Fat. One of the most problematic words in the western world. A word tangled with so many highly-charged prejudices, derived from assumptions about the health, lifestyle choices, and even the perceived desirability of an individual. The particular brand of discrimination associated with weight transcends lines between gender, race, and sexuality. In a myriad of socio-economic and cultural contexts, you can be assured to somehow encounter fatphobia.
I still cringe when I hear this word, and especially when someone uses it to describe me, whether they are doing so in the pejorative or are attempting (in vain) to empower me. An enormous effort is made daily to deflect from the reality of my body: Full makeup, hot rollers, and dresses each time I prepare to leave my apartment (even if it is to crawl around the floor of a filthy photo studio), as well as the cultivation of a cerebral, tenacious, and, for better or worse, a divisive personality. But when someone utters fat, all self-delusion is destroyed and my entire being is reduced to this single word. I’ve spent a great deal of my youth trying to ignore my ever-expanding dress size and focus on my intellect, talents, and contributions…or in less evolved moments, fixing the problems of other people. But every now and then I’m forced to face it, and it generally thrusts me into a spiral of self-loathing and despair.
The body acceptance movement is one that I absolutely support, as it is responsible for major strides in the body diversity we are finally starting to see in the fashion and beauty industries. And as a photographer, I shoot a variety of physiques and find them all captivating and exquisite. But on a personal level, no matter what methods I employ, self-acceptance is not something I can internalize. This makes someone like outspoken model, activist, and body acceptance advocate Tess Holliday absolutely remarkable to me.
Last September, Holliday released a book which is part autobiography and part self-help: The Not So Subtle Art of Being A Fat Girl: Loving The Skin You’re In. Upon receiving a copy, I was instantly struck by the kind of confidence and courage it must require to self-identify as fat. How has Holliday come to terms with the word that has been used to injure, subjugate, and humiliate so many of us since childhood? “I think for me it was just a choice to reclaim it. It had hurt me for so long, it had caused me to drop out of school and lose friends and to put a strain on relationships and I was just tired of it. I felt like I had to take the word back and reclaim it as my own. Because I basically wanted to make my life better.”
Much of the “life advice” in Holliday’s book is what you would expect from a body positivity icon: Emphasis on self-love, self-acceptance, and rebuking toxic attitudes in order to succeed. There’s definitely an if I can overcome, anyone can mentality that might read as a little cliché. However, Holliday’s life advice is driven by her intensely dramatic personal narrative: A destructive dynamic with her father, almost losing her mother to domestic violence (she was literally shot in the head at point-blank range), tumultuous relationships with lovers and friends, an unexpected pregnancy, a devastating rape, and the general pain of growing up overweight in America. Holliday’s approach to the retelling of these events is particularly inspired, as she assesses the trauma of her life and does not simply position herself as a victim, although she was certainly victimized. She takes responsibility for her part in each situation, and with brutal honesty, humility, and a fierce sense of humor, dispenses advice, often using her own choices as an example of what not to do. This isn’t a simple pull yourself up by your bootstraps story. The most authentic and relatable part of Holliday’s journey is that despite all of her accolades, she gives the sense that she still grapples with the same issues and demons she always has, and must fight daily to stay on track. “I have to remind myself that I can’t be body positive all the time. It’s not realistic,” she admits. “I’m going to have to face some bad days, some days I’m not going to feel good about myself and that’s ok. I need to not be ashamed to talk about those moments and my struggles.”
While Holliday endeavors to be kinder to herself, she’s often torn apart in the realm of social media. “I was definitely deterred by trolls in the beginning,” she recalls. “But I had to find a way to be myself and to speak my truth. Ever since I have been a loudmouth… If you have a following on social media and you are not using it to help other people and to educate others, then it’s wasted.” No stranger to controversy, Holliday’s mouth and public persona have been met with fervent backlash. During the 2016 election Holliday was photographed in a “Dump Trump” shirt and subsequently lost over 200,000 followers—this was a surprise, but not a choice she regrets. A few years prior, a comment in an interview about the attention she attracts from black men garnered widespread criticism of her white privilege and lack of cultural sensitivity. But Holliday works hard to learn from every mistake, misstep, and misconception, moving forward by taking positive action: “Part of the reason I decided to start using my platform was because years ago an article quoted something I said in a way that I didn’t say it. A handful of people said I was racist. I decided instead of arguing with them and telling them I’m not racist, I should use my platform and do what I can to help the cause—like going to Black Lives Matter protests –because I feel like actions speak louder than words. Why not show up and do what I can?”
Aside from her social and political stances, being fat in the public sphere is still controversial in itself. Holliday was interviewed by Larry King months back and was asked about how she reconciles advocating body positivity when being overweight is “unhealthy”—a common question as her media presence increases. “I get sick of answering the same questions and feeling like I have to justify my health, and my body, and my size. I know that people half my size don’t have to answer these questions constantly. I wish that I got to talk about my work more or maybe what we should be doing to change things instead of the fact that I’m fat. The fact that I’m fat doesn’t really matter but that’s what people want to focus on and it sucks.” In her book, Holliday also argues that we can’t actually tell anything about an individual’s health by mere sight: “None of us can just look at a human being and know their health issues, the food they eat, or how active they are. Am I fat? Yep. Am I lazy? Nope.”
Holliday is widely considered the first plus-size supermodel. Her presence has shaken up an industry which has previously portrayed only thin women as glamorous, sexy, or deserving of luxury. Holliday made a particularly lasting mark by creating #effyourbeautystandards, a hashtag since adopted by literally millions of people to challenge the conventions of what is considered beautiful. “I wasn’t expecting it [#effyourbeautystandards] to grow the way it has and I’m really fortunate to have a team people help me run it from around the world. I feel like diversity is so important and there are still things that aren’t being talked about that should be. I know I could help other people and so I want to do more with it. It’s just finding the right people and the right voices to do it.”
Tess Holliday’s career and fanbase is emblematic of a progressing fashion industry and perhaps society as a whole, but a great deal still needs to change before body diversity and inclusion are thoroughly embraced. Though we see Holliday in campaigns and in magazines alongside a select few other curvy models, high fashion options are still lacking for many of us over a certain size. It is perplexing why brilliant designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs will feature someone like plus-size rock star Beth Ditto on their runways (or Gucci will design custom outfits for her), but still won’t mass-produce clothing above a size 14. Designers thus send a mixed message: We are groundbreaking enough to feature a hip, cool, plus-size celebrity on our runways. But we’re either still too repulsed or too afraid to have girls of a certain size walking the streets in our labels. “It is incredibly frustrating not to have accessibility to fashion,” says Holliday. “Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s been much progress at all. But the only way I can stay sane is reminding myself that steps are being taken in the right direction and hopefully things are actually changing.” Designers and stores may not yet appreciate the potential in this untapped billion dollar market, and we plus-size girls may not all love the skin we’re in quite yet, but Tess Holliday is a symbol of what’s possible. “I wish that everyone was a bit more compassionate and understanding of people that are different than them. Unfortunately, it’s not the case yet. But I feel like things will change. I am hopeful. You have to be. If not, then what do you have?”
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