ess Holliday About Body-Image in the Metaverse

Tess Holliday on Sexuality, Representation, and What She Looks Like in the Metaverse

When you create your own avatar from scratch, how real do you make them look? The model and advocate has some thoughts.

Tess Holliday's avatar looks almost exactly like her real-life person, bouncy red hair and all. We're in the metaverse — a virtual Wild West created by Meta (formerly Facebook) and accessed through wifi-enabled headsets — where we plan to discuss all things body image, her area of expertise. We meet through Horizon Worlds, a virtual reality game that requires users to customize their cartoon avatars with a selection of physical trait options, like skin tone, hair color and texture, and body shape.

As we speak through these characters, we hear each other's actual voices in real time. "I was super glad, when I went to go build my avatar, that there was body diversity," Holliday says, and it's true. Hers is almost as gloriously curvy as she is. I'm able to make mine painfully accurate, too, down to the wide arms I deliberately select but have always been self-conscious of.

Since she started modeling over a decade ago, Holliday has become a globally recognized champion of the plus-size community. In that time, she's also written a book, publicly read Piers Morgan for filth, and founded Eff Your Beauty Standards, a social media platform fighting for diversity in media. "Very early in my career, there was very little representation, especially in the plus community, and within that community, with folks of color," she explains. "Now, you're seeing so much more diversity, not just in bodies, but in different races, genders, and [ability]."

That's not to say we've reached peak inclusivity. According to Holliday, "there's so much more to do," especially when it comes to disabled individuals. When she collaborated with clothing brand Fashion to Figure in 2020, she not only convinced the company to extend its sizes — she brought a new form of intersectional representation to the mainstream. "It was probably one of the highlights of my career because I was able to have such a wide array of people [model in the campaign], including my friend Marna, who is in a wheelchair," she says. "So many people were so excited that I included her, but it was 2020. It's hard that we're so far into these conversations of how to be more inclusive, how to be more diverse, and that is still surprising to folks."

That form of inclusion is incredibly personal for her: Holliday is as a caregiver to her mother, who lost feeling in the right side of her body after being shot twice. She's tired of narratives like hers being excluded from pop culture. "Just like it's important for me to see plus-size folks living their lives, imagine how [people with disabilities] feel not seeing themselves represented," she reflects. She's had discussions with the Meta team about improving that representation in the avatar-building process. "I know it's only a matter of time before it happens, but I'd love to see people with limb differences and prosthetics, options like that," she says.

ess Holliday About Body-Image in the Metaverse
Courtesy Tess Holliday

Holliday believes in acknowledging every part of our multifaceted identities. It makes sense, then, that her desire for representation extends to sexual orientation. She came out as pansexual in 2018, and the decision has played a crucial role in her self-love journey. When I mention this, her avatar breaks into a series of hand gestures (wild, I know) that denote her passion for the subject. "I had no idea how freeing it was going to be for my own body image and confidence. There was a whole part of me that I wasn't able to share or express with the world," she says.

Even so, Holliday views her newfound freedom as a privilege. "It breaks my heart for the folks who aren't able to live in their authentic selves the way they want to," she says, specifically recalling a dear friend and fellow advocate, Cax, who passed away a few years ago. "I just thought, 'God, she would've loved this," she added, explaining how crafting your own image in the metaverse could prove to be a positive outlet for so many. "It gives an opportunity for marginalized communities to have a space where they can exist and be themselves in what's hopefully a safer, brighter space," she says.

This time of year presents a host of challenges to plus-size people, not the least of which come from the glorified myth of the "summer body." Upon hearing me use that term, Holliday sounds weary. "People always forget — and I feel like a broken record reminding people — that the diet industry is a multibillion-dollar industry that was literally created to profit off our insecurities," she says. As long as diet culture persists, she'll continue to work against it: "I'm so grateful that myself and so many other folks are being more vocal on the Internet, just to remind folks to get out there and have fun."

It feels strange to speak from the heart in a cartoonish, virtual reality setting, but Holliday doesn't seem to mind. She's not shy about the gravity of her work, and she knows the fight for body acceptance is bigger than her. "When I was doing my book tour in Australia, I met this mom who came up to me and told me she had lost one of her children that year," she says. "She realized she had no photos of her and her son because she was so afraid to go out and enjoy her life. She had another son, and she said, 'This year, I'm going to take my son and we're going to go to the beach. We're going to live our lives.'"

Anecdotes like this keep Holliday pushing forward. Her voice grows louder as she leaves the metaverse with a final message: "For anybody reading this: Don't waste those moments because you're worried about how other people are going to feel. They don't matter." So what does? Being true to yourself and enjoying the fruits of that labor. "The last few years of my life, I feel like I've started to live the way I've always dreamt," she says.

For more stories like this, check out EveryBODY In, our celebration — and send-up — of summer bodies, available for digital download now.

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