There's a quote that’s been wheat pasted across cityscapes and permeated the depths of Pinterest that goes a little something like this:
"In a society that profits from your self doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act."
For women, joining the rebellion is that much harder. First they must dismantle years of internalized beauty standards reinforced by the patriarchy, challenge retail sizing standards, and take on a general culture of misogyny. Women really can have it all!
But the pervasive and intimate nature of social media has allowed for people to become their own TV networks, individuals to start movements, and communities to form. Tess Holliday became the face of such a body-positive rebellion—an inclusivity movement prompted by the model demonstrating self-love on social media and clapping back at trolls with the hashtag #EffYourBeautyStandards. Now, the hashtag has been used over 3.5 million times by women embracing their bodies and fighting to make space for them in a society that narrowly (and ignorantly) equates thinness with health.
The plus-size model and published author is refreshingly honest and uses her platform to say what many can’t: the “one-size-fits-all” narrative is toxic. She’s wielded her influence to fuel a much larger discussion about women's autonomy, size inclusivity, and how the male gaze has impacted beauty standards and expectations.
Her message of self-love, empowerment, and self-worth has filtered all the way up to the bigwigs in media and fashion. Inclusion is no longer optional—it’s mandatory. And while mainstream retailers are starting to change their ways, Tess Holliday has one message for high-fashion labels: She’s coming for you with curves and confidence.
How did you originally get into modeling?
From the age of 13, I wanted to be a model. When I was 15, I went to a casting call in Atlanta. They told me that I was too short and too fat and could only hope to be a catalog model and would never be an actual model.
I put my dreams on the back burner and moved to Seattle to pursue becoming a makeup artist. I ended up working as a makeup artist for a few years before moving to Los Angeles, where within 6 months, a casting director reached out to me because they saw photos of me online. I was asked to come in for an audition. It ended up being my first job: A nationwide ad campaign for a TV series where I was on billboards across America.
You’re known for your confidence and ability to brush off the haters. We’ve been in your comments, and while there’s so much love and support, there are also ones that are cruel and heart-wrenching. Do you have any advice for anyone who receives criticism online, whether it be on their parenting, their appearance, their career choice, etc.?
My best advice would be to ignore the bad and sometimes the praise, because it's awesome when people say nice things and are so supportive, but I try not to let too much of the good or the bad seep in—it derails me from what I’m trying to do. I just take it all in stride and ignore the criticism as much as possible, unless it’s constructive criticism and coming from a place of love. If someone is just being rude for no reason, I brush it off and go about my day because I’m not doing my work for the people that don’t like me, I’m doing it for the people that need to see someone like me and understand that they’re not alone.
Can you tell us a little bit about Eff Your Beauty Standards and how it came about?
I started #EffYourBeautyStandards because I was tired of being told what I could and could not wear by the mainstream media. I decided that I wanted to wear what I liked and what I felt comfortable in. Being told to cover up and not show my body by the media was a turning point for me and I just decided “Eff” that. I created this brand for a safe place, a platform for others to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of community.
You were recently on the cover of Cosmopolitan and it broke the internet. How has this milestone affected your career?
It helped open the doors for a lot of opportunities that were already in the works. There’s definitely credibility that comes along with being on a mainstream fashion cover. I think the cover woke people up and showed them that, “Hey, she’s serious.” It lends credibility not just to my career, but to plus-size modeling in general.
What characteristics make you successful in the modeling industry?
I think my stubbornness, the fact that I don’t take no for an answer, my work ethic, and my sense of humor help in my success.
What does it take to build your personal brand from the ground up?
It takes being able to take criticism from people and the willingness to be able to grow, learn, adapt, and change while accepting help, which is still badass. You can’t do it alone; I think so many people try to do it alone and you just can’t. Not having people around you that are ‘yes people’ because you need people you trust who will say, “Hey, that’s a dumb idea.” You need people who will call you out and help you out.
What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?
I think it’s knowing that I’m able to provide for my family by doing what I love. It’s also knowing that I’m able to help so many people that don’t know their worth because I used to be like that and it’s really lonely. So that’s why I do what I do, because I’m helping other people.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
Jeff Kurpuis, who owns Orchard Corset, told me in the beginning of my modeling career that there are two types of people in this world: People who love people and people who love money—and you have to decide which person you are. It made me realize that I’ve been so focused on money, asking myself, “Oh, am I going to make this much, am I going to be able to do this, will my life be easier?” You have to choose who you are. I had to ask myself, “Why are you doing this?” The answer is that I’m doing this for people, I’m doing this to help others, and I’m not doing it for the money. I always remember this when I take on a new job because it’s not about the money; I genuinely love who I work with and not what they’re paying me.
What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?
Definitely being on the cover of Cosmo UK. Also, being on the cover of SELF’s first digital issue was a highlight and a surprise because it’s a fitness magazine...and I never thought I would see myself on a fitness magazine.
You have a large presence on social media. How has it impacted your career?
Having a large presence on social media has given me a career. I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for social media and having a fan base that believes in me and what I’m doing.
Where does your passion/drive come from?
I think it comes from my mom. My mom always told me that I could do whatever I wanted to, regardless of my size and what I looked like. Having a kid at a young age pushed and helped me as well.
What are the common challenges you've seen among curve models?
Definitely lack of opportunities. There are fewer opportunities and a lot of people frown upon using bigger models. Things are definitely changing now—you see several plus-size models in beauty and fashion campaigns—but it still very much feels like an afterthought instead of something people actually give a shit about.
When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road and switch gears to find success?
You learn more from the failures than you do from your successes, and oftentimes I have to remind myself that if something doesn’t work out, then it's not the right time in my life and that maybe there’s something better on the horizon.
Whose career really inspires you?
I would say, Chrissy Teigen! She was a model, then, through sharing her love for cooking on social media with her fans in a genuine way, she was able to turn that into a multimillion-dollar brand. I also think that Chrissy is respected in the industry because she’s completely herself. She has been a great example of showing that it’s okay to be yourself and she is always showing that she’s not only a model—she’s so much more. And it's okay to not be perfect, to laugh at yourself, and have fun with life. I really admire her for that and people like her who can do that.
What’s next for you in 2019? What are you most excited for?
Furthering the conversation of diversity and inclusivity! Also, breaking into the high-end fashion world for all sizes.
Photography by Annie McElwain Photography