“Thank you for giving me confidence,” reads a comment on model Ashley Graham’s Instagram page. “Thank you so much for building up our girls,” reads another. “You are really doing something for women,” wrote a fan.
Say what you will about the fashion industry, but this curvy, 28-year-old stunner is proving that it can truly be used as a platform to make a bona fide difference.
Graham, who, in addition to being a top IMG model, is a body activist, designs lingerie and swimwear, will appear on the upcoming season of America’s Next Top Model, and is set to release a book in 2017, has come a long way since being discovered in a Nebraska mall at the age of 12. In an industry that is hyper-focused on thinness (remember, we are the people who turned the word “waif” into a compliment and glorified “heroin chic”) Graham has broken down boundaries. She covered the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and Maxim, becoming the first plus-size model to do so. She’s appeared in countless editorials, walked the most star-studded red carpets in custom wares by the likes of Jeremy Scott, Christian Siriano, and Prabal Gurung, travels to high schools and colleges around the country to promote body positivity, gave a TED talk in Spain, and is widely regarded as one of the sexiest, most beautiful women in the world. She also radiates a genuine confidence that, even in the ego-driven fashion sphere, is rare.
“I think everything about your character starts at home, and my mother really instilled in me that confidence comes from the interior, not the exterior,” Graham told me while on set with photographer Miguel Reveriego and Fashion Unfiltered’s beauty editor-at-large, Vincent Oquendo. “In fashion, everything fades eventually, so if you really love who you are on the inside, the exterior goes along with it.”
But it hasn’t always been cover shoots and self-assuredness for Graham—she’s worked very hard to reach not only this level of accomplishment, but happiness, too. “I can’t tell you how may sad diets I’ve been on, trying to take weight off, and then I’d get too skinny and clients wouldn’t want to book me, or I was seen as a traitor to my community,” Graham recalled. “Weight has had such a big impact on my career, and I hate that. I hate that it’s a constant conversation. I hate that it even has to be a conversation. But it is what it is.”
However, Graham is pushing to change that. “[Body positivity] has been my cause for so long because it’s been my issue for so long,” she said. “You stand up for the things that affect you deeply, and there have been so many times that I’ve been told I’m too big or too small. But the moment I stopped conforming to what agents or clients or designers wanted me to do was the moment that I actually started working a lot more because I made my own decisions. I realized that this is a business and I’m not just a pretty face among others. I realized that I could have longevity, and that’s when I coined the term ‘body activist’ and started speaking up.”
And honestly, thank god she did. Even today, when diversity is so widely celebrated (or, at the very least, so often used as a marketing gimmick for big brands—let’s be serious, we have a long way to go there, too); when we have our first female presidential candidate, further proving that women aren’t just objects to be molded and ogled by the male gaze, there’s no real range of shapes or sizes in high fashion, especially on the runway, which is more consumer-facing now than ever before. Shouldn’t we be showing those consumers that they don’t need to be a size two in order to wear (or, for that matter, buy) something fabulous? In order to fit in? In order to be accepted? For every Lane Bryant #ImNoAngel campaign, there are scores of advertisements and runway shows not-so-subtly telling women that they’re not beautiful unless they’re a sample size. And quite frankly, that’s some bullshit.
“It’s so important that fashion starts catching up with size diversity, because it’s about inclusion now,” said Graham. “It’s not just about one standard of beauty. It’s not just about representing one type of woman. It’s about representing every type of woman. And that’s even more beautiful than having women conform to what someone tells them beauty is.
“I’ve been on hold for very, very big designers for runway shows, and I [always] get released at the last minute because they say they can’t get samples made for me in time,” Graham continued. “I told my agent, ‘If they just put two size fours together, they could give me an outfit that would work!’ It’s like, come on, guys. I don’t understand what the runway holdup is,” said Graham, who recently walked H&M’s wonderfully inclusive Fall 2016 Paris show.
None of this is to say that sample-size, or what the industry calls “straight-size” models aren’t beautiful or healthy. They absolutely are. They’re gorgeous! But the message our incredibly far-reaching business should be sending is that healthy women of any size are gorgeous. This is one of the reasons that Graham decided to strip down for Sports Illustrated, whose readership is over 20 percent female. “I didn’t realize that going into the shoot, and I thought, Wow, I’m not just doing this for some guy to hang on his wall. I’m doing this because a woman is going to get this magazine, open it up, and see herself. Yes, it was a career changer, but I also did it to show [all] women that they can be sexy.”
So what must we fashion folk do to move forward? Getting rid of the term “plus-size” would probably be a good start. “I understand it in a department store when you have to separate the clothing in order for [the consumer] to shop more quickly,” said Graham. “I also understand it when you’re booking a model and you’ve got your petite girl, your black girl, your plus-size girl, your redhead. But to be labeled as a plus-size woman is so divisive. I think it classifies you into a different category that may make someone think that you’re not an equal.” Graham would also like to see us reach a point where size no longer needs to be a conversation. “We need to continue talking about it, but there has to be a point where we don’t have this discussion anymore. I also believe that, in the beauty industry as well as the fashion world, [curvy girls] are not being represented.”
On a positive note, Graham says she has seen a shift in the way young women look at themselves, and credits that to social media. “In the last two years, I’ve never seen young women more confident, and I feel like it’s due to social media. You’re able to find your tribe on social media. You’re able to find women and people who look like you and with whom you can communicate. I also think that, now more than ever, with the conversation about body diversity, women are able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you,’ and actually mean it, because they are seeing women that look like them in media.”
Graham receives between 10 and 15 emails daily from women thanking her for, well, being herself. “They write: ‘I’ve never been represented in this industry. Thank you for embracing the things that people have called flaws, because I have the exact same thing. Thank you for showing a little cellulite.’ I had no idea it was going to go such a long way. Women are really wrapped up in their weight and their size.”
That’s an understatement. It is estimated that four percent of American women have had or will struggle with eating disorders at some point in their lives. Though, speaking to my female friends both in and out of the fashion industry, it seems that no one is untouched by poor body image. Hell, I’ll say it, I suffered from an eating disorder in my teens, and that insecurity, that feeling of somehow being less because your body is more, never really goes away. Now that I’m in my 30s, it gives me a sense of confidence and comfort to see that a curvy woman like Graham can feel so good about herself, and find so much success.
“When you start speaking about weight globally, you realize how much this touches young girls. Their parents have called them fat, their boyfriends have broken up with them because they’ve gained weight. One girl who [wrote me], she was a sophomore in college, and she had been bulimic for about six years. She watched my TED talk and sent me this very long e-mail. She said, ‘You know what, if that woman is so confident in who she is, why am I ruining my body and telling myself all these negative things?’ She stopped throwing up from then on out, and she emailed me a year later and said that she’s still not hurting herself. It’s stories like these that make me remember why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m not just speaking to curvy women, I’m speaking to all kinds of women about accepting who they are.”
We are so proud to feature the trailblazing Graham on Fashion Unfiltered as you've never seen here before. Here, the model plays the role of “grunge harlequin” and proves she can swathe herself in silver, sport a Pepto pink wig, or powder her face to oblivion and still look breathtaking. “And they told me I’d never be an editorial girl!” Graham laughed. Obviously, “they” were wrong.