"People Appreciate Authenticity": How Tess Holliday Changed the Body-Positivity Conversation

She set out for a modeling career and ended up launching a movement. Here's her badass story.

Born Ryann Hoven, 34-year-old plus-size model and author Tess Holliday has made a name for herself (pun intended) by being herself. Her (nearly) two million Instagram followers tune in because Holliday is her brand. She is one of the most well-known people in the world of body positivity fueled by social media, and in many ways, Holliday is fulfilling an early calling.

Born in Mississippi, Holliday dreamed of being a model. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a model when I grew up. From a really young age, I was taught by my mom that anything was possible. I saw her take care of us all by herself as a single mom,” Holliday says in her InStyle Badass Women video, above.

Despite the big dreams and a drive to fulfill them, life wasn’t easy. Holliday moved around a lot as a kid and was bullied at school; without a support system at home, she had to find the confidence within herself to keep going. “I developed a thick skin; I knew what [the bullies] were saying was hurtful, but I didn’t let them get me down.”

Post high school, after a few years of moving around — working as a makeup artist and becoming a mom at age 20 — Holliday made the move to Los Angeles in 2010. It ultimately gave her the boost she needed, and became a launchpad for her career. Within six months of landing in L.A., Holliday answered a casting call for plus-size fashion brand Torrid.

“I kind of thought it was a scam,” she recalls of the gig with a laugh, but showed up for it anyway. “Six months later, I was on billboards everywhere for this campaign.”

While Holliday’s own world changed after her modeling debut, the world at large was changing too, with ideals about body sizes and shapes finally shifting.

“When I heard the term ‘body positive’ I thought: Wait! I don’t have to hate myself?! The irony is, I was about 70 to 75 pounds lighter than I am now,” she says. “I love myself now more than I did when I was smaller, because I just realized I could have the great life I wanted regardless of my size.”

Holliday’s outlook wasn’t always rosy. One evening in 2013, frustrated by industry beauty standards, Holliday decided to speak up. She posted four photos in outfits plus-sized women are often told they can’t wear. She shared it on Instagram, telling people that if they’re also sick of being told how to look, just say eff it like her. She invited others to share a photo wearing something that scares them — or something that liberates them — and to hashtag it #effyourbeautystands.

By inviting women to share selfies in the name of self-love, Holliday wound up creating a movement — and her career flourished once more, due in large part to social media. “I grew my following accidentally — through transparency and through sharing my experiences. I realized people appreciate authenticity,” Holliday says of her appeal to the masses.

In 2015, she was signed by MiLK Management and was soon named one of the world's top plus-size models by Vogue Italia. “It was a monumental moment for me — and for the plus community — because typically, you see the same plus-sized bodies in the same types of shapes,” Holliday says.

This fall, Holliday walked her first runway show, taking to the NYFW catwalk for Chromat. Not all designers are as open-minded as Becca McCharen-Tran, Chromat founder and designer, notes Holliday. “I truly believe that if designers don’t start being more diverse and more inclusive with their campaigns and their sizing, they will be left behind.”

And Holliday believes that goes for the rest of us, too. “Be yourself at any cost. Don’t make any apologies and don’t give a f—k. Because you are great just as you are and if people don’t believe it, then you show them.”

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