Oak Park resident Ellie Mariyo just won $75K to spread her message of body positivity with her brand Big Girl Besties

Elizabeth “Ellie” Mariyo has the words “Plus Size Joy” next to her name on her TikTok channel. The words “Big Girls deserve amazing lives” also rest underneath her moniker.

With nearly 150,000 followers on that platform and another nearly 35,000 followers on Instagram, Mariyo is a self-professed “Plus Size Joy Promoter,” one who does that through the lens of fashion, dance and a lifestyle that she exudes through her emerging brand, Big Girl Besties.

“When people come to my page, I want them to feel that sense of joy and put a smile on their face,” the Oak Park resident said.

Now Mariyo has $75,000 to help spread those smiles on a broader scale because in November she won “The Great Unshackling” contest from a California wine brand called Unshackled. The contest, launched in August, was created to give an individual the funds to take a creative side hustle or passion full time. Mariyo’s brother turned her on to the contest three days before the deadline. She was chosen from hundreds of entries through a combination of consumer voting and a judging panel. Mariyo, a recruiter, plans to use her winnings to launch Big Girl Besties, a podcast and events company that aims to empower plus-size individuals.

“When my parents asked me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I would say I really want to help people,” Mariyo, 30, said. She thought her passion was medicine, but it wasn’t. She thought she could be a diplomat but left her job in Switzerland with the idea to start her own business. She explored one idea before the pandemic ended it. Then Mariyo found TikTok.

“When I first got on social media, I noticed that every time you see a plus-sized person talking about their experience, or just existing, there’s a lot of trolling or people invalidating their experience,” Mariyo said. “I would make videos to talk about these things and encourage others but with social media, you only get seconds to really talk about something. I didn’t feel like there was enough time and the right space to talk about the issues that are important to the plus-sized community. Big Girl Besties sprouted out of me seeing that as a problem on social media, and really wanting to not only create a safe space for people to express themselves and share their experience but also a space where we could actually discuss issues that are important to the plus-size community and give them the time and attention that they deserve.”

Mariyo wants Best Girl Besties to be that safe space where a community for plus-size people and their allies can build camaraderie, talk about body positivity in more detail and thrive. In the spring, she hopes to launch a podcast where guests such as a board-certified life coach, a plus-size model and a personal trainer are interviewed to facilitate healing, debunk harmful myths and celebrate plus-size people doing extraordinary things.

On the podcast she wants people “to talk about undoing trauma around the body that one has picked up growing up or just being in society.”

By the summer, she wants to host Big Girl Bestie events that serve as an extension of the podcast, where the life coach will come to an in-person session for a more personalized touch.

Peggy Hemphill, brand manager of Unshackled Wines, said Mariyo’s contest entry just stood out from the rest.

“Ellie had a joy about her that was infectious — you couldn’t not smile watching her videos,” Hemphill said. “At Unshackled, we believe in expressing your most authentic self and breaking free from expectations. Anyone who interacts with Ellie can see she is 100% bringing her authentic self and we love the mission of Big Girl Besties to spark conversations around body positivity and challenge societal expectations to help others break free and find more joy in their own lives.”

During the contest, Mariyo, a Madison, Mississippi, native, saw an outpouring of support that she wasn’t expecting. “I could see that this was something that was needed, but I didn’t really expect other people to see it immediately,” she said. “So to have Big Girl Besties be validated throughout that contest, have so many people — big or not — really understanding what I’m trying to do with it, that was a big deal to me. And I really want to bring it to life as soon as possible. We are definitely moving and shaking very quickly. As far as the first event for summer 2023, that’ll be right after the first season of the podcast is over. And we’ll do a launch event here in Chicago.”

What started as a creative outlet for Mariyo in 2021 — just Mariyo being Mariyo and making happy, self-affirming videos of her dancing, wearing cute outfits, enjoying life and talking to her followers five to seven times a week — will be a project that Unshackled Wines will be amplifying and sharing on its platforms for the next year.

“Winning ‘The Great Unshackling’ contest was confirmation for me that I’m on the right path,” Mariyo said, adding, “2020, that’s the year I arrived at the airport, made it through security and I got to my gate. I taught myself graphic design that year, learned more about marketing. And then in 2021, I boarded the plane and the plane is pulling out from the gate. That’s when I started my social media, found my voice, learned to be more consistent with posting and interacting with my audience. All 2022, the plane I’m on is taxiing. I know my moment is coming, and winning this contest, that to me feels like my takeoff. We’re only going up from here.”