“This is the perfect example of the erasure that fat and plus-sized people deal with in fashion,” the model tells PEOPLE

By Julie Mazziotta
August 20, 2020 12:50 PM
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Tess Holliday
| Credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

One of the hottest trends on TikTok during the coronavirus pandemic has been, improbably, a pink, frothy, strawberry-covered dress, despite Americans having few excuses to get glam and go out. The $490 gown, created by designer Lirika Matoshi, inspired memes and a hashtag with 8.3 million views on the app.

But the sudden popularity came as a surprise to Tess Holliday, who wore the dress to the Grammy Awards — seven months ago — with nowhere near the attention, and says she landed on several “worst dressed lists” for the look. It led the model to call out the “double standard” that people suddenly love the dress because “a bunch of skinny people wore it on TikTok,” as she wrote on Instagram and Twitter on Saturday.

Holliday, 35, tells PEOPLE that it’s another example of the thin privilege that she’s seen her entire life.

“I knew instantly the reason why the dress was getting so much attention seven months later,” she says. “And that's because it was popularized by people that are deemed beautiful by society standards, in a body type that's deemed acceptable.”

Holliday first found the dress, and Matoshi, on Instagram about a year ago. Her stylist, Meaghan O’Connor, reached out to the 24-year-old designer to see if she could make the dress in Holliday’s size.

“I actually never thought that she would respond to my message or want to dress someone that's as fat as me. Not because of anything about her, just from my own personal experiences trying to get designers to dress me,” Holliday says.

At the Grammys that night, Holliday says “it’s probably the prettiest I’ve ever felt on a red carpet.”

But when she checked Instagram, it was filled with magazine and fashion accounts asking people to rate her look, “and I’ve never seen more thumbs down or people saying they hate it in my entire life.”

“Having so many people rip my look apart was shocking,” she says. And then months later, “to see the dress become so popular because it mostly was on thin, able bodied people, I was like, “you’ve got to be kidding.”

Holliday was happy for Matoshi to “get the recognition I felt she deserved, especially because she dressed me when a lot of designers didn’t,” but was frustrated that it only got attention now.

“This is the perfect example of erasure that fat and plus-size people deal with in fashion. We are constantly not seen as trendy, glamorous, any of that,” she says. “People just kind of dismiss us, and why does it have to take someone being in a slender frame for people to act like it's the first time they've ever seen it? I had to wonder if that would have happened if I was in a smaller body.”

“It’s because I’m fat. It’s a double standard.”

Holliday’s everlasting hope is that the fashion industry will become more diverse and accepting of different bodies, races and identities — and she does think there’s been some improvement, “but it’s not enough.” She’s going to continue pushing on her end, and on Wednesday, she debuted a new collection of size- and gender-inclusive clothing with the brand Fashion to Figure.

“I wanted to a show that diversity can be done — this is what true diversity looks like,” she says.

Eff Your Body Standards x Fashion to Figure collection
| Credit: Anastasia Garcia

The collection, called Eff Your Beauty Standards x Fashion to Figure, is also in support of The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides suicide prevention help to LGBTQ youth.

“I wanted to be able to raise money for them because their numbers have gone up astronomically since the pandemic,” she says. “We need to support our LGBT youth. And as a queer person, when I was younger and I was struggling with my identity, there are a lot of times I could have used the work of The Trevor Project if they had been around.”