“Over the past few months, my wildest dreams have come true. And I’m still a size 22.” As the largest plus-sized model to be signed to a mainstream agency, the stunning Tess Holliday has proven that big is not only beautiful, but is increasingly accepted in the fashion industry – a world where a size 6 or 8 is considered plus size (the average American woman is a size 12). Due to the success of her #effyourbeautystandards movement, women now have a community wherein self-acceptance is the gospel, and all sizes whether it be a 2 or 22 are beautiful.
It wasn’t until she was fifteen and shopping at Lane Bryant, the only retailer that carried fashionable clothing in her size, that she took note of the existence of plus-size models. “I saw a magazine they had there with Emme, who was considered the first plus-size model, and I remember thinking how pretty she was. I didn’t realize that plus size modeling was a thing.” Soon enough, she would be following in Emme’s footsteps, though it would not be an easy road to walk down. Holliday’s life up until her late teens was marked by unfathomable adversity and struggle. “My childhood was definitely tumultuous… basically my whole life up until seventeen was pretty awful. My mom did the best that she could, but she was married to an abusive man. She was shot in the head when I was ten by him, and almost killed, so she’s paralyzed now… It’s been kind of a roller coaster.” After the vicious attack on her mother, she moved with her family to “Bible belt” Mississippi, where the family lived in a trailer in the back of her grandmother’s yard. Things were supposed to get easier, but for a young girl who already looked different, small-town life was abusive. “When we moved to the small town, the first thing that people made fun of was that my mom was in a wheelchair, and they thought it was funny that she basically couldn’t walk. And from there, it went to them bullying me about my size. I had always been a bigger girl, but I had gained some weight because I dealt with my mom’s incident by eating. It just kind of carried on through high school, and when I turned sixteen, my mom said ‘Enough!’ and she pulled me out of school. That was the best thing that she could’ve ever done for me. I could have finished school, but then I might not be talking to you [right now] because I was getting death threats sent to my house.”
Along with homeschooling, her mother would give her another gift that would change her life, a book by the late makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. Aside from giving her the tools to become a successful makeup artist, his work taught her the power of transformation, and expanded her worldview beyond the scope of the small town she was struggling to call home. “Kevyn Aucoin changed my world. I was like fourteen, and my mom saw him on Oprah. And she ordered the book for me, and didn’t tell me, and then she gave it to me because I was trying to learn how to do makeup. She didn’t realize that for me, when I saw that book, it was my first introduction to seeing how makeup could be used for anything. It really inspired me.” Holliday’s aspirations to become a model would soon be ignited by an ad on the radio. “My mom and I heard an ad on the radio for plus size modeling, basically, recruitment in Atlanta, Georgia, which was about six to eight hours away from where we were living. I told her I wanted to go to it, so she paid a local photographer to do some test shots with me, which were really funny, looking back at them now. It was when the white eyeliner phase was cool.” When they got to Atlanta, the agents were anything but welcoming of her body type. “They were basically picking apart my body, telling me I was too short and too fat, and saying, ‘You shouldn’t be wearing a bikini,’ or, ‘You’re too fat to be showing your arms,’ just dissecting what I looked like.” However, things would come full circle years later when she found herself as one of the top six plus size models in the world, according to Vogue Italia. “You know, to be honest, I don’t mind being called ‘fat’ now. I’ve embraced that term. That doesn’t bother me. I think the only thing that someone can say to me now that would actually bother me would be any kind of slur, you know. Or saying that I’m a bad parent. But there’s nothing that anyone can say to me about my size that, A) I don’t already know, or B) is going to hurt me, because I am fat. I think it’s really important to take the hurt out of those words, and take the power out of them. When you’re able to do that, you have a happier life.”
The road that led Holliday’s to this newfound happiness and empowerment was a long one. She moved to Seattle to pursue fashion, working as a stylist and makeup artist, and then put her career on hold after giving birth to her son. She eventually relocated to LA, where her professional modeling career would finally launch. “I moved to Los Angeles in 2010. I had photos taken and put them on Model Mayhem. I didn’t check it again until a few months later, and the day I checked it, I had gotten an e-mail from a casting director from A&E, and they asked me to come in for an audition. I didn’t really realize what it was for. I thought it was a scam.” It was far from a scam, and shortly thereafter, Holliday was the poster girl for a TV series titled Heavy, which featured nationwide print ads and billboards across the country. “I was just a promotional model for it, so I had no idea what I was doing. That was my first job, and from there, it just kind of grew. It wasn’t really until I first started doing conceptual shoots, when I kind of branched out on my own, that I started getting attention on social media.”
Despite her first touches of success with modeling, Holliday experienced mounting frustrations with being bullied online about her weight, and decided to take action. “I said, ‘Enough!’ I took four photos of myself, basically in clothing that in the plus-size world, we are told we shouldn’t wear. And I posted them on social media. I wrote – to paraphrase, ‘If you’re tired of society telling you what you should or shouldn’t wear, post a photo of yourself and hashtag #effyourbeautystandards, with the thing that makes you feel good, or maybe makes you feel scared. And post it.’” In a moment that would have caused many to crumple, Holliday soared. She started a movement that would launch her to superstardom while inspiring millions in the process. “I have a team of five women that help me post, I call them my ‘girl gang.’ One is a mental health counselor, one of them is an activist in the LGBTQA community. They share stories from my followers and their own stories. It’s grown into a community worldwide for people to connect with each other.”
The #effyourbeautystandards movement has hundreds of thousands of followers and is spreading like wildfire. Holliday, who considers herself a “body positive activist,” is the largest plus-size model to be signed to the London-based Milk Agency, and is collecting cover shoots and major campaigns as her movement grows. Always an advocate for diversity, she now uses her fame to empower others. “I think there’s a place for all sizes. I think that there should be more diversity in the industry in general, for races, genders and disabilities.” Her advice to the world is to focus on embracing yourself as the first step in achieving true bliss. “Lucille Ball, she says, ‘Love yourself first, and the rest will fall into place.’ I’m happy at my size and I don’t feel a need to change it.” There’s a sign she has hanging in her rear view mirror, given to her by one of her fans that says, “Keep your heels, your head, and your standards high.”
Photography & interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine