The story of our current model obsession reads like an origin tale for a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, something crafted by a team of writers who know exactly the kind of heartwarming schmaltz that really gets America going. But, this happened without Hollywood’s help: Tess Holliday was born in a small town in Mississippi and dreamt of being a model. She was told that her fantasies were just that and was bullied so badly that she dropped out of school. She continued to pursue her goals, though, and is now a bona fide model with a big-deal contract, and she’s paving the way for girls like her.
Taking that story at face value would be reductive, though; Holliday’s tale is even more interesting. While the average model towers over 5-foot-9 and wears a size 2, she stands four inches shorter, wears a size 22, and is adorned with tattoos. And, she’s just been signed to MiLk Model Management as the first model of her height and size to be picked up by a major agency.
For an industry that prizes thinness in its models over most anything, this move is a controversial but game-changing one. For every person who has suffered from body-image issues, who has doubted her self-worth for not fitting into a certain physical ideal, this is a step forward that proves that beauty doesn’t have a singular definition.
Holliday doesn’t just dispel body-type ideals simply by existing in the fashion industry: she actively promotes acceptance with the hashtag #effyourbeautystandards that she started in 2013. She encouraged people of all shapes and sizes to utilize the hashtag on their selfies, and as the movement grew, she created T-shirts that proudly proclaimed this positive slogan. This year, she launched a media tour where she traveled around the country to share her message and meet fans.
“My relationship with my body [has changed],” she says of her sense of self-confidence since taking on her career, which has seen her on the pages of Skorch magazine and repping Domino Dollhouse clothing. “I definitely faked loving myself when I first started [modeling] because I had to, but through the process, I started to see myself differently, and it made me fall in love with every inch, stretch mark, roll, and blemish. I no longer cringe when I get naked, [I] have sex with the lights on, and I appreciate how far my body has carried me in this life.”
She stands as proof that beauty does not come in a one-size-fits-all package and that, yes, it is possible to be beautiful and fat — a concept that may not be as widely accepted as we’d hope. “For so many years, most of us have heard that from family members, friends, society, or even called ourselves [fat] in a negative way,” she says. “We have been poisoned by society to think that [being fat is] a bad thing, that it means we are unlovable, unhealthy, and unworthy of living an amazing life. When really, it’s all just bullshit. We fear the things that we don’t understand, and maybe one day people will realize it’s just not that big of a deal. Pun intended.”
Unfortunately, Holliday says she still has to deal with negativity, but it doesn’t affect her the same way it did when she was younger. She has a great response to the naysayers who claim she will never succeed in modeling: “I ignore them,” she says, “and then check my bank account.”
While Holliday might be laughing all the way to the bank, what’s more important is that her influence is inspiring young people to love themselves and to chase those so-called impossible dreams. “Make sure you really take care of your skin, hair, nails, and body (in whatever way you see fit) and then be as weird as you want,” she laughs. “That’s pretty much my motto! I do what I want, and bust my ass, and people will notice. You have to work a million times harder, but anything worth having is worth fighting for.”