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Tess Holliday reveals how “exhausting and isolating” it is to be a body positivity icon

“Women are told they have to be naturally beautiful, but what we’ve defined as ‘natural’ isn’t natural at all,” says Tess Holliday.

Tess Holliday is, without a doubt, a trailblazer in the body positivity movement. She has captivated nearly 2 million followers and has made a name for herself as model, being the first visibly plus size woman to grace the cover of a major magazine. Holliday has flipped the script on her humble beginnings to become the embodiment of glamour while remaining authentic about her physical and emotional journey as a mother and a model. 

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We had the opportunity to chat with her about being a beacon of body confidence, the future of the #bodypos movement and the pressures of being a role model. Because, as Holliday explains, she has “had to come to terms with the fact that when you are breaking down barriers the work never ends”. 

“It’s always going to be hard; it can be very exhausting and feel isolating,” she tells us. “But I understand the work that I am doing will be around after I am gone. I want to help marginalised groups beyond just size inclusivity. I feel a lot of pressure, but I use that to motivate me.”

Here is everything she had to say on the subject…

Why do you feel society is so obsessed with appearance?

The societal obsession with appearance is definitely something that weighs on your mind as a model. Women are told they have to be naturally beautiful, but what we’ve defined as “natural” isn’t natural at all… we’ve been taught by pop culture that the way a person looks is just as important as the content of their actions, and while I’m not sure exactly how we reverse that as a society, the expansion we’re seeing of the kinds of people reflected in media has to be sign of good things happening.

Where do you think this “ideal” came from and do you think that can change and revert back to a time when curvier bodies were revealed as the standard of beauty?

I firmly believe that a big part of the obsession with women’s thinness comes from the same place as male power fantasies. We have so many stories ingrained into our culture where men are strong and capable while women are delicate and need saving. We also have to consider how major fashion houses have glamorised a standard of beauty that is at times really unhealthy and unattainable. Ultimately, I don’t really want to see the media portraying curvier and fatter bodies being the norm, I want to see a variety of bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors, and orientations, all of the time just like we do in reality.

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You’ve been very inspirational with how open you are with your followers on issues of bullying and mental health. How do you cope with cyber bullies and what can others do who are experiencing the same thing and do not have the status and reach that you do?

Bullying used to affect me more than it does now, but once you understand that the people who are saying horrible things to you are just projecting their insecurities on to you, it is a lot easier to have compassion for them, because you know that they are going through things. While it does not make it okay, I remind myself that it only shows that your bully has work to do on themselves, and that I feel grateful to not have to feel like they do. I love myself in a world where people tell me I don’t deserve to feel love. The best response is often no response, just block them and move on with your day. You have no obligation to let other people take their personal insecurities and grievances out on you.

Presumably, the terrible behaviour of trolls can get under the skin of any human. What do you do for self-care and how do you reset your mental health after a particularly low point?

If I have the opportunity, a massage or facial is a great way to take a little “me time”. I also find more and more that spending time with people I care about and helping them makes it easier for me to reset. Taking breaks from social media is really important for everyone, but particularly those in the public eye, so when I am feeling particularly bad, I delete all social media apps from my phone, and I’ll take my boys to a movie or to Disneyland. I also work with the Downtown women’s center, so gathering donations for them is a good way to stay busy and drop by to see a few friends. When you are helping others it’s easier to take the focus off your own problems.

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Have you ever been surprised by an overwhelmingly positive response?

The day before my Cosmo cover came I out I was at my publicist’s house going over work stuff, and she showed me the cover. I remember feeling self-conscious and thinking that they could have picked a better photo. I had all these negative thoughts going through my head, but I woke to it already getting some attention, and once I shared it myself the positive response I got was overwhelming. I had never experienced that kind of attention for something that I had done before. I wasn’t expecting so many people to celebrate me and relate to it. I knew it would be powerful for some people, but I was not expecting the magnitude of it at all.

Representation of different body types are important, but what is “enough?” Is it any curve model representation in a magazine or an ad or do you feel there needs to be a certain number of plus size women?

I’m often asked by people who are committed to maintaining the status quo “when will enough diversity be enough?” – and the answer is quite simple: when our media portrays people in a way that accurately reflects the world around us. We’ve certainly seen bodies that were never reflected before finding an audience – but there is still so far for us to go. 

For far too long, the representation of women by both mainstream and social media has failed to reflect who we see in the mirror, and its impact on our mental health is worrying. Stylist’s Love Women initiative promises to change that. As well as the launch of our Body Politics series, we’ve partnered with Dove, whose latest project (in conjunction with photo library Getty Images) aims to increase the supply of diverse pictures of women – which we will be using going forward.

Our editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski has also made five pledges to Stylist readers:

  1. We will ensure the women you see on our pages represent all women – inclusive of ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, age and disability. When we create content and ideas, we will ensure that all women are represented at the table. We commit to featuring one fashion or beauty photoshoot a month that uses real, diverse women.
  2. We will ensure that we never sell an impossible dream. We believe in aspiration, but not in selling a lie. We will work with influencers, celebrities and other partners to encourage them to reveal their truths, too.
  3. We will celebrate the so-called flaws of women to prove the normality in all of our bodies. We will run videos, photoshoots and honest accounts of our bodies and how they behave.
  4. We will hold regular huddles with our advertisers and brand partners to challenge the way they portray and reflect women in their branding and advertising. We will call out and challenge brands, media and people who refuse to represent women with respect and truth. We will call on the government to support our goals.
  5. Through insight and anecdote, we will teach everyone about the issues facing women, what needs to be done and how we can all work together to resolve this self-esteem crisis.

Find out more about Stylist’s Love Women initiative here.

Renee Cafaro is a freelance writer and US editor of SLiNK magazine, a fashion and lifestyle magazine aimed at plus size women.

Main image: Kayla Vonderheide

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