Tess On The Beach
On a humid evening in the seaside town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the NYLON team waited for Tess Holliday to meet us for dinner at the hotel where we were staying. Eventually, she breezed in, smelling like something expensive and sweet. She went around the table, hugging each of us warmly, before sitting down.
Holliday had been on vacation in Mexico for the past few days. She told us that, at another hotel's pool bar, she was talking to a man who asked her, "Are you bi?"
She continued: "I said, 'Thank you so much for asking. I've been thinking a lot about my relationship to my own queerness, and I think the word pansexual speaks to me more than bi does.'"
She paused, grinning: "He said, 'Thank you for telling me about that, but actually, I said, Are you buying?'"
Of the six people from NYLON present, five of us are queer. With this anecdote, Holliday had let us know that she's one of us. But her queerness isn't the only thing revealed with this story: Now we also know that she's really fucking funny.
Tess Holliday (formerly Ryann Hoven) is one of the most well-known plus-size models in the world. With nearly two million Instagram followers, several major brand partnerships, and an industry-shifting contract with Milk Model Management (she was the first model of her size to be signed to a mainstream modeling agency), her ascendance isn't just a personal victory—it's a win for other plus-sized women who haven't seen themselves represented in beauty and fashion.
And really, it's important for people with all kinds of bodies to see someone like Holliday in the spotlight; someone who is fat and gorgeous and proud of it, proving it's not just possible to be all of the above, at once—it's cool. She's the creator of #EffYourBeautyStandards, one of the most frequently used hashtags of all time. As someone whose modeling career is inseparable from her activism and her advocacy, Holliday constantly engages with issues of body positivity on social media. A quick scroll through her Instagram shows glamour shots alongside videos in which she calls people out for concern-trolling her health. Her brand is very strong.
"I can connect with people on a more intimate level than I was before, because I don't have to pretend to be someone I'm not."
Holliday grew up in a small town in the Bible Belt of Mississippi. When she was 10, her mom was shot twice in the head by her boyfriend. She survived but was disabled by the injury. Holliday, who had already moved 40 times by that age, then moved in with her grandparents. She was bullied in school because of her mother's wheelchair, and because she lived in a trailer, and she sought comfort in food (warm soup, she specified), which eventually changed the shape of her body—and then she was bullied for that, too. But, after having a child at 20, Holliday uploaded photos of herself to Model Mayhem, and had several big breaks—a campaign for A&E and then with Torrid—which led to her current level of success.
Now 33, Holliday is a published author. She has a husband, and another child; when her second son was born, there were paparazzi waiting outside her home. She lives in L.A. She's a Cancer. And she's recently realized she's queer—though her queerness is complicated by her monogamous heterosexual marriage; and, as we discussed it further a few days later, she was careful with her words, speaking in vague terms. She said, "I feel like a lot of stuff in my life now makes sense. A lot of the things that I felt when I was younger make sense. A lot of the relationships that I had make sense." She continued, "I definitely have a sense of relief. I can connect with people on a more intimate level than I was before, because I don't have to pretend to be someone I'm not."
I asked, for clarity, is she saying she would be in a romantic relationship with a woman? She responded, firmly, "Yeah!"
And then she added, with a shy smile, "I might not know, like, what to do. But I feel like I'd figure it out." I promptly blushed.
The morning of our shoot was sunny and hot, and Holliday was ready. She'd been in hair and makeup for two hours in her hotel room, and her thick red mane was perfectly teased and waved. She'd got her lashes on, and she'd been styled in a neon greenish-yellow one-piece swimsuit, which looked positively electric in the blinding daylight. Anticipating how physically challenging the day would be, she'd been preparing for months, working out five days a week with her trainer to get stronger. And she was careful with what she ate, though "not in a toxic, diet culture-restrictive way, but in a mindful way." She later told me that she feels not just beautiful, but better than she's ever felt in her entire life.
But then, when we drove to the picturesque, secluded beach, and guided her out to the choppy Pacific Ocean water to be photographed, something changed. She was not having a good time. Her feet were sinking, making it difficult to pose. There were more onlookers than we'd anticipated. A blister on her foot popped, and the wound filled with sand. She said, repeatedly, that she felt like she was letting us down.
This shoot means a lot to me. I was 24 the first time I saw a model faint from hunger, backstage at New York Fashion Week. Since then it's something I've witnessed more times than I care to count. Plus-sized apparel options make up just .1 percent of the luxury market; and despite the fact that the average American woman wears a size 16 or 18, only 14 percent of designers, in general, make clothes for a size 18 or above. As NYLON's editor-in-chief, I have the power to opt out of glorifying the dangerously thin frames that have defined fashion for my whole life, and the privilege to choose someone like Holliday to model swimsuits on the beach for our July issue. I am lucky to have the ability to show our readers that the things that might marginalize them can also be what makes them beautiful.
So there we were, in Mexico, asking Holliday to pose in bathing suits in order to help us reclaim and redefine the shape of beauty, and she looked… so, so sad. This was, quite possibly, my biggest fear coming true. I am not in the business of making women feel uncomfortable, especially not while they are being photographed, and especially not women who are generally discriminated against. I felt like putting my head in the sand.
After the first look, Holliday decided that she wanted to remove all of her makeup for the rest of the shoot, except for maybe a bold lip at the end. With her face bare and her hair in a pony tail, she got in the water, splashing around, making jokes. She was still having trouble balancing in the waves, and she was still sinking, and her foot hurt, but she was being incredibly brave and was absolutely determined to get us the shots we needed. She was, above all else, a hard working professional; there's a reason she's become one of the most recognizable plus-size models in the world, and it has little to do with luck.
"If [people are] trying, if they're at least fucking trying, let them try. Give them space. And we don't."
The next day over breakfast, Holliday began our interview with an apology. She said she was sure she came across like a diva. She told me how grateful she was for the opportunity. "I just wanted everyone to have a good experience," she said. I told her that, if anything, I just felt awful for putting her in such an uncomfortable situation.
"Why is it controversial that I chose to talk about my abortion?"
"Obviously I probably have internalized fatphobia about myself and what the world has ingrained in us," she said. "But, like, stepping in the rocks and them cutting into my feet, and then the sun, and the salt water, and me not being able to stay in the waves, and then delivering a face," she said, trailing off. "I allowed a lot to just get into my head, and I tried so hard to get out of it, but I felt like I just kept digging further."
One of the things Holliday is best known for is her quote, "Loving yourself is a journey, not a destination." It's clear that this is drawn from her own experiences; because, even though she devotes her free time to educating the masses on body positivity, and even though she posts photos of her own body as examples of self-love, she is human. And as someone who represents a movement, there's little room for her to reveal her own struggles with the oppression she speaks out against. Her fans need her to be consistently positive, and when she's not, they take it personally, and lash out. Even images of her working out to prepare for this shoot sparked criticism. I wonder about the things we project onto people like Holliday; why it's so important to her followers that she not only express but feel real and constant love for her body. Maybe because, if she were to reveal that it's more complicated than that, there might be a larger implication about her attitude toward fat bodies in general; and then, does that reveal what she thinks about other people? By loving, and subsequently validating, herself, she's loving and validating the rest of us, too. That's a hell of a lot of pressure.
It makes sense that she is extra worried about being vulnerable on-set; she's not used to having space to express anything other than confidence. And it's her confidence, she tells me, that draws people to her. I think it's also what repels them. In fact, there are entire Reddit threads devoted to hating her; she says they post screenshots from the LiveJournal that she had as a teenager, in addition to other constantly invasive, cruel critiques. Her ardent belief in a woman's right to take up space really pisses off the trolls, and she deals with vitriol from strangers who tell her to workout (even as comments on pictures of her literally working out), among other things.
Some of the hate she gets is more complicated. One of the most well-known Holliday controversies was an incident in 2015 when she said in an interview, "Black men love me." She apologized, and took the time to try to learn from it, but it's stuck with her—it's something people still talk about and many of them still publicly call her words that she won't repeat to me. "I have definitely done and said things that weren't okay," she said. "And I've made mistakes, and I've apologized in the best way at that time that I knew how."
I asked her what she thinks about cancel culture, as someone who has been on both ends. She thought for a moment before responding, and said, carefully, "I think that continually punishing people for things that happened years ago, when they've shown that they're trying, and when they've talked about it repeatedly, I think at that point, you're just bullying other people. Do I regret those things happening? Well, yeah. Of course. But I also feel like I would like to think that people are doing the best they can with what they have at the time."
"Again, some things are unforgivable, and some things that people say and do, it's hard for me because I'm like, they don't deserve a chance," she said. "But I feel like, if they're trying, if they're at least fucking trying, let them try. Give them space. And we don't."
She said there are still certain brands who will send her free clothes but are afraid to actually work with her because of how controversial she is. But the idea that she's controversial is also something she takes issue with. "Why is it controversial that I chose to talk about my abortion?"she asked, rhetorically. "And the fact that I got an abortion when I was in a marriage and could have financially supported a child, why did I feel so much shame for that?"
She continued the line of questioning, growing impassioned: "Why is it controversial to talk about the fact that fat people deserve to take up space and deserve to be sexy? All of that just makes me so angry, because I see so many people that are plus-sized figures and figures in general, like celebrities, and they will post Black Lives Matter in their Insta-Stories, but not on their page because they don't want to mess up their beautiful feed. It just makes me so mad because this is why people are dying, this is why people feel so alone. We are not showing up for these people, and we are not telling them that they matter."
With this, Holliday had touched on something that's been on my mind since she came out to us at dinner—that oppressive forces, the ones that tell us there is only one right way to be a woman, are all connected. Fatphobia, racism, homophobia, and anti-abortion politics are all attempts to make women easier to control. Her Instagram post about her abortion was right at home amidst the rest of her body positive content, because ultimately it's about her right to take care of herself however she wants to, and to define her own future.
"This is why people are dying, this is why people feel so alone. We are not showing up for these people, and we are not telling them that they matter."
Holliday chose to get her abortion at Planned Parenthood instead of the fancy private doctor in Beverly Hills to whom she was referred. Growing up in a state that has just one abortion clinic, Holliday is well-versed in the importance of supporting Planned Parenthood, and she's furious about what's happening to our abortion access in this country. She told me that she didn't have sex education growing up, and the town where she lived had the highest rate of teen pregnancy, as well as the highest rate of high school dropouts in the state. She pointed out that if you don't teach kids sex ed, and you also don't provide reproductive health care, "you're cutting off all their access at having a better life." She said that she now understands she grew up in a bubble, a time before social media, when it was much harder to find a political and cultural identity other than the one you were born into.
Holliday's journey, then, has been as much about self-love as about finding her political voice, and about learning how to be a better ally to other marginalized people. And she knows it's ongoing. She's constantly digging up old trauma and figuring out how it affects her daily life; she's engaging with her friends and her followers to figure out how she can be a better person and a stronger advocate. She's not pretending to be perfect or to know everything. She's doing the best she can, and like all of us, she just wants the space to do it.
After the shoot, when we got back to the hotel, Holliday got out of the van still in her wet bathing suit, the black one-piece that says "LOVE YOUR BODY." She was covered in sand, and her red lipstick was charmingly smudged; her thick red hair was in a wet, salty tangle. She paused when she reached the entrance, turning her head back toward us.
"Does my butt look good, at least?" she asked.
"YES," we all said in unison. I added, "It looks amazing." It did.
"That was a trick question," she said, flashing the first huge smile I'd seen in several hours. "It always does."
- PHOTOGRAPHER: LINDSEY BYRNES
- PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
- VIDEOGRAPHER: DANI OKON AND GRETTA WILSON
- LINE PRODUCER: CHARLOTTE PRAGER
- VIDEO EDITOR: MADELINE STEDMAN
- STYLIST: MEAGHAN O'CONNOR
- STYLIST ASSISTANT: OLIVIA GABAREE
- HAIR STYLIST: TONY MEDINA
- MAKEUP ARTIST: IVAN “SHABLAM" NUNEZ