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Tess Holliday Called THIS Body Positivity Panel the Best and Most Diverse One Ever

by Jess Barron May 09, 2018

At Livestrong, our goal is to create content that continues to push the conversation forward around self-acceptance and body positivity.

Big initiatives on these topics have included our #IMPerfection roundtable and long-form thought pieces (such as “Is Instagram Body Positivity’s Most Unlikely Ally?”). Following from this, LIVESTRONG.COM put together and sponsored a panel called “Body Positive: The New Brands and Babes Breaking Stereotypes and Making Bank” at the February 2018 Create & Cultivate conference in Los Angeles at City Market South.

Panelists included Tess Holliday @tessholliday, Mama Caxx @mamacaxx, Danika Brysha @danikabrysha, Ericka Hart @Ihartericka and Jessamyn Stanley @jessamynstanley.

Following the panel, Tess Holliday wrote in an Instagram post that received 12,000 likes:

“Sometimes I wake up after days like yesterday & I think ‘how is this my life?’ How did I get so incredibly lucky to not only speak on panels about body positivity & being a boss with some of the strongest women I know, who happen to be my friends and who are ACTUALLY CHANGING THE WORLD?! I know the answer, I got here from really hard work, privilege & never taking no for an answer. Not listening to people who said I was too short, too fat, too tattooed, too outspoken, too much, myself. I was reminded yesterday that there is still so much work to do, and that we ALL have to keep showing up for not only ourselves, but marginalized bodies & people. Thank you to @createcultivate for having me & to @jessbeegood from @livestrong_com for moderating the best & most diverse panel I’ve been a part of to date.”

We felt like it was an incredibly important conversation too, and I wanted to hold the space and give each one of them an opportunity to tell her story and her truth.

I started by asking the audience: “How many of you out there have had a moment where you have not felt so good or so positive about your body?”

Every single woman in the audience raised her hand, showing that this topic is a significant concern. I asked the panelists to introduce themselves so that their stories may help inspire and motivate us.

Danika Brysha is a plus-size model and founder and CEO of Model Meals, a healthy meal-delivery service. She told us that she struggled with bulimia and spent her whole life feeling like she was not enough. Re-creating her idea of normal was very powerful.

Jessamyn Stanley, a yoga teacher and writer, came to the idea of body positivity to understand herself in a more complete way. She said she is attached to the idea for all human beings that “who we are on the inside dictates who we are on the outside.”

Jessamyn Stanley and panel

Tess Holliday, model and founder of the body positive movement @EffYourBeautyStandards and the author of “The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl,” told us: “I went into body positivity really blissful, thinking it was going to be really easy. Then you realize that it’s much more complicated.”

Mama Caxx, proud cancer survivor, blogger and model, said: “To me, body positivity started with looking at myself, and I think the way I viewed myself started causing depression, suicidal thoughts and all that kind of stuff. But from the outside, everyone was always seeing me as this person who was really confident. I felt like I needed to live my truth and actually be that person and actually be a role model for everyone who was looking up to me. Embracing marginalized bodies — whether it’s size, dark bodies, scars, people with disabilities in general. So it’s embracing those [things] in myself and encouraging others to do the same.”

Ericka Hart, who describes herself as a black queer femme sexuality educator and a breast cancer survivor, said she is most interested in dismantling white supremacy because she thinks that is what is at the root of what causes many black women not to like their bodies. “‘Just be,’ is where I stand with body positivity. Just be wherever you are and wherever you need to be, and leave yourself alone.”

Holliday Strives to Create a New Normal

tess holliday at livestrong.com body positivity panel at create & cultivate

“Tell us about your modeling journey and what you learned about yourself and self-acceptance and creating a new normal,” I asked Holliday.

“I wanted to be a model, I always joke, out of delusion,” she said. “I didn’t see anyone who looked like me except for Miss Piggy, and I wanted to be the person that I didn’t see out there. I’m a size U.S. 22, and there’s a ton of people who are much bigger than me who are incredible models that don’t get recognition because now people only care about how many followers you have, which is super depressing…. So I’m kind of working to change that to give other people visibility."

Holliday said that she started putting herself out there on social media, and she was incredibly lucky that people saw something in her. “When I signed to my agency in 2014, I was the first model in the world to be signed to a major agency at my height and size. And, unfortunately, I’m still the only plus-size model at my height and size,” she explained. “It’s frustrating, because there are so many other people out there who deserve that space. And so now that I’ve accomplished what everyone said is impossible, I’m hoping to give other people the opportunity to do the same.”

Jessamyn Stanley and the panel

Bringing Visibility to Marginalized Bodies Is Critical

“Did you see yourself represented in media, and when did you decide to do something about it?” I asked Stanley.

“I am one of very few fat, black, queer yoga teachers — to the point that people believe there are very few fat, black, queer people who practice yoga,” she said. “And the fact that anyone would find my presence anywhere surprising is frustrating on a very deep level.”

According to Stanley, we need to get beyond a place where we’re looking to magazines and advertisements and television and movies to be our goals for life because humanity is much bigger than that.

“I do think that visibility is critical,” Stanley said. “The one thing that I’ve noticed since being more open about my practice is how many people are confused about what yoga even is! Like people think it’s a sports thing; they think it’s a fashion thing — there’s so much confusion. So I find my representation showing up in ways I didn’t necessarily think were going to be a thing. For me that’s been really critical, understanding that living my truth and just existing can have an accidental impact.”

Changing the Narrative Around What It Means to Have a Disability

When asked the same question, Caxx told us that she didn’t see people like herself represented in the media at all, not even in social media.

“In college I used to have a cover over my prosthetic to hide it completely. My goal was to always conceal it so that no one knew that I had a prosthetic leg,” Caxx said. “The very first time I decided to take off that cover, it took me two weeks to actually leave my house. I had so much anxiety. The minute I stepped out, these high school students were having a conversation about me; very uncomfortable to the point where I wanted to break down.”

In an effort to embrace what it meant to be fully herself, Caxx decided to do a photo shoot with her metal leg uncovered and plainly visible. When the photo went out, it went viral. And, according to Caxx, the recurring comment on her post was: “I’ve never seen a black girl with a prosthetic before.”

She found that comment strange. “To me, that was really weird, because in my world, in my circle, I swim, rock climb with a bunch of amputee veterans and cancer survivors. All of them are badass cyborgs,” explained Caxx. “So it was weird, but it made sense because a lot of the time we’re flooded with those mainstream images. The only time we see people of color who have a disability is when there’s a natural disaster [and] you see kids in the street, or you see someone begging and they’re black, they’re an amputee.” Caxx pointed out that we’re also mostly used to seeing white male veterans who are amputees.

“I wanted to change that narrative showing that what you think of disability — that’s not what it is at all,” said Caxx. “People with disabilities are the largest group of marginalized people, and we cross so many different groups. There are people with disabilities who are queer, who are white, who are women, men. Even in the fashion industry, I don’t see a lot of people with physical disabilities.”

Caxx told us that there are many young people reaching out to her every day saying that they are grateful to see her on Instagram or in fashion ads.

Bringing Visibility by Creating Images of Black Breast Cancer Survivors

ericka hart at livestrong.com’s create & cultivate los angeles body positivity panel

Hart said that she is absolutely not represented in the media. “Whether it is in my neighborhood or my school or my grad school: I teach a gender class and a human sexuality class at Columbia University, and I’m oftentimes the only black professor or I’m the only black person in the space. So I am used to not seeing myself,” she explained.

“When I went topless at Afropunk and the picture [showing my mastectomy scars] went viral, it wasn’t to be an activist — I just wanted to raise awareness,” Hart said. “I wanted people to see bodies that look like mine, and to see that if you’re black and queer, this could also happen to you. Because the imaging in breast cancer is oftentimes a white, cisgender, middle-class woman, and it’s not me. And there’s a lot of black people who are dying at higher rates from breast cancer not because we’re black, but because of the social reasons. There are no images of us. So why would we go to the doctor?”

For Brysha, Being Truly Herself (and Allowing Herself to Be Bigger) Brought Her Big Success

Brysha said she didn’t see girls that looked like her, at least in size, in magazines and on TV. “I heard from people: ‘You have such a pretty face’” she explained. “But that kind of insinuated that the rest of me wasn’t up to par.” She said when she heard that over and over, she decided that if she could just lose the weight and fix the problem she would be happy.

She said she made it her life’s goal and mission for 15 years to lose weight to become a model. But no one ever told me that there were different-size bodies. “I just assumed there was skinny to fat, and I was on one end and I could be at size zero if I just had enough willpower,” explained Brysha. “Which is not the case — bones come in different sizes.”

Danika Brysha and Jessamyn Stanley

Brysha told us she spent so much of her life trying to fight with food. “I was at Weight Watchers when I was 14 with my mom and doing Atkins, and I lost a bunch of weight in high school,” she said. “Then, when that started coming back on, I started throwing up my meals and got into drugs and alcohol and binge drinking. And then, eventually, just got stuck in the diet-binge cycle.”

Brysha learned later that food is her drug. “Food is the way I take the edge off, and I calm the things I don’t want to feel,” she said. “So a lot of the work I do is around that.”

When she let herself be at her more natural size, that’s when her story took a turn. “In terms of modeling, I got to a point finally after college when I was like, ‘Eff this! I’ve been doing this for 10 to 15 years now, and I’ve been trying to control my weight, and I’m more or less the same size,’” she said. “‘I’m just going to let go.’” Brysha stopped dieting, and she let her body settle at a natural size 12/14.

“At this point I got approached by an agent who asked me if I had ever thought about plus-size modeling, and I hadn’t,” she explained. “I could always buy the top size in the normal sizes — the 14 — and so I hadn’t really shopped for plus-size. And, as you guys might know, the plus-size modeling industry starts at a size 6, which is a whole other conversation. There’s a lot more to be said on that conversation.”

Brysha became a plus-size model and signed with an agency, and her career took off quickly with shoots for Forever21 and Target. And that prompted her to move to New York City. “When I moved to New York, I had this first moment of real self-love in my life, where I realized: ‘I deserve to feel good, I deserve to thrive.’ And I did something called the Whole 30 and started changing my lifestyle really gradually, meditating and journaling,” she said. “And I lost 40 pounds — and I lost all of my modeling jobs.”

She had been making six figures modeling, and overnight she had no income. “A quick three months later, I have a pink slip on my door: I’m three months late on my rent. And I start cooking these healthy meals I’ve been delivering around New York, and I called it Model Meals,” Brysha explained. “I did that for a bit and then moved back in with my parents in Southern California — in their garage with my 200-pound dog. I lived in my parents’ garage for two years and got Model Meals up and running. Now it’s a multimillion-dollar company.”

Tess Holliday and Danika Brysha

Holliday Is Still Learning to Love and Reassure Herself

“Tell us about the age you were at when you needed the most reassurance. What would you say to yourself?” I asked Holliday.

“Thirty-two” she said. “I’m 32 today, and I need all the reassurance still. I always try to be honest on social media about how hard life is. It doesn’t matter how successful you are…. I’ve found that it’s gotten harder as I’ve gotten more successful.”

Holliday explained that when she was 12 years old she wanted to join the swim team, and her dad told her she was too fat at a size 12 to try out for it.

“When he told me that I couldn’t do it, it crushed me,” Holliday said. “I’m a victim of domestic violence, and I’ve had a ton of trauma in my life, and it comes up in different ways. I think what I have learned literally in the past couple of weeks is that I can’t depend on other people to reassure me, which is what I’ve been doing. I can reassure myself and feel great about myself, but I can’t expect other people to do that for me. I’m on a new journey. I’m on day 3 of meditating, which I never thought was something I could do. So now my reassurance is I’m learning how to do it for myself. Because I’ve been so focused on telling other people to love themselves and how I got here and giving everything I have to everyone around me. And I literally just realized: ‘Why am I not doing that for myself?’ This is probably my favorite panel that I’ve ever been on because everyone that I’m surrounded with has inspired me throughout the years.”

The Greatest Challenge Stanley Had to Overcome

jessamyn stanley at livestrong.com’s create & cultivate los angeles body positivty panel

When asked about the greatest challenge that she had to overcome, Stanley said: “Understanding that self-acceptance isn’t an endgame — that it’s constantly a journey, that every single day is different, that the work shows up when I least expect it to show up. The work shows up when I think I don’t need the work. The work is happening when I’m in public. When I am judging myself. When I can’t allow myself to eat certain things in front of people even now. When I feel uncomfortable wearing certain clothes. Knowing that that kind of dialogue with myself is never going to end. That I spent decades cementing self-hatred as the way of understanding myself. And that now I’m just permanently in recovery. Like if you’re an alcoholic, you are permanently in recovery — it’s the same thing. And understanding that, and really being compassionate toward that reality, has definitely been the hardest work for me, for sure.”

The LIVESTRONG Body Positive panel at Create and Cultivate

Caxx Walked in the First-Ever White House Fashion Show, and There Are Times When She Still Doesn’t Feel Confident

When I asked Caxx what it was like to walk in a fashion show at the White House, she said: “It was surreal and very incredible…. They were doing the first-ever fashion show at the White House, focusing on inviting brands that were focusing on making designs more inclusive to people with disabilities. I arrive there and met so many amazing people — activists, models and people who did not feel represented but took it upon themselves to create products to make life easier for people like them in general. I was showcasing my Alleles leg covers. I have maybe 20 of these that I can take off and put on depending on what outfit I’m wearing.”

For Caxx, it wasn’t just modeling, it was showcasing the leg covers and talking about what it means to her to wear them.

“For a lot of people [the covers] were just like this cool gadget or fashionable,” she said. “For me that’s like how I’ve come to accept myself, because I always felt when I didn’t have my prosthetic or when it was strictly metal, people would look at me and pity me or ask if they can pray for me on the train. I still get that. I’m like, ‘No, girl, pray for yourself.’”

Caxx explained that there are still many times when she doesn’t have confidence or feel positive about her body. “Reality is, a lot of the time I don’t feel confident, she said. “Frankly, there are some days where I’m in bed, and I have to charge my leg every night. It just feels like labor and emotionally draining sometimes. It’s a journey. And it’s still something I’m trying to figure out.”

About the Author

JESS BARRON is VP and GM for LIVESTRONG.COM, a leading healthy lifestyle website with more than 32 million unique monthly viewers. In addition to LIVESTRONG, her writing has appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune and MyDomaine. Jess has appeared on MSNBC and ABC News and has been a keynote speaker at Health Further and a panelist at SXSW, Create & Cultivate and Digital Hollywood. Follow Jess on Instagram at @jessbeegood and Twitter too!

Photos by Becki Smithhouse

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