Did "Body Positivity" Influencer Tess Holliday Scam Her Way To Popularity?

Activist and model Tess Holliday has graced the cover of "Cosmopolitan" magazine in addition to securing brand deals with well-known athleisure companies and has walked runways at New York Fashion Week. As a plus-size woman, she embraces the adjective “fat” and is the poster child (literally) for the fat acceptance movement.

By Gwen Farrell3 min read
Cosmopolitan UK @wattsupphoto/Instagram

But Holliday's meteoric rise to fame hasn’t been completely stellar. In fact, it’s pretty shady. From controversies to supposed eating disorders, it’s apparent that Holliday wouldn’t have the social status she has today were it not for a few calculated decisions on her part, all of which add up to nothing more than a scam. With an impressive follower count across social media platforms and, more importantly, an influential hold over millions of impressionable women, it’s time we examine how Tess Holliday scammed her way to popularity.


Before she graced the cover of Cosmopolitan UK, Holliday was a makeup artist with a young son, trying to make it in the modeling world. Prior to being signed to modeling agency MiLK Management in 2015, Holliday worked to escape a small-town upbringing in Mississippi fraught with emotional abuse, poverty, and bullying, when an agent told her she was too short and too big to ever make it in professional modeling. Ironically enough, her big break came when she was cast in an ad for a TV series on the dangers of morbid obesity.

Holliday was the first plus-size model (over size 20) signed to a major agency, and before the Cosmo cover and her deal with athleisure brand Fabletics, she was featured on the cover of People as “the world’s first size 22 supermodel.” Around the same time, she initiated the hashtag “eff your beauty standards,” which began trending on social media, and encouraged other plus-size young women to share selfies of themselves in clothing that they wanted to wear even if others told them they shouldn’t. Regarding the social media movement, Holliday said, “I created the hashtag because I was tired of being told what I could and couldn't wear by the media and how I should cover my body because of my size. I decided 'eff that,' I will wear what I want!”

Though the #effyourbeautystandards movement was Holliday's first taste of social media popularity, it wasn’t without controversy, as one fan documented how Holliday's “body positivity” rhetoric really only applied – from her perspective, at least – to heavier women. The fan in question called out Holliday on Instagram for unfollowing her after the fan posted photos before and after weight loss. When the fan explained that she lost weight due to being diagnosed with prediabetes, Holliday reportedly declared that her post wasn’t indicative of true “body positivity” and that they were triggering to her.

“Strong, Fit, and 300 Pounds”

In 2018, Holliday was featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan UK, taking her from national to international recognition. Her social media presence and collaborations with different brands grew, as did her outspoken activism on the subject of body positivity.

However, one YouTuber has alleged that the Cosmo cover and feature story, which boosted her career from little-known model to full-on influencer (with all the perks and benefits therein), wasn’t marketed as honestly as it should have been. The article, which accompanied Holliday's cover feature, was billed as an exploration of her fitness regimen, or as the magazine advertised it, “strong, fit, and 300 pounds.” The article explored how Holliday works out as a self-described fat woman, in addition to her diet and healthy, active lifestyle.

It’s hard to say if this story coincided with or directly preceded Holliday's collaboration with Fabletics, but shortly after the Cosmo story, her social media profiles and media appearances were littered with promotions for her partnership with celebrity personal trainer Massy Arias in collaboration with Fabletics. The same YouTuber did a deep dive investigation into Holliday’s social media accounts and found zero mention of the same kind of content prior to her Cosmo cover, which begs the question: Why didn't Holliday discuss her activism or her health-at-every-size convictions before?

Shady Marketing or Something Else?

Sneaky marketing tactics get us to buy things all the time, and it could be argued that this isn’t any different. It could be said that Holliday's behavior isn’t that divergent from the advertising tactics brands and influencers pull every day. As YouTube commentator Megan Anne explains, “It just seems disingenuous when you put two and two together. I just think that once again Tess was pushing a certain narrative to gain more followers and make money.”

Tess wouldn’t have the social status she has today were it not for a few calculated decisions on her part.

The Fabletics partnership makes more sense when you consider Holliday's history. Accompanying her #effyourbeautystandards tag on social media, Holliday sold T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan. She announced that some of the proceeds would be donated to domestic violence organizations, as she and her mom are both survivors of DV. Though thousands of shirts were ordered, 140 were never delivered and only a confirmed donation of $1,000 was ever made. Holliday chalked up the issues to “usual business discrepancies,” but many of her followers weren’t convinced.

Holliday had been extremely vocal about her antipathy toward losing weight, but she changed her tune as soon as there was talk of a sponsorship on the table, or as she puts it, “showing people that fat girls work out.” 

Holliday chose the payday instead of the opportunity to tout her tried and true health-at-every-size, self-love rhetoric within a magazine of international popularity. While that was her decision, many of her fans – who follow her social media, buy what she promotes, and believe what she says – are now being led to equate her magazine cover with the image of what health and fitness look like. The sincerity of her actions is shady at best, and at worst, intentionally manipulative, self-serving, and unethical. 

Closing Thoughts

Holliday, who has since announced her recovery from anorexia nervosa (despite sharing none of the symptoms with the clinical diagnosis of the disease), continues to be successful, and because of the cultural popularity of “body positivity,” will likely remain so. But we should keep in mind that behind her posts and media appearances, there’s a proven record of a money grab waiting in the wings.

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