Tess Holliday Is Challenging Our Concept of Beauty

Tess Holliday's popular hashtag, #EffYourBeautyStandards, is making a statement.
Tess Holliday's popular hashtag, #EffYourBeautyStandards, is making a statement.
Photo by Ryan Orange

Tess Holliday got oodles of attention in January for being the biggest model ever signed by a top agency, U.K.-based Milk. But beyond the sensational curves of this 5-foot-5-inch, size 22 model, mother and Internet sensation, Holliday has a message to share that's resonating in an unprecedented way.

#EffYourBeautyStandards, the hashtag-driven movement she started after dealing with online bullies who berated her size and risk-taking fashion choices, has become an influential web force. And Holliday herself has more than 826,000 Facebook fans and more than 645,000 Instagram followers.

The 29-year-old Pasadena resident first drew notice in a profile on modelmayhem.com, which led to a slew of modeling gigs including a job as "the face" in ads and promotional materials for A&E's show Heavy.

Holliday's rule-breaking attitude and style savvy are garnering her the attention now. "Plus-size fashion bloggers are really changing things in the industry, but plus models haven't been as progressive," she says. "We're hangers and we wear what companies tell us to wear. The reason I'm different is I have my own style and I do what I want and share that."

In a distorted fashion media world where a size 10 is considered huge, Holliday is the big, beautiful one you can't look away from. On her Instagram account, she usually portrays a sexy pinup style, with coiffed red hair and often swimsuits and lingerie. Sometimes the looks show lots of skin, much of which is tattooed.

She wasn't always so confident. "I come from a very small, conservative town in Mississippi and I was bullied my whole life. I dropped out of school because of it," she recalls. "I always knew that I didn't belong there. L.A. was the first city that I felt fit my personality. It's quirky. And people here are busy and free and doing their own thing.''

Ever since she contracted with Milk, Holliday has been jet-setting around the world. Recent clients include Benefit Cosmetics, Steady Clothing and Monif C swimwear. She just shot a "top-secret" project with celebrity photographer David LaChapelle and will be seen in malls wearing Torrid's spring line.

The #EffYourBeautyStandards movement is mostly active on social media, with contributors posting body-acceptance content daily, but Holliday plans a full website. "Size isn't an indicator of health," she says. "I don't smoke. I barely drink. I work 15-hour days, I'm getting married this year and I have a son."

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In the past, she says, "I'd wear the most beautiful dress and ruin it by putting on a frumpy cardigan, because I was too afraid to show my arms." Now it's quite the opposite.

"I'll often think, 'Is this going to piss people off because I'm showing off my body?' If I think it will, then I'll wear it," she says. "People put their fears on others. Just because you're afraid of being fat, don't put that on me. I'm not recruiting people to be fat. I'm just existing in this body and I've found a way to love it."

Check out our entire People Issue 2015.

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