Tess Holliday made history as the largest plus-size model to be signed with a major agency and appeared on the cover of People magazine. As the author of "The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl," the model, activist and 2017 TODAY Style Hero hopes to give others the same confidence she's found after years of struggling and intense bullying. Below is a personal essay Holliday shared with TODAY in 2015 when she first was first signed.
My life has turned upside-down since January (2015) when I became the largest professional model ever signed with a contract with MILK Management of London. My social media accounts blew up. I was — and still am — overwhelmed with requests for interviews, appearances and keynote speeches. Letters and emails from around the world keep pouring in. Many cheer me on, many ask for advice and many share very personal experiences that make me cry.
All of this attention makes me realize how many people have been waiting for someone like me to say it’s OK to love yourself, no matter your size or shape. My story proves that you can achieve your dreams, you can be happy and you are beautiful.
I have been a curvy girl my whole life. When I was 10, my mother and I were forced to move back to her family in Mississippi because of her violent boyfriend. I was bullied in school almost from the day we moved there. Not only because of my size, but because we lived in a trailer behind my grandparent’s house. I was pushed into my locker and called all sorts of names. I was smart, but it was tough to do well in school when I was frightened all the time. My mom complained, but nothing changed. When I started receiving death threats, my mom pulled me out of school. I was 16-years-old at the time and I didn't get one call or card from a student or a teacher at that school. Now, some of those same students have tried to “friend” me!
Six months later, I earned my GED and started going on auditions to be a model. I was told I was too short and too big and that I would never succeed at my dream. But I had read about plus-size modeling, so I decided to try another route. I started posting photos of myself online — in lingerie, in bathing suits, in clothing you normally wouldn't see a plus-size woman wearing — and I started attracting a significant social media following.
Suddenly, I got a call for an audition in Los Angeles from someone who saw my photos online and I ended up as the face of an A&E TV show called “Heavy”. What a day it was to stand on Sunset Boulevard with my mom and see my face on one of those giant billboards.
Posting photos online launched my modeling career five years ago, but it also started a whole new round of bullying. I was called disgusting for being photographed in a bathing suit, I was told to get a muumuu — and those were some of the nicer comments. But by this time, I felt comfortable enough in my body to love the way I looked.
Loving myself was freeing in so many ways. I was able to cut all of the people out of my life who didn’t support me and surround myself only with those who loved me and appreciated me for who I am. I started expressing myself creatively, which led me to clothing designers who wanted to dress me. I went to the gym and became active. And then, I met a man who thought I was beautiful in every way and now we are engaged to be married.
I wanted to encourage other women to have this confidence that I finally felt, so I launched #effyourbeautystandards on my social media platforms. The goal is to allow other women to feel OK about wearing a bathing suit or pretty lingerie, to feel sexy enough to be in photographs and confident enough to post them online if they want to.
Many women who have written to me say that they don't have any pictures of themselves because they hate the way they look, including one mother who doesn't have a single photo of herself with her child who had passed away. That made me so sad and so angry that our society pushed such an unrealistic idea of what the female body should look like.
The campaign now has close to a million followers. It is a movement that is gaining traction because so many feel they don’t fit in, that they can’t achieve their dreams, that they won’t be successful simply because of the way they look. It is daunting to be at the head of this movement, but I feel a great responsibility to inspire others and let them know that they can be who they are. They can love themselves as I love myself, and that they can find a world of love just as I have.