Tess Holliday On "The Not So Subtle Art Of Being A Fat Girl"

Photo: Warwick Saint
"This book is for anyone who has ever doubted themselves or the magic that lies within them." These are the opening words of The Not So Subtle Art Of Being A Fat Girl, a deeply personal memoir written by famed plus-size model Tess Holliday. Released today by Blink Publishing, the comprehensive book reveals in surprising detail the life that came before the glamorous selfies, inspirational social media posts and whirlwind schedule for which she is now best known. Holliday describes the writing process as difficult but explains her desire to share her story in the hope of empowering others, something she has aimed to do in the past with her social media movement, #effyourbeautystandards.
Alongside discussions of online abuse, fat-shaming and the realities of being a single mother, Holliday weaves in endearing anecdotes (the story of her first kiss is sure to bring a smile to your face) and bite-size chunks of life advice on everything from relationships and safe sex to style and body modification. "You can’t polish a turd, and if you try you’ll probably end up with some shit on you" is a personal favourite, inspired by the story of an ill-fated tattoo still being sporadically corrected.
Ultimately, this book succeeds in humanising one of the most-discussed models in the media. It succeeds because Holliday’s lighthearted tone shines through, even when discussing the violence and trauma she and her family have experienced. She describes her parents’ break-up through her mother’s own words in the first chapter, "Your Dad’s an Ass and I’m Leaving Him". This sense of familiarity also comes through when I speak with her over the phone; she’s upbeat, extremely friendly and punctuates every other sentence with an infectious cackle. Here, Holliday talks about the difficulties of juggling a newborn baby and writing a book, the pressures of being in the public eye and her own personal relationship with the word ‘fat’.
What made you decide to write a book?
I had a pretty tumultuous childhood, so whenever I needed strength or confidence I had a lot to draw from. I had a lot of life experiences at a young age. I felt like, even though my life wasn’t particularly easy, that made me able to navigate difficult situations better than some of my friends. At the end of the day, I just wanted to make something that would put everything I had learned into one place, help other people and tell them maybe not to do what I did – and hopefully make them laugh along the way, too! It also felt like the right time in my life, although definitely not the easiest – I had just had Bowie, so he was three months old when I started writing. That definitely made things more challenging!
You’ve had countless things written about you. How did it feel to take control of your story into your own hands?
I felt a lot of pressure to make sure I was saying the right things. When people say things about you it’s just out there and there’s nothing you can do about it. With writing a book, you have so much pressure but you also have so much time; I would find myself writing down how I felt, and then going back to it. I didn’t realise there were so many processes! There were edits, more edits, then I had to talk to lawyers, then friends read it, then my husband… All the time, I just kept changing things. I got to a point where I just had to believe what I was saying. Even now, I love my book and I’m so proud of it, but I do wonder in my head: 'How are people going to interpret that? What will they say?' It was empowering, but it was a lot of pressure.
How did you cope with that pressure once you signed with Milk and the media attention increased?
I had a good support system. My husband was living in Australia because we were still doing long-distance at the time, but he was supportive and would always reassure me. They always say all press is good press, but it can be hard sometimes to say that it is. I just tell myself that you never know who is seeing these articles, whether they’re negative or not; you don’t know whose life you might touch or even change. I remember my agent telling me, "You had better enjoy it because it will slow down!" I thought, 'Yeah, right!' But then you realise that something else happens and someone else has a moment, and things die down. I guess I’m lucky that people are still interested – I guess I have a few news outlets in the UK to thank for that! It’s still fun to me, I still enjoy it now as much as I did then.
Does it ever feel intimidating to be so heavily in the public eye, especially when talking about things like body positivity and fat acceptance – do you feel pressure to be a representative for all people?
It’s funny that you ask me, because I did a BeautyCon panel last week with Kelly Rowland, Simone Biles and Skai Jackson. It was crazy! The whole time I was thinking, ‘Holy shit, I’m next to a member of Destiny’s Child’, and I felt like I didn’t belong. Then, as I was talking, Kelly whispered in my ear that I speak from the heart and I couldn’t believe this was real! Then they opened up to an audience Q&A and almost all the questions were for me… I was literally on stage with a musical icon, an Olympic gold medallist, and people actually cared about me and my book. It was really cool, but really fucking weird! So my answer to whether or not I feel intimidated is yes – all the time.
You’ve touched on some difficult experiences in the book – do any stand out as being particularly hard to write about?
Two stand out – my childhood and how I feel confident. My childhood was hard because a lot happened that was really tough, and I thought I had put it in the past – I paid a lot of fucking money for therapists, so I thought it was dealt with! When I started writing, all this stuff came out. I’m sure that being hormonal, breastfeeding and dealing with postpartum played into it being difficult to discuss, and I am still dealing with it – a lot of it hasn’t gone away yet, and that’s fine. It’s life.
About the confidence, I always say it’s a journey, not a destination. It’s not like you’ll wear a bikini one day, love yourself and suddenly feel that for the rest of your life; there is no magic potion. I wanted to convey that but in the nicest way, because I don’t want people to feel hopeless. I love myself more than I ever thought I could in the body I’m in, but there is no one way to do it and there’s definitely no easy way to do it.
You’ve spoken about your own use of the word ‘fat’ in the past, but it’s a word that is still divisive. Why did you decide to include it in the book title?
Well, the reality is that I am fat. Even when I said the book title at the panel, Kelly Rowland was like, “No girl, you’re not fat, you’re curvy!” But I am fat, it’s just the reality, and I think if we can de-stigmatise that word it will make people feel less uncomfortable. Hopefully my book reaches a lot of people that identify with it and start to see it’s just an adjective. They don’t have to be ashamed or hide because, if you call yourself curvy and you are still fat, language really doesn’t matter. Some people may never get that, and it’s okay – for me, it’s how I feel most comfortable referring to myself.
Photo: Warwick Saint
You also recently used your social media to talk about an Instagram post which saw a husband declare his love for his ‘curvy wife’. How important do you think language is with issues like that?
Very! I don’t want to be the person always calling people out, but I even saw my friends sharing that article and praising him. I was thinking, 'Why can’t you see how wrong any of what he said was?' There’s nothing wrong with saying you love your plus-size wife but when it turns into something self-congratulatory and becomes about people loving you for loving your wife despite what she looks like, then it’s like, come on… take your crown off!
People need to think, because you can take things off of social media but if you put a foot wrong, people will find out who you are and what you do! It’s best to just not be an asshole and be nice to people. My rule of thumb is that if I have to ask myself if a caption is okay before I post it, it probably isn’t.
#effyourbeautystandards was always a way to draw attention to other people; how important was it for you to have other voices involved in that conversation?
It felt natural. I realised I wasn’t the only person going through what I was, and that I had people in my life who understood. I just thought there must be other people around the world who understand how it feels to want to be who you are and wear what you want in a world that says you have to look a certain way to feel beautiful – how sad and lonely that can feel.
When I started, it was just out of anger. I was pissed off. I never expected it to be what it is; I have a team of five people worldwide that run it, and I’d love more. It was also kind of the first popular body positive hashtag ever, so that’s a lot of fucking pressure. Each day there’s a new one now, and that’s a good thing, but I hope people educate themselves on what it means to be body positive before throwing a hashtag out there. It’s a really complex world and I’m still learning, but it is a really great community.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about you?
There are two – that I’m lazy and always confident. The reality is that I’m stressed out a lot; I have anxiety and trauma from my childhood which usually creeps up on me right before I have to do something important, so I have to deal with that. Also, with regards to me being lazy, some bodybuilder guy called me out on Twitter saying I was a fat, lazy slob. I said, "I challenge you to keep up with one day in my life". I shoot for 10 hours in heels, my body is aching, sometimes I don’t eat or drink – they offer, obviously, but I just get in the zone. Then usually I’m catching a flight, running through an airport with luggage and a baby. Then I come home to emails and a family to take care of, so I start all over again. There’s this big misconception that fat people just sit around and eat all day. I really fucking wish I could sit around and eat all day!
The Not So Subtle Art Of Being A Fat Girl (Blink Publishing) by Tess Holliday is out now. Tess appears at the Curve Fashion Festival in Liverpool on 9th September.

More from Body

R29 Original Series