My Plus-Sized Life: Tess Holliday on Challenging Perceptions of Beauty

"If someone doesn't look at an image and feel something, you haven't done your job," the model sats

Photo: James White

Tess Holliday is a size-22 social media star who’s taken the fashion world by storm. Subscribe now for an inside look at how she is reinventing the word “supermodel,” only in PEOPLE!

Please welcome our newest celebrity blogger, Tess Holliday. One of the world s top plus-size models, Holliday, 29, is also a body-positive activist who created the popular movement #effyourbeautystandards to promote acceptance and inclusion of all body types. In January, she signed with MILK Management, becoming the largest plus-size model to be signed to a mainstream modeling agency. She has 663,000 followers on Instagram and over 800,000 Facebook fans.

I was visiting my mom in Mississippi when I received an email from MILK Management in London offering to sign me as one of their models. I didn t believe it at first. But it turned out to be real. I was going to be the largest plus-size model ever signed.

The news was especially sweet because I was with my mom. She claimed not to be surprised at all. She was always sure it would happen. That was my mom. She always believed in me. Even when I was bullied in school and pushed into lockers, she fought for me. When the school did nothing, she yanked me out and encouraged me to follow my own path. She is, and always has been, a great inspiration to me, having overcome enormous physical challenges herself like learning to walk again.

After leaving school, I went to many discouraging auditions where I was told I was too short (5-foot-5) and too fat (size 22) to be a model. Thanks to the power of the Internet, I was able to create my own destiny. I started posting photos of myself in my underwear, then in bathing suits and other clothes that I liked but weren t considered suitable for large and curvy women. Soon I was on my way. My photos led to real jobs. As my modeling career took off, I began to challenge society’s perception of “beauty” and what’s acceptable in our industry and the world. Now I am doing it on a bigger stage – a worldwide stage. It’s something I always dreamed of but never thought would happen when I was growing up in that small town in Mississippi.

RELATED VIDEO: Tess Holliday: From Bullied Teen to Size-22 Supermodel!

Signing with MILK Management this January challenged everything I thought I knew about myself and about modeling – in the best way. I push myself so much harder and step even further out of my comfort zone. MILK Management’s confidence in me catapulted me into a different league, both in modeling and in facing off with societal beauty standards.

I think if someone doesn’t look at an image and feel something, you haven’t done your job. Whether it’s negative or positive, it should evoke something in them. Recent photographs of me in sexy black lingerie have gone viral. I know that some people will be negative about them, but I also know that millions more will be positive. They know, like I do, that there is no one way to be a woman, or to be beautiful. We all deserve a place.

I believe this with all my heart. While modeling is my career and my family is vitally important to me, I have this passion inside of me to help other women feel confident and comfortable in their bodies, regardless of their size or what society tells them is beautiful. It s like a calling.

I created the hashtag #effyourbeautystandards as a small step in that direction. It s become a movement. Millions of women have joined me, letting me know that they now feel good about how they look and are free to wear what they like. I get the most unbelievable letters and emails from women every day. They are so honest and heartfelt. They tell me how my being willing to be out there and tackle the unrealistic notions that our society has of beauty has changed their lives – sometimes has saved their lives. It is daunting. But I see myself in all of them.

My life has changed in the best way and I know the best is yet to come. If it can happen to me, it can happen to everyone.

For more on Holliday, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday

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