Model and Body Positivity Activist Tess Holliday Wants Genuine Diversity in Ads

What brands can do to be more inclusive

Even brands that appear to be inclusive need to do better, Tess Holliday says. Photo: Raquel Beauchamp for Adweek; Illustration: Dianna McDougall, Getty Images
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

If you ask Tess Holliday for her opinion on the current state of fashion and beauty marketing, be prepared for a long list of what’s wrong with the industry—and why even brands that appear to be inclusive need to do better.

She would know: Holliday, a model, body positivity activist and founder of the Eff Your Beauty Standards movement, has worked with major brands like H&M, Benefit Cosmetics, eBay and ModCloth. She’s also an influencer with 1.7 million followers on Facebook, 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 65,300 followers on Twitter. So, suffice it to say, if Holliday has a problem with your marketing campaign, her more than 3 million followers are going to hear about it.

As she prepared for the release of her new book, The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl, Holliday took a break between stops at the Today show and Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen to chat with Adweek about her work with brands, what she wants to see from marketers, Lane Bryant and more.

Adweek: Earlier this year there was a campaign for the new movie Red Shoes and the 7 Dwarfs that had an image of a skinny version of Snow White next to a larger version of Snow White with copy that read, “What if Snow White was no longer beautiful.” You called out that campaign online, asking why it was approved by a marketing team and why it was OK to tell kids that “being fat [equals] being ugly.” Do you believe you have to call out ads like that?
Tess Holliday: I was the reason that the campaign got shut down, which is embarrassing for them because it shouldn’t ever happen to begin with. Sometimes I’m just surprised at how a gigantic table of people can sit around and discuss how they’re going to advertise something [and come up with a campaign like this]. The amount of stuff that can just go through so many hands and be so horrible.

Is there anything you’ve seen that you think is successful and inclusive, something marketers should learn from?
The way that Rihanna has marketed her makeup line is extraordinary. I think the ads for it and seeing so many women of color and the fact that when she came out with the shades it had a model of each color [modeling] the makeup line—that is genius. Also, why did it take Rihanna doing a makeup line to actually show the lack of products for women of color? Now all of these beauty brands are scrambling and trying to make sure that they have the tones that she’s coming out with. So that’s probably the most powerful ad that I’ve seen to date. … She did use a plus-size model in the actual campaign, but she was a size 12, I think, so it would be nice to see someone visibly plus-size. But it’s still nice that she thought to include someone plus-size.

You’ve worked with brands like H&M and Benefit Cosmetics. Have those campaigns been inclusive? What has that experience been like?
I was a part of H&M’s campaign that they did almost two years ago. It was very diverse. It had all kinds of different people in it, including Iggy Pop, who is amazing. I was really proud to be a part of that one. The Benefit campaign that I did last year, it had myself and a transgender model and a couple of other people. … I try to be conscious socially of the campaigns and ads that I’m a part of and making sure they’re diverse. Because if you’re not, and you don’t think about it, Twitter will let you know.

Lane Bryant brought back its “I’m No Angel” campaign during the Emmys. That’s something that’s received a lot of accolades from the ad world. What do you think of it?
I don’t want to get myself in trouble. I just feel like it’s boring. To be honest, that representation and visibility are important, so it’s great to see plus-size models. And I’m friends with Danielle Brooks [who stars in Orange Is the New Black and appears in the campaign]. She wrote an endorsement for the back of my book. [Model] Denise Bidot is a woman of color and one of my good friends. I’m a huge supporter of them. It’s wonderful that they get to be in campaigns, especially Danielle as a woman of color and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. But I just think [Lane Bryant’s] campaign felt forced and it just felt like—they just have so much money and I wish that, again, where is the person past size 16? All of those women were under a size 14, OK. They’re supposed to be representing plus-size women and they consistently keep showing us the same kind of body. I, unfortunately, wish that they would understand that there are people like me who wear their stuff but wish that we would see ourselves. I would have been much more moved by it if there was diversity in sizes.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 25, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.