When you hear Tessa Snyder talk about how beauty is what’s on the inside, your first instinct might be to think, well, easy for her to say. Tessa is stunning, with Pantene commercial hair and full lips and a tiny waist, and she has a perfect-looking family, as a lot of Instagram sensations like her do. You might feel compelled to respond the way someone else did on one of her Instagram posts about the struggle that creates beauty: “Didn’t hurt [that you grew up] to be smoking hot lol.”
But if then you listen to her story, you begin to understand why she defines beautiful the way she does, as mental strength, as character, as love for yourself and others. You realize she was very young when she learned lessons some of us don’t learn until we’re in old age.
“What and how we love,” Tessa tells me, “makes us feel beautiful.”
She reminds me of a pearl; both are beautiful things that came from sickness. Tessa’s sickness began when she was 11, with periodic pain in her leg. The doctor chalked it up to growing pains and so Tessa, a good-looking kid who wore round-framed glasses, kept cheerleading and jump-roping and playing outside until dark. Later, after some just-in-case MRIs and a biopsy, she learned she had bone cancer in her leg. She didn’t really know what that meant, but gauged the adults’ reactions and decided it wasn’t good.
Over the next months, while she got chemo, Tessa lived in the hospital. She went home on weekends sometimes, but otherwise she stayed in bed, nauseous. They fed her through a tube because she couldn’t keep anything down. Her hair began to fall out in clumps; even when there only a few strands left she’d put them in a ponytail with bows and barrettes because she wanted to be a normal 11-year-old girl.
Eventually, the doctors presented Tessa and her parents with a decision: amputate the leg, or risk the cancer getting worse. Tessa chose the first option. One day, in the year 2000, she, her mom, and a purple teddy bear from the hospital gift shop entered the operating room. The next thing Tessa remembers is opening her eyes and greeting her dad with a declaration of victory: “Dad,” she told him, “I did it!”
This can-do attitude would remain with her in years to come. The operation was followed by more chemo, more time in bed, and a painful process of learning how to walk with a prosthetic leg. With peach fuzz where her hair used to be and an altered gait Tessa returned to school, and though she hid her prosthesis with long skirts and dresses, kids had mean things to say.
Tessa made a choice not to let it bother her.
Now, 18 years later, she is a model and an entrepreneur and married to a nice-looking man and mom to two beautiful blonde babies. She has nearly 20,000 followers on Instagram and she’s been featured in online magazines. Still not a day goes by that she doesn’t notice people staring, but it no longer makes her feel angry and defensive.
There are other struggles, like running and walking up or down stairs or readjusting to a new prosthetic, which feels like learning to walk for the first time, all over again. But life is busy and blessed and Tessa radiates gratitude. She’s reached a point in her spiritual journey where she accepts that everything has a larger purpose, and if we’re mad about our suffering we aren’t acknowledging “that there is a bigger plan out there for us,” she tells me. She talks about how God doesn’t make mistakes.
She feels her larger purpose is to inspire people; realizing this made her feel “empowered” and “unstoppable.” Her posts to her followers are positive and encouraging, vulnerable and real. Other well-known bloggers have written posts about her. She’s widely photographed. Yahoo! News posted a picture of Tessa in the Anti-Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 2016, captioned with a quote attributed to her: “I am so proud to say that almost 18 years after beating cancer and losing my leg, I feel beautiful, comfortable, and I’m the most confident that I have ever been in my own skin.”
This is Tessa’s declaration of victory over the struggle we all feel to accept and love our bodies. We all struggle with trying to fit into the standards of beauty the industry so liberally advertises and with trying to live the artificially perfect lives we see on social media. We’ve all got things we complain about—boobs too small, butt too big, legs too short, face too scarred, job too underpaid, life too hard—but Tessa reminds me that when we focus on what we lack we can’t see what we have.
This is her hard-won attitude: let go, trust in the bigger plan, and count your blessings. Things happen when they are supposed to happen, and they will happen for a reason. All you can control is your attitude. I ask about how she stays positive. Focus on surrounding yourself with positive influences, she says. Be intentional about your hopes and dreams. Open up to people you trust if you need to. Find outlets that make you happy. And above all, believe in yourself.
Tessa is not impervious to criticism. Some commenters responded to an Instagram post last year with all kinds of opinions about how her parents made the wrong choice, about how as parents they would never put their kids through the pain of an amputation. Tessa responded gracefully: she thanked people for their positive comments and reminded her followers that she is human. “My goal to even be open about this,” she captioned a photo of her 11-year-old self, “is because I remember that little girl on the left, the way she felt, her fears, but also her dreams.” Her purpose, she continues, is to prove to other people that what you believe, you can achieve, and that we are all capable of beautiful.