n a world in which selfacceptance seems rare, model Ashley Graham, 28, happily embraces the obvious: She. Is. Gorgeous. “I love my hourglass figure,” she says. “You can be sexy and feel good in your skin, no matter what size you are.”
Ashley’s breakout came when she was Sports Illustrated’s first-ever size 18 cover star in February, closely followed by a screen-melting role in DNCE’S ‘Toothbrush’ video. She has over 2.7 million Instagram followers, is the face of H&M Studio and a judge on America’s Next Top Model. But the Ashley effect is most pronounced in everyday places: women sit up taller when she’s around. They want to talk to her. Often, they walk away beaming.
The Nebraska native has built her career around self-love affirmations (“My thighs are so sexy, they can’t stop rubbing each other,” she tweets) and the gospel of #Beautybeyondsize. She prefers the term curvasexalicious to plus-size (“We don’t say, ‘My skinny friend.’ Why do big girls have a label?”).
Her proclamations reflect warmth, hard-won self-acceptance and passion to change how we see ourselves – and have catapulted her onto the front lines of a growing body-positivity movement. She proudly flaunts socalled flaws, cellulite and all, and is rebranding what it means to be sexy based on one quality: confidence.
Ashley didn’t start off expecting to reshape the conversation around women’s bodies, though, and her success astounds her. But it took 16 years of hustling while agents urged her to stay in the plus-size lane, rather than aim for high fashion or Hollywood.
She was scouted at a mall at age 12, already 175cm tall and a size 14. “The agency didn’t say plus-size, but it was automatic because plus starts at size 10.” That’s not to say she was insecure about the term. “Confidence starts at home,” she says, “and something my mother never did was look in the mirror and say she was ugly or fat.” But Ashley wasn’t immune to teenage struggles. “I always felt second best because I was never the prettiest, skinniest, fastest or smartest (I have dyslexia). Then, all of a sudden, people were like, ‘You’re gorgeous.’”
Within a few years, she was flying around the world for gigs, then returning to her mother, Linda’s, “chore-oriented” home. She credits her family for her level head. When photographers on set would fawn over her, her reaction wasn’t, “Wow, I’m so pretty!” she says. “It was more like, ‘Cool! What is this world?’”
At 17, she signed with Wilhelmina Models and moved alone to New York City. She soon discovered the industry’s uglier aspects and, after one agent waved cash in her face and said, “You can make a lot more of this if you lose more,” her body image took a dive.
She tried every possible diet, but none stuck. Her confidence and sense of control over her body plummeted. “I went from a size 14 to a size 20,” Ashley says, “It was a dark place.”
She couldn’t see herself as beautiful at size 20, but more than that, “It was the way I was treating my body. I didn’t understand the health aspect.” The former school basketball and volleyball player stopped exercising, losing her tone. Within a year of moving to New York, “I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘I hate you. You’re so gross.’”
Her crumbling self-esteem propelled her through toxic romances. “I dated all the wrong men. I thought I could feel appreciated through guys.” When one boyfriend dumped her, “He said,