self-expression?
“Growing up we didn’t have much money, so my mom would take me shopping in thrift stores. I didn’t even have cool stuff, it was just whatever we could afford and then I would have to make it work. But I noticed that people who come from similar backgrounds have the most eclectic style because we always had to make do. Now, as I talk to you while I’m sitting in a room of designer stuff, it’s nice, but I still find myself going back to my roots somehow, which is probably why I love cowboy boots and vintage clothing. I feel like fashion really changed my life. Without modeling, I wouldn’t have been able to discover a whole world of clothing that was out there for me. And fashion has evolved a lot throughout my modeling career. Ten years ago I had maybe a handful of options, and now I have a ton. We are able to be whoever we want to be when we wake up in the morning. We can explore our style and dress however we want to, and that’s such a cool thing to be able to share that with others. To be able to be unapologetically ourselves is truly amazing. I met Billy Porter last night, and to be able to do what he did at the Oscars is amazing. Fashion is such an amazing tool of self-expression and I’m so grateful that I’m able to influence others to get creative and be who they want to be.”
Which fashion brands and style icons inspire you?
“The thing is, all of the brands I love have done really problematic things. I really love Miss Piggy, obviously. Then there’s Dolly Parton, Janelle Monae, Tilda Swinton, just anyone who has fun with fashion and wears what they want in a thoughtful way. When it comes to designers, I’ve always loved [Alexander] McQueen, Christian Siriano, and Victor Glemaud. There’s also a few plus size designers that I love, like Elann Zelie for She, I actually wore a custom dress of hers for my Cosmopolitan UK spread. She takes risks and always has amazing clothing. When it comes to fast-fashion, I always wear stuff from ASOS and Eloquii—they have really cute stuff in my size. I have a four bedroom house and I have like two closets and a storage unit basically filled with clothing. Most of it is not designer because I’m fat as fuck. I have a lot of designer shoes and accessories, but not much on the clothing side. I also wear Savage Fenty a lot; I wear a lot of their lingerie as clothing. It’s really sexy, and they do a lot of fun stuff, especially for people who are plus-size, which many brands miss the mark on. Wear a bra out with a cute blazer over it, why not?”
How do you think the fashion industry has improved in terms of inclusivity, and where does it need more work?
“In some ways, it’s great to see people like me and other models that are plus size on the covers of major magazines and the runways, but we still don’t see many of them at the front of major brand campaigns. I still want more to happen, especially with luxury fashion. Fast-fashion is doing surprisingly well with that, but many luxury designers are falling flat. I get that some designers don’t make that size, but even the labels with plus sizes don’t showcase them. For example, Calvin Klein goes up to a size 26, I believe, maybe bigger, but not many people know that because they don’t use plus-sized models in their campaigns. It would just be nice for the conversation to follow through in all aspects.
“I also just wish that there were more people that actually cared about inclusivity and actually tried to put their money where their mouth is. The plus-size industry is worth millions, if not at least a billion dollars. There’s fucking money there, so let’s see it [represented] in the media.”