Last year, one of my favorite websites featured my fiancé and me in a story about couples who began as friends. I posted the photo to my Instagram feed, and one of the first comments referred to both of our midsections as “round” and questioned whether or not we were healthy.
In the weeks and months leading up to that Instagram comment, I had been in the midst of my own personal body acceptance revolution. I had even divulged to a friend that I was beginning to look in the mirror and see someone beautiful looking back. After that Instagram comment, I sent that same friend a message about how I felt like I was spiraling back into old harmful and inaccurate thought patterns about my body and myself. Because of my size (a US 18), even when someone sees me standing next to the love of my life, smiling, full of joy and excitement, all they see is the size of my stomach. Because of my weight, they don’t see my happiness.
In response, my friend messaged me a link to Tess Holliday’s Instagram page.
Tess Holliday is a plus-size model, published author, and well known figure in the body positivity community. She’s responsible for the viral hashtag #EffYourBeautyStandards, which she created after strangers left cruel comments on her own Instagram account. I think about the exchange with my friend as I wait to meet Holliday in front of the gates to Disneyland on a sunny afternoon in late May. It had been Holliday’s suggestion to do our interview here; she says that everyone she’s ever taken to Disneyland has a good time.
She hugs me when she arrives. “I’m so sorry I’m late!” she says. “I’m never like this. I hate being late.” I’m not upset. I’m at Disneyland.
More than beautiful, Holliday looks fascinating. Her hair is a bright shade of red, with warm undertones and understated highlights that make it gleam. It reminds me of Jessica Rabbit’s hair, but with better conditioner. Through the mesh of her nearly all-black athleisure sweatsuit, I can see her arms covered in large, ornate tattoos.
Holliday has come to Disneyland with family and friends in tow, including her husband, artist Nick Holliday, her friend, the actor Liv Hewson, and her publicist. The plan is for us to sit down for an interview before spending some time together wandering around Adventureland. Her kids will be joining her later. But first, after some quick introductions, we enter the park and immediately make our way toward what Holliday assures me will be some truly fantastic fried chicken at Plaza Inn, right off Disney’s main street. She’s right—the chicken is amazing.
There’s a certain type of internet commenter that any fat woman on social media is undoubtedly familiar with: The concern troll. If you are a fat woman with the unmitigated gall to present yourself as happy or beautiful, concern trolls will tell you that you are not healthy and should focus on losing weight. They will also often accuse you of “glorifying obesity” for not publicly hating or castigating yourself for existing while not thin. Of course, these folks don’t know how healthy you are or aren’t. But they are determined to “help” you. Yeah. Right.
As we settle into our seats at the restaurant, I ask about an exchange I’d witnessed just the other day on her Instagram page, where she currently has 1.5 million followers. In predictable concern troll fashion, a man had commented on one of Holliday’s Instagram posts about how unhealthy she must be because of her weight. She had re-posted his comments with a surprising response. Holliday doesn’t usually clap back on individuals this way. But something about this guy must have especially pissed her off.
“I think it frustrates me that so many people have bought into the idea of what we should look like instead of actually giving a crap about everyone around you,” she says. “People should mind their own business.”
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition caused by a hormonal imbalance, which leads to the formation of ovarian cysts, excess body hair, irregular periods, and, for some, weight gain. After my diagnosis, I tell her, I began following plus-size fashion bloggers on social—I wanted to know how to dress my body, and these women seemed to have it figured out. They, too, experienced plenty of concern trolls. But their responses to these commenters—at least the responses that I noticed—all focused on health. Things like, “You don’t know if I’m healthy or not.” Or, “I go to the doctor.”
Holliday nods. “In the beginning I used to say, ‘I’m healthy, my cholesterol’s fine, I don’t have high blood pressure, I don’t have diabetes,” she says. But now she takes a different approach. “By telling people that you see a doctor, and telling people that you’re healthy, it’s perpetuating the abuse against bigger bodies and the mindset that we owe it to people to be healthy. The reality is I don’t owe you shit and I don’t have to prove that I’m healthy or not, because it is nobody’s business.”
The enraging and obvious fact about concern trolls is that they are not actually concerned about your health at all. Nevertheless, the knee-jerk defense against a concern troll is to tell him that his concern is misplaced—actually, I’m healthy, thank you very much. But Holliday’s philosophy is to refuse to play along at all. Don’t treat it like concern, because it’s not. It’s abuse.
One example from Holliday’s life, out of too many to count: “When I got pregnant, I was flooded with a bunch of stuff,” she says. “I was flooded with, ‘You’re gonna kill your baby because you’re so fat,’ and ‘your baby’s gonna come out deformed,’ which is awful to say. Then there were other people that were saying that I wouldn’t live to see my child grow up, which is stupid because I think any of us could get hit by a car and die.”
“I just refuse to go down that road, and to feel like I need to prove my health and my worth to people that don’t care,” she says. “There’s a famous quote, I don’t know who said it but I use it all the time: ‘Never waste your time explaining yourself to people who are committed to misunderstanding you.’”
Holliday is mostly in good spirits at Disneyland. She’s recovering from a bout with the flu, but she’s no longer contagious, and this is her happy place. There was a time, she says, when her oldest son was small, that she wouldn’t visit amusement parks for fear of not being able to fit on any of the rides. She has no such complaints at Disneyland.
Her life story is compelling enough to write a book about, and she did. In The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl: Loving The Skin You’re In, Holliday writes about her often traumatic childhood with a verbally abusive father, bullies at school, a disabled mother—her mother was paralyzed after being shot twice by a significant other—and moving 40 times before she was 10 years old. Growing up, Holliday loved fashion and beauty and dreamed of becoming a model, although the particular pains of her childhood led to her channeling that energy into becoming a makeup artist, instead. But she never gave up on her modeling dream, and uploaded some modeling photos to the social networking site Model Mayhem, where a producer for the 2011 A&E television show Heavydiscovered her. Holliday became the face of the show in a promotional campaign that followed. Around the same time, she became a finalist for Torrid’s House of Dreams model search. That’s how Ryann Maegen Hoven became Tess Munster, and later, Tess Holliday.
“My life was shitty, but it’s also really great now,” she says. “I feel really fortunate to be able to do what I love for a living. And to have gone through everything I have in life. I wouldn’t change any of it.”
That gratitude is clear—as is her self-awareness. Holliday doesn’t ever want to forget how lucky she is, or in what ways she continues to be privileged. She is particularly troubled by the lack of plus-size models her size or similar, and the lack of people of color in these spaces. She believes she’s been given a lot of opportunities that her counterparts of color haven’t. She wouldn’t say it’s all luck, and neither would I. She works hard. But she’s not blind. There is more room for plus-size women of many shapes, colors, and gender identities on the runways. Where are they?
“I’m the only model that looks like me that is at the level that I’m at,” she says. “I know that a lot of it has been because I’ve had a lot of opportunities that weren’t given to a lot of other people that look like me. Most of them are women of color, which is incredibly frustrating.”
She’s also thoughtful about the fashion brands that she supports, and the clothes she wears—for example, she tries hard not to wear brands that don’t go up to a 5x or 6x in sizing, if she can avoid it, and she’s intentional about what designers she supports. “I choose to wear designers and clothes from people that I like what they’re doing—because if you’re not supporting people like that, then they’re not gonna be around,” she says. “I like to buy clothes from people that actually give a shit about my body and about plus bodies. That makes me happy.” (You can see a list of plus-size fashion brands Holliday recommends here.)
It makes me happy, too, knowing that there are more options out there for people with bigger bodies. I tell Holliday that it can feel lonely when my girlfriends go shopping and I can’t go with them because the stores they go to don’t offer my size.
“I don’t want to go to any of those stores anyways,” she says. “I’ll just buy cute stuff online.”
She says modeling changed her relationship with fashion and, in a way, with her own self-esteem. “What shaped my perception about my body and myself was finding better clothes—that’s what changed my world,” she says. “That’s why modeling really changed my self-esteem and how I view myself, because I finally for the first time have accessibility to fashion that I didn’t know existed.” She marvels at how her relationship with her body has changed over time.
“[My arms are] the one of part of my body I still struggle with,” she says. “But I would’ve never [sat] here in a public place, I would have never taken my shirt off or showed my arms six years ago, and it’s nice. It’s hot outside, [and] it’s nice to be able to just not feel like I have to cover up because I’m worried about what other people think about me.”
It’s clear that Holliday plays the role of caretaker among her friends and family. She has the heart of a leader, but often stops the conversation to take consensus, make sure everyone is feeling okay, asking if we’re enjoying our food and our time.
On Father’s Day in 2017, she shared with her followers that her husband Nick lives with mental illness, and that he is an excellent father to her children and partner to her, and that she takes care of him when he needs help. She elaborates on that dynamic in person: “Sometimes, Nick will tell me, ‘I can take care of myself.’ But then, I bring him his medicine every morning. I know that you enjoy that part of our relationship, because I enjoy it, and he needs it, and I feel like we balance each other out.”
It makes me wonder: If Tess Holliday is so busy taking care of so many people, who takes care of her? I ask her.
“I wasn’t doing any self-care,” she says, which was particularly difficult after the birth of her second child Bowie, in June 2016, when she began to experience serious post-partum depression. She says she’s also recently been dealing with some unprocessed trauma from her childhood: “Writing the book stirred a lot up for myself that I thought I was over, but I wasn’t.”
Holliday says she relies on her friends for support with her own mental health, although she’s still learning how to do that. And she relies a lot on her husband. “Part of my trauma is negative thought patterns,” she says, “and I’ll start to spiral and I’ll go down a rabbit hole and I need someone to [just put a hand on my shoulder and say,] ‘Take a breath.’ Nick was doing it actually on the way here. We’ll be married three years in July, we’ve been together for almost seven, and I’m finally learning this year how to let him love me.”
She admits that reaching out to friends for support can be really tough, and that being famous can make things more complicated—an active life on social media can make real life surprisingly lonely. “When you get to a certain level people just assume you’re okay all the time,” she says. “[My friends will say,] ‘God, you’ve been really busy lately’ and I go, ‘Actually, I haven’t been, but social media, because I have content already shot to post when I don’t feel good, it just looks like I’m constantly doing stuff.’ So because of that, people don’t invite me to stuff. People don’t come over to see me or the kids or don’t ask me to do stuff because they assume A. I’m too busy, B. I won’t want to, or C. I have better things to do.”
Holliday says she’s also sought personal and professional guidance to help treat her post-partum depression.
“I’ve started taking medication for my depression,” she says. “I have a life coach who has been extremely helpful and supportive. I feel very L.A. saying that, like, I take medication and I have a life coach, but I literally felt like I was going crazy at the beginning of this year.” To Holliday, this is the conversation about health that’s actually worth having. Most others, well, aren’t.
To assist with these life changes and help herself feel better mentally, Holliday has also begun eating differently. She worries that her fans and followers might take this shift the wrong way, and is quick to clarify: “I’m still gonna eat Cheetos and all of that.” She understands that a brand built on self-acceptance, and a supportive community built around that ethos, might question changes in her lifestyle if they come across as abandoning this core philosophy. It’s complicated.
“I feel guilty,” she says. “The amount of people [who] get thrust into the limelight and they’re plus size? They lose weight. The more successful they get, the more weight they lose. It’s hard because those people don’t owe staying fat to anyone. It’s their body and what they want to do, but there is also a sense of betrayal that [people with] bigger bodies feel, and it’s hard because you’re in your head. I’ve [thought this about] many people, where you’re like, ‘Is it their choice? Were they pressured [into losing weight]?’”
Holliday sees the irony in this line of thought, given her aversion to concern trolling and questions about health being directed at her.
“I believe in doing things for yourself and being active in a way that suits you and your lifestyle, but I try to tell people all the time you can’t judge other people and what they’re doing with their bodies,” she says. “It’s none of my business and you just have to let people live and do their own thing, but I feel guilty saying I eat well and that I’m active and that I do all those things,” she says.
Still, this is a very personal decision for her. “I’ve realized that through loving yourself, at least for me personally, that means I take care of myself more.”
And what taking care of herself looks like is no one’s business but her own. “I can live my life, I can be at Disneyland and eat fried chicken, and that’s my choice,” she says. “That’s what’s great. It’s my body.”
Ashley C. Ford lives in Brooklyn by way of Indiana. She is currently writing her memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, which will be published by Flatiron Books under the imprint An Oprah Book. Ford has written or guest-edited for The Guardian, ELLE, BuzzFeed, Slate, Teen Vogue, New York Magazine, Lenny Letter, INTO and various other web and print publications. She’s taught creative nonfiction writing at The New School and Catapult.Co, and also had her work listed among Longform and Longread’s Best of 2017.