The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model opened up about the challenges she faced to make space for herself in the modeling world.

By Hunter McGrady as told to Faith Brar

I’ve wanted to be a model for as long as I can remember. My mother and grandmother were both models, and I aspired to be like them, but I was bullied for my dream in high school. Every day, people made comments about my body, saying I was too tall, not pretty enough, not skinny enough, and that I’d never make it in the modeling world no matter how hard I tried.

Despite years of struggling with my body and it's natural size, eventually, I proved them wrong by becoming an established plus-size model. But growing up, I never would have thought this was the path my career would have taken.

I was never known as being the "bigger girl." In fact, I was actually what most people consider "skinny." At six feet tall, I only weighed about 114 pounds.

Accepting That I Wasn’t a Straight Size Model

My classmates continued to tease and mock my appearance and aspirations, and eventually, I had to be homeschooled because the bullying became unbearable.

Still, at home, I hated what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I picked out flaws, reminding myself I wasn't good enough to be accepted by my classmates or the modeling industry. I became extremely depressed and developed severe anxiety around my weight and what I was eating. I was consumed by what others thought about my body.

Nevertheless, I was still desperate to fit the mold of what an ideal model looked like, and I was still determined to continue chasing my dream no matter what it took.

That perseverance led to landing my first modeling gig when I was 16 years old. But even on that first day on set, the expectation was clear: I had to continue losing weight if I was really going to succeed.

When you’re teenage girl, you’re like a sponge. All the things you hear said about yourself, you believe. So I put all my effort into trying to drop more pounds. For me, that meant eating less, doing crazy amounts of cardio and anything else that would give me the 'perfect' body to become a successful model.

But the way I was living wasn't sustainable. It eventually got to a point where what others said about me began affecting me physically, emotionally, and every which way. 

The rock bottom came just a year after that first "break" into modeling. Despite all my efforts to fit a certain mold, I was told to leave the set because they hadn’t realized how "big" I was. But I was already killing myself in the gym, barely eating and doing everything I could to be my smallest. That day, when I walked away with tears in my eyes, I knew something had to change. 

Embracing My Natural Size

After that defining experience, I knew I needed help to change my unhealthy mindset. So I turned to therapy to help equip me with the emotional strength and skills I needed to feel normal again.

I look back at that time in my life and feel that getting help was the first step in the right direction to learning that I am beautiful and "enough" just as I am. I learned the importance of opening up about your feelings, especially as a young adult, and working through all your pain and insecurity in a safe and controlled environment. That’s what's led to me support organizations like the JED foundation, a non-profit that helps youth face and address depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in a healthy and constructive way. By partnering with high schools and colleges, the foundation creates suicide prevention programs and systems that help young people cope with their mental health and substance abuse problems.

After a lot of self-reflection and coaching, I slowly started to learn that I didn’t need to change what I looked like for the rest of the world, as long as I was happy with who I was as a person. But that realization didn’t happen overnight.

For starters, I had to take a break from modeling because doing anything that focused heavily on aesthetics just wasn’t the right thing to do for my mental health. In fact, healing from the damage caused by all the bullying and body-shaming took years. (To be honest, it’s something that's still an occasional struggle.)

By the time I turned 19, I was in a much better place emotionally, yet I felt that the chance to realize my dream of becoming a successful model was over. I had taken several years off and at that point, my body had changed. I had hips, boobs, and curves and was no longer a 114-pound little girl who, as tiny as could be, still wasn’t tiny enough for the straight-size modeling industry. How could I make it with this new body; my real body? (Related: This Instagrammer Is Sharing Why It's So Important to Love Your Body As It Is)

But then I heard about plus-size modeling. Mind you, back then, there were no successful female role models in the space like Ashley Graham and Denise Bidot who were flaunting their curves in magazines and all over social media. The concept that you could be bigger than a size two and still be a model was truly bizarre to me. Plus-size modeling represented everything that I’d worked so hard to believe about myself: that I was beautiful, worthy, and deserved this career, regardless of society’s insane standard of beauty. (Looking for a confidence boost? These women will inspire you to love your body, just as they love their own.)

When I heard that Wilhelmina was looking to sign plus-size models, I knew I had to give it a shot. I will never forget walking through those doors, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t told to lose weight. I was perfect just the way I was. They signed me on the spot, and I remember running downstairs, getting into the passenger seat of my mom’s car and breaking down in tears. It felt so empowering to finally be accepted and embraced without having to change a single thing. 

A New Set of Challenges

Through the years, I’ve learned that even this part of the modeling industry isn’t without its darker corners.

A lot of people like to think that being a plus-size model, you can do whatever you want. The assumption is that we eat what we like, don't work out, and DGAF about what we look like. But that’s not the case. 

Body-shaming and unrealistic expectations are daily occurrences for me and the other plus-size models. The industry still expects me to be the ‘perfect’ size 14 or size 16—and by that, I mean having the ideal body shape and proportions, even if your body isn’t naturally meant to be that way. (See: Why Body-Shaming Is Such a Big Problem and What You Can Do to Stop It).

Then there's the fact that most of society still doesn't seem ready for a non-straight-sized model to be in the pages of a magazine or on TV. When I'm in an issue of Sports Illustrated, I get comments like, “There’s nothing model-like about this girl”, “I can’t believe she’s in a magazine”, “If she can be a model, anyone can,”—the list goes on.

Most of these comments stem from the misconception that plus-size models are unhealthy and hence don't deserve to be seen as beautiful. But the truth is, I know my body, and I know my health. I work out every day; I eat healthy most of the time; my actual health stats are normal, and in fact, better compared to when I was 16 and rail-thin. But I don’t feel the need to explain or justify this to anyone.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the modeling industry and hearing all of these negative opinions, it’s that many people are programmed to fight change. Yet, we need change these concepts to evolve. Hateful comments are all the more reason for women of different shapes and sizes to put themselves out there and be seen and valued.

Inspiring Women to Continue Fighting for Change

Right now, I couldn’t be happier with my career. Recently, I was told that I was the curviest model to grace the pages of Sport’s Illustrated—and that’s something I hold near and dear to my heart. Women reach out to me every day to tell me how grateful or empowered they feel when they open a magazine and see someone like me; someone they can relate to. 

While we’ve come a long way, it still takes a publication like SI to feature women of different shapes and sizes in their spreads to inspire other notable brands and publications to follow suit. It’s unfortunate, but non-straight-size women still face tremendous barriers. For instance, I can’t just walk into any store on Fifth Avenue and expect designers to carry my size. Most mainstream brands don’t recognize that they’re missing out on a huge percentage of American shoppers, who are a size 16 or above. (Related: Model Hunter McGrady Just Launched a Sexy, Affordable Plus-Size Swimwear Collection)

As frustrating as it is, we’re taking things step by step, and women are being louder than ever. I believe that if we continue fighting for ourselves, and proving that we’re allowed to be here, we will reach the point of true acceptance. At the end of the day, everyone just wants to feel accepted, and if I can do that for somebody, then my job is a job well done in my book.

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