Model and mom-of-two Tess Holliday made a name for herself by rejecting traditional beauty standards. That unapologetic self-acceptance is a virtue she's teaching her children, too.

By Margaret Wappler
January 06, 2020
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“How are you?” is never a simple question for a social-media influencer. Especially one as authentic and transparent as Tess Holliday, a model, author, and proponent of body positivity. “It’s been a year of transition,” she answered.

“But I’m happier now than I’ve been in a decade.” Over the course of an afternoon with her family at the Aquarium of the Pacific, in Long Beach, California, we delved into it all. This year, Holliday moved houses, fully emerged from postpartum depression, and embraced being “a little bit selfish,” though I don’t think selfish is the right word. She is simply learning to take care of herself with the same spirit of devotion, love, and humor she showers on her family, including sons Rylee, 14, and Bowie, 3.

“I was suffering,” Holliday confessed. “I was putting my kids and my husband ahead of myself. I was losing myself. But all of that is changing.”

A quick primer on Holliday, for anyone who has missed out: Her gospel of total self-acceptance boils down to “If I can love myself in my current form,” around a size 22, “so can you.” Through her #EffYourBeautyStandards hashtag and movement, she refuses to hide: “Seeing myself, a fat woman represented in media, is what it’s all about.” She has 2 million followers on Instagram, where she shares everything from cooing over Baby Yoda with her toddler son, Bowie, to how much water and how many snacks she’s taking on a long drive. Then there’s her 2017 memoir, The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl, in which she reveals, among other things, how she got pregnant at 19 and then, years later, got scouted to model based on MySpace photos. The first bona fide plus-size model to be signed by a major agency, she walked in New York Fashion Week last year for the label Chromat and has been on the covers of Cosmo, Self, and People. Her Parents cover is her first alongside her kids.

Holliday has her legion of fans, but she’s also a target. She handles haters with a cool mixture of grace and attitude. When a troll accuses her of promoting diabetes or otherwise shames her for her weight, her signature move is to calmly dismember the person’s argument and keep it moving—“it” being her glamorous, love-filled life. A dismissive arch of one of her impeccably groomed eyebrows never hurts either.

Credit: Brigitte Sire

Born in Mississippi as Ryann Maegen Hoven, Holliday got her unshakable grit from her single mother, Beth Tadlock, who was partially paralyzed when Holliday was a child after a boyfriend shot her in the head and left her for dead.

“My mom is one of my best friends,” Holliday said. They don’t agree on everything, though (namely politics). Her mother lived with her until a year and a half ago (she moved back to Mississippi to be with Holliday’s ailing grandparents). Tadlock is still working to accept some things about Holliday, such as her recent coming out as queer. “I do challenge her and tell her how I feel and what’s important to me,” Holliday said. “But my mom always shows up for me. If I call, she’s there, and that’s what matters to me more than anything.”

As we ambled through the dark hallways of the aquarium with Bowie and Rylee, everyone seemed relaxed and happy to have a day off from school. Bowie ran up to the neon-blue tanks, and when he tried to give a Nemo clone a punch through the glass, Holliday cracked up. “You can’t do that, silly,” she said, laughing and shaking her head. Then she gave him a squeeze, one of the many she gave when he held still long enough.

Rylee, in a black Beatles T-shirt and sunglasses, kept close, drinking up his mother’s company and listening intently to our conversation. Jolene Laveglia, Holliday’s close friend and Bowie’s nanny since he was 3 months old, was also on hand. She smiled when Holliday described her as a “fiercely loyal punk rocker who makes me laugh constantly.”

“If I didn’t have Jolene to help me, I wouldn’t be here,” Holliday said. A few weeks ago, when Holliday’s Long Beach rental had yet another structural problem that would need repairing, Laveglia invited the family to move into her Costa Mesa onebedroom so Holliday could save money while looking to buy in the area. Rylee is living temporarily with John, Holliday’s ex-boyfriend, who prompted her initial move to Los Angeles nearly a decade ago. He’s a close father figure in Rylee’s life; Rylee doesn’t have a relationship with his biological dad, whom Holliday described in her memoir as a one-night stand.

At age 20, Holliday struggled to feel close to newborn Rylee at first. “I loved him, but I didn’t feel maternal toward him until he was a toddler.” Now they have a tight, jocular bond. She teases him about “the one-day flu” he had recently. When he reminded her to look at his grades, she checked her email and exploded with accolades: “These are the best grades you’ve ever had!” Then, with a sly glance, she asked, “Are you paying your teachers?”

“School is easy,” he said.

“Easy?!” They laughed and lightly wrestled for a second.

“It’s so funny,” Holliday said a moment later. “Some of the PTA moms from Rylee’s school follow me on Instagram. I’m, like, hoo-boy, you’re gonna see it all on here.” A few of the mothers even came to Holliday’s recent yard sale, when she was moving out. To Holliday’s surprise, one of Rylee’s classmates told her she’s an inspiration.

“I always feel, especially at Bowie’s Montessori, that I’m judged a lot as a mom. Like people think, ‘Oh, look at her. She’s loud and tattooed and probably doesn’t care about her kids.’ Which is obviously the opposite of what I am.”

Since she had Bowie and started Instagramming more about #momlife, the haters have taken a new tack. “People assume I can’t pick up my son or that I’ll drop dead soon,” Holliday said. “But I’ve always responded with, ‘Why would I put my body through being a mom and childbirth to not be around for them?’ ”

Holliday replied this way after a post of her and Bowie sparked several cruel comments: “Imagine just wanting to share photos of my kid & instead being told I’m unfit to be his mom because of my size. We aren’t promised tomorrow, regardless of our weight, and if I were to drop dead today, both my boys would know how loved they were and what a badass their mom was.”

At the aquarium and at Chili’s for lunch, she frequently called both boys Bubba (a family nickname from her Mississippi roots), and the right one always turned around. “There are a lot of similarities between parenting a toddler and a teenager,” Holliday told me.

But the stakes, according to Holliday, are higher with the teenager than the threenager. With an older kid, “you have to pick your words more carefully and your thoughts and your actions,” she said. “And it’s a lot of pressure. I know I could say something that sticks with him, and that’s the thing he’s in therapy for forever.”

Holliday knows from experience. She recalled what her father said to her when she was 14 and had aspirations of joining the swim team: “‘Don’t you think you’re a little big for that?’ Up until then, I had never thought of my weight. And then when he said it, I went from being this kid who wore a bikini to ... ” Holliday paused. “There was nothing wrong with my body. But he put that in my head.”

Credit: Brigitte Sire

A difficult childhood set Holliday up for a tough bout of postpartum depression. Certainly, statistics show that if a person has had prior trauma, she’s more likely to become depressed after giving birth. Holliday faced an uphill battle to mental balance after Bubba #2 was born. “I went deep into the newborn cave,” she said. Breastfeeding was harder the second time, and Bowie was a challenging baby who didn’t sleep well. “I felt incredibly isolated. People thought they should give me space, but I just felt really sad.”

Holliday has been open on Instagram about her struggles with postpartum depression. But she’s been more reluctant to say what’s going on with her husband, Nick Holliday. She revealed that he has been in his native Australia since September, “working on himself.” She declined to clarify the current status of their relationship.

Both of them are trying to regain balance, Holliday said. “I’m just now finding some stability with my mental health,” she told me.

Holliday is still negotiating how she wants to post about her kids and how much she wants to open them up to potential judgment. “I don’t share a lot of my kids on social media for a reason,” she said. “But also I want to connect with other parents, to be a role model for them, and that means actually sharing my kids on social media. So right now I’m finding the balance of, well, how can I show my daily life with them?”

For Holliday, the issue of showing her kids online is connected with consent. Since Rylee is now old enough, she asks his permission to post pictures of him or write about him online.

“It’s refreshing and weird when your kids get older and they’re able to tell you how they feel and what they want. And I’m glad that I’m able to listen. When I was Rylee’s age, I definitely didn’t have that luxury to be able to voice how I felt and have someone hear me and see me, you know?”

The time has come for Holliday to be truly free—to be what some might call selfish, to accept that, as the airlines say, she has to put the oxygen mask on herself first. “I just hope I’m doing all this right,” she said, about parenting.

As for the future? “As long as my kids are happy, and they’re contributing members of society and they’re not hurting themselves or anyone else … I just want to fit in, in whatever way that they want me to be in their lives. I hope that we’re always close. And I hope that I get to keep growing right along with them.”

Parents Magazine

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