How Tess Holliday Conquered Her Greatest Body Shame

Photo: Courtesy of Yours Clothing.
You may recognize Tess Holliday from, oh, everywhere. In the last year, Tess has gone from Instagram sensation to international celebrity to (according to People) the world's first size 22 supermodel. Most of all, she is one of our most powerful and vibrant icons of body positivity. She takes no bullshit and she gives none, either. Tess is a role model, indeed, but she's an individual who won't bend to anybody's definition of what a role model should be. That's what makes her such a vital one.

Just days before she hit the cover of People, I spoke with Tess about what it's like to be a leader and an outlier in this industry — and how she got the guts to get there.
You’ve had quite a year. How’s it going in general?
"It’s going good! I’ve been very busy. I basically went from a one-woman show to having — I mean, I had people helping me — but, now I have a whole team of people. It’s been very humbling. It’s been crazy."

I’ve been following you on Instagram for a while and it’s just been so exciting to see all the developments.
"I think it really hit me when I started having men come up to me and say, 'Oh, aren’t you that model?' Then you know you’ve gone from a niche to mainstream."

What do they say to you, usually?
"It's different. The guys are usually really giddy and they just want to take a photo with me. They're usually really quiet and sometimes a little shy about it. The girls usually freak out. I had somebody wave to me in my car the other day while I was driving!

"It’s really cute. I always had people coming up to me before, but they're much more timid when they approach me now. I think because they think I’m less approachable because I’m kind of everywhere at the moment. It's the opposite. I welcome it when people come up to me."

It's not always easy to be a role model and I consider you a pioneer — as I’m sure many others do. How do you maintain a healthy self-esteem? How do you hang onto those good days and fight through the bad ones?
"I think, as with anything, it’s who you surround yourself with. I try to surround myself with people that are positive, people that support me, people that understand what I’m going through — or, if they don’t understand, they at least empathize with what I’m going through, but also have my back.

"I try and disconnect myself from social media when I can. My partner is really good about taking my phone away from me if he sees me scrolling through and looking at the comments, which I’m not allowed to do. And, I try and do things that I enjoy on my downtime, like hang out with my son at Disneyland."

So, you’ve stopped reading comments entirely, huh?
"I’m not going to say entirely. It’s hard, because on Instagram they have a feature where you can either get all notifications on your phone, turn off all notifications, or just get notifications for people you follow.

"I get notifications just for people I follow. So, let’s say my fiancé or one of my friends likes a picture, then I get it, which is great. But, if my friends engage with people who are saying mean things, that pops up, too. And, sometimes my friends say some funny things and I can’t help but laugh a little. But, it's definitely a double-edged sword."

I find it really empowering that you’re willing to acknowledge when you have tough days, tough moments, or when people really get to you. When you're in the spotlight, there's so much pressure to be cheerful all the time.
"My whole career, even before I had any idea of what I was doing, I always tried to be really transparent with people and to show them this isn’t as glamorous as it looks. This is hard and this is real life. This is what I’m dealing with. And, people relate to that. They want to be able to connect with you in a way, and so regardless of my success or, you know — I think "fame" is such a weird word — I always try to be really honest about what my life is like."
Photo: Courtesy of Yours Clothing.
I see a lot more plus-size body concerns crop up during the summer. People always talk about things like "chub rub" and worries over plus-size swimwear. Do you feel more body conscious in the summer?
"I used to, definitely, but I don’t anymore. I actually love winter, but I love summer as well. I totally embrace wearing less. I’m going to Palm Springs this weekend with my best friend and my fiancé for a weekend getaway, which I’m so excited about. I’ve been planning on which bikinis I'm taking and what I'm wearing. It’s an exciting time. I don’t feel pressured to look a certain way during the summertime."

Have you always worn bikinis or is that new for you?
"No, it wasn’t until about three years ago that I started doing it. Gabifresh did hers and then it inspired me."

Was there a specific turning point for you around body image and self-acceptance?
"I think it was the first time I shot nude. One of my old friends shot me in her bathtub for a plus-size french online magazine called Volup. She put a filter on the photos, but she didn’t Photoshop my body, and it was the first time I had seen my fat rolls like that — that I had seen my belly.

"I remember looking at the photos and thinking, 'Oh, I don’t look that bad. I actually look pretty good naked.' It was those photos that really made me feel comfortable. Also, my fiancé is very body positive. Having somebody love your body always makes you feel good as well."
Photo: Courtesy of Yours Clothing.
What's your primary self-defense against concern trolls or critics?
"I just ignore them. It’s really that simple. I have so much good in my life, why focus on the bad? At the end of the day, they’re not paying my bills, so they don’t get to tell me how to live my life."

Do you ever face critics or concern trolls in real life too?
"Yeah, I have a couple friends — well, not friends anymore, but former friends — who the day the news broke that I signed with MiLK, I was at a hotel and interviewing for Inside Edition and was on my way to another interview and it was a complete whirlwind. A friend sent me a text saying she didn’t support me and thought I was a sellout. I was like, 'Okay, thanks? I guess?'

"I’ve had people that felt like I didn’t earn my success because I happen to be big with a pretty face. But, at the end of the day, I kept pushing when everybody told me I couldn’t. I believed when nobody said it wasn’t possible. I earned it just as much as anyone else. It hurts more when it comes from people you care about and who are supposed to have your back. But, it makes more room for people in my life who actually support me to get rid of them."
Photo: Courtesy of Yours Clothing.
As a plus-sized woman, I sometimes feel self conscious when I’m working out. I imagine people must be thinking I’m desperately trying to lose weight. I know fitness plays a big role in your life as well, and I wondered if you’ve ever felt self-conscious or intimidated at the gym?
"No, I don’t. It’s something I do for myself. I don’t do it for anybody else so no, I don’t feel bad at all in that world."

I really appreciate your attitude around wearing summer clothing and bikinis, but it's still tough for so many people. Some women don't even go to the beach because they're too self-conscious and afraid of being exposed. What would you say to those women?
"Take baby steps. Wear a caftan or wear something that’s sheer and flowy on top of your bathing suit, or a maxi dress over your bathing suit. Find a bathing suit that you feel flatters your body, or something you feel good in.

"But, really, I’ve gone to the beach in a barely-there bathing suit, and then I’ve gone covered head to toe — and nobody cares. They're just there to have some fun. I think realizing that people don’t care what you’re wearing is the first step to getting over that."

You recently did an Instagram post about wearing shorts for the first time in years. How did that feel?
"Shorts were a big thing for me. It’s funny because like, I’ve worn sheer dresses with my underwear showing in public, but I wouldn’t wear shorts. I felt like they rode up my crotch or like, you could just see all of my legs. I didn’t feel cute.

"It was the one thing that I felt like I couldn't wear and so I put them on when I was in Australia. I wore them with tights and I remember thinking, 'Oh, I don’t look bad at all.' I got back to California and it was hot, so I thought, 'I’m going to try wearing them without tights.' And, it’s like my new favorite thing in the world! I wore them in Vegas at the casino recently, with my cowboy boots and a flowy top. I got so many compliments like, 'I love your tattoos!' People wouldn’t have said that if I was covering them up. Now, I feel like the next step is conquering being naked in public. Just kidding."

Last question: when do you feel the most body confident?
"When I’m naked — at home."

It's Your Body. It's Your Summer. Enjoy them both. Read more Take Back The Beach stories here.

More from Body

On principle, I am skeptical of any internet health recommendation that has the word “challenge” tacked on to the end of it. These wellness fads come and...
Although he had been dead for decades, Jim Morrison said something a few years ago that shocked people. He wasn’t speaking from beyond the grave, but in ...
In April, I ran a story called “The Medium-Sized Woman Problem.” The “problem,” of course, was not the women themselves, but the way in which we frame ...
Pregnant women get a lot of advice about motherhood, even when they don't ask for it. And in the first episode of Expecting, from Refinery29's comedy ...
Jill Krause writes about all things mom, parenting, and relationships at her blog, Baby Rabies, and she has some words of advice for the non-pregnant ...
Let me introduce you all to the love of my life, Sienna Harper Gernon! I've never felt love like it! @justchrisgernon thank you so much, you have been...
Ragazzi mi state seguendo in tanti e vorrei ringraziarvi e scusarmi se non riesco a rispondere a tutti...vi proprio ho una foto che mi ricorda tutte ...
(Paid Content) Stress sweat is different from regular sweat in that it feeds off bacteria and causes odor. Then you start to think about it — producing ...
Update: Kopp's original Facebook post has been removed, and, as Shape reports, the chances of contracting an infection so severe that draining is ...
Breast-feeding has numerous benefits for both mother and baby, but it doesn't always come as naturally as we might assume. And, as one viral photo shows, ...
Last week, Kelly Stanley was breast-feeding her 9-month-old baby during dinner when someone else at her table decided to grab a cloth napkin and try to ...
Periods may be annoying, but at least they're predictable — sort of. If yours is a little delayed this cycle, and you're not trying to get pregnant right ...
It sustains life. It boosts immunity. It may or may not taste like the milk left over from a bowl of Lucky Charms. (Full disclosure: I sampled mine just ...
Gina Rodriguez is the master of keeping it real. She's been open about everything from losing her virginity to coping with thyroid disease, so it makes ...