You probably know model Erin Heatherton's face from the Victoria's Secret runway or larger-than-life billboards for the lingerie retailer. In 2013, after working with the brand for about six years, they parted ways. Then in a 2016 interview with TIME, she discussed one of the reasons why: the pressure to drop weight and look perfect on the runway was warping her body image, leaving her "depressed" and questioning her true self. (She's just one of many celebs who are open about how losing weight didn't make them happier.)
We caught up with Heatherton at a recent NFL game (she's a total sports fan), and she stresses that it wasn't VS or her experience with the brand that left a sour taste in her mouth; it was her own inner conflict with the perfect image she was putting out there.
Turns out, taking her career in a new direction (including repping the NFL Women's Apparel Collection, appearing in The League and Grown-Ups 2) has only helped her regain clarity of who she really is and what kind of example she wants to set for women and girls.
The result: she has a lot of wisdom to share about what it truly means to love your body. Read below, and prepare yourself for all the #bodylove feels.
1. "I think girls have this illusion that being perfect will make their lives perfect, and it's a complete lie. Because I've been there, and it didn't make me happier."
Heatherton admits: she has a whole crew of followers and doesn't totally understand why. But since she has an audience, she's going to tell them exactly what she wants them to hear—and what she needed to hear: "[Looking perfect] doesn't add to your power. I'm telling you because I know. Be healthy, but be a person," she says. "My identity is in the fact that I love being different. I don't want to be like everybody else. That's so boring... own your differences, be your own thing." (One step in the right direction: models are stepping out onto the runway with acne.)
2. "My confidence is rooted in self-respect. I respect my body and no one's going to take that from me."
Heatherton grew up as a total sports girl: playing soccer, swimming, track, and basketball. She doesn't credit her success to some crazy diet or pure luck; she credits it to building a team-player attitude and respectable character through sports. "Basketball is kind of like being on set," she says. What you need to win at either: discipline, hard work, being goal-oriented, and teamwork. (And she does work hard to stay in shape: just check out her diet and fitness tips.)
Not to mention, Heatherton says she first became interested in eating healthy and taking care of her body as a way to boost performance—not for vanity. This gave her a solid foundation from which to look at herself—as an athlete. "My love for my body started with sports and performance and just seeing the amazing things I could achieve," she said. "And I'll go on the record saying that the sports world knows so much more about health and the body and how we should all look than anyone else."
3. "It doesn't matter how perfect everything else looks... it doesn't change your identity, your value, or your real beauty, which comes from inside."
Heatherton is all #realtalk when it comes to what it's like looking good for a living: "I put all my energy and time into this one thing, which is looking hot. And at some point, I think: I could fill my mind and my time with so many other things that would make me more like the people I admire," she says.
"This level of perfection I feel is dangerous. It doesn't add to your character, it doesn't add to the qualities that I admire in other people," she says. "We should care about our health, work hard, and challenge ourselves, but don't make it your whole identity and don't sacrifice your confidence and integrity because of it."
4. "What people tell you is not what you have to think about yourself."
Like many models, there were moments in Heatherton's career when someone wanted her to look different: "It's so much harder when it happens to you than when you hear stories of other people in this situation... there was a fork in the road: is it going to break me down, or going to polish me up?"
But Heatherton said she realized that this inner conflict isn't just something that she or people in her industry face—it's something that all women and girls are experiencing. "My industry is so widely publicized and viewed by so many young women, I'm really protective of young girls because looking a certain way like this, it was never on my radar... this level of perfection I feel is dangerous." (And she's not the only one rejecting perfection: just check out Gigi Hadid's #PerfectNever campaign with Reebok.)
5. "Look at yourself and say, 'You're fucking gorgeous.' No one can take that from you."
Though Heatherton's body love started with sports, as an adult it's all about being strong and happy: "I think my flaws are beautiful. They make me laugh. We call them flaws, but I love being me. I love knowing that I will always accept myself," she says. "Yeah, I can improve, but I never lose the love and respect for me." Feel the love yet?