Why Tess Holliday Responds to "Disgusting" Comments With Love

Tess Holliday
Photo: Tess Holliday in a Sally LaPointe dress (available at 11 Honoré), a Hermès scarf (worn as headband), Alison Lou earrings, Roxanne Assoulin bracelets, and Sergio Rossi shoes. Photographed by Anthony Maule.

The other day I woke up to the following message on Instagram: “Your body image is unhealthy and dangerous. You’re a blimp trying to layer yourself in nice clothes and makeup. Can’t wait for you to drop dead of a heart attack.” It ended with a smiley-face emoji.

I receive messages like this every day — and have my entire life. I would be lying if I said they didn’t affect me. I go to therapy to try to make sense of it all. I will tell someone to fuck off if they deserve it, but I’d rather come from a place of compassion.

Recently another girl messaged me saying how disgusting I was and how much she hated me. Instead of firing back I went to her profile and saw that she was recovering from anorexia. So I wrote to her: “I’m sad because you must be feeling really horrible to say such nasty things to me. The diet culture is fucked up and has ruined so many lives. Good luck with your recovery.” I put a heart after my message, and she responded with “Thank you” and a sad face, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s nice when you’re able to get through to people.

When I’m in a bad headspace, I definitely mute people on social media who don’t make me feel great at the moment. And that’s OK. Who you follow is who you’re letting into your inner circle. It’s in your subconscious. It’s what you’re absorbing. Sometimes I delete social media from my phone altogether. Then I focus on my “self-care folder” that has games like Cat Cafe, where you feed and pet little virtual cats. It’s silly, but it takes me away from the negativity.

What makes me laugh the most? When people say I’m promoting obesity or recruiting people to be fat. If I say, “I love myself,” and they think I’m saying, “Hey, you need to be 300 pounds, then you too could enjoy life as much as me,” I have to smile. People act as if I’m selling Tupperware or something — that’s not how it works. I wish I would’ve loved myself 100 pounds ago, but this is the body I’m in. I can’t live life being miserable, because I could die tomorrow. And then what — I was miserable because I was fat? What a waste.

I think it’s important not to take life too seriously. Not everything is the end of the world. That’s something I’ve been teaching my 13-year-old, Rylee, as well. He’s been getting bullied at school because of his freckles. I try to build up his confidence and tell him to ignore those kids. He’s sensitive like me, and it’s tough. But he knows when it’s time to laugh something off and when it’s important to stick up for himself. I recently got him a phone, though he isn’t allowed to have social media. Sometimes he wants to go on my page, but I’ve told him, “Don’t look me up. Don’t read nasty stuff about me.” He’ll say, “Mom, that’s silly. Why would people say such horrible things?” He’s a little angel. I wish everyone thought like that.

It’s hard with the political and social climate we’re in, but, man, what a time to be alive. People are actually listening, and things are changing. Seeing so many plus-size women like [actress] Danielle Brooks and [singer] Lizzo killing it out there in the media helps me too. For so long I was just pretending. There was a disconnect between Ryann, my legal name, and Tess. I felt as if I were two separate people and Ryann was constantly trying to be Tess. And then I started to realize I’m the same person.

Modeling also changed my life. That sounds really cheesy, but it’s true. I never felt confident before I got on set; there was never any clothing I felt good or sexy in. Now I feel the most on top of my game when I’m at a photo shoot. I thrive in that space because I know I am the person I always dreamed of being. And I’m creating something that’s going to be around much longer than me, something that brings more visibility to the world so little kids and women feel represented.

When those negative messages pop into my head, I’ll also think about going to New York, staying at a fancy hotel, and wearing a custom dress by Christian Siriano. My life is only getting better. — as told to Shalayne Pulia

Photographed by Anthony Maule. Styling: Meaghan O’Conner. Hair: Shinya Nakagawa. Makeup: Daniel Martin. Manicure: Sarah Nguyen.

For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Apr. 19.

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