Between launching her own lingerie line, making the Forbes Top 30 Under 30 list, delivering a TED Talk on body diversity, and serving as leading body-positive activist, one thing is certain: Ashley Graham is taking the world by storm.
To add to her long list of achievements, the 28-year-old graced the cover of the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue this week, along with fashion model Hailey Clauson and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey. The three covers conveyed the powerful message that beauty isn’t defined by one size and shape—the very statement Graham has been making throughout her career. We spoke with the iconic model herself to find out what she thinks it really takes to be healthy.
Understand that health isn’t defined by size
Just as beauty isn’t limited to one body type, neither is health. “When people see a big person, they equate them with unhealthy,” says Graham. “But I think I am the definition of health, even though I am quite curvy.” Graham explains that as a part of Good Morning America’s “Body Proud” series, which aired last November, a doctor performed medical and fitness tests on both her and fellow model, Abeda Davis, who is a size 2. The verdict? Both women passed with flying colors.
“I believe you can be healthy at any size as long as you’re getting off the couch and moving your body,” says Graham. “I have been a size 10 and I have been a size 18. Regardless of the size, I’ve always been active because I know it’s the healthier version for me.”
Do what you love
In order to stay active, Graham stresses how important it is to find something you actually love doing. “It’s really a trial and error,” Graham explains. “I’ve tried many different classes where I thought ‘I don’t know if I can do that again,’ but now I love things I never imagined I would, like boxing.” The model also likes to mix things up, with CrossFit, barre, bootcamp, rollerblading, and weight-lifting.
Don’t be afraid to lift weights
Speaking of weight-lifting, Graham is all for pumping iron: “If you want to feel toned and fit, lift weights!” she says. "It actually makes you leaner, because [the muscle you build] helps you burn fat throughout the day."
Find your fitspiration
If dragging your butt to the gym feels like a chore, figure out a source of inspiration. For Graham, it’s social media. “I follow Instagram accounts that inspire me to lift weights, I look at their page and then go to the gym to do the workouts.” While social media often gets flak for instances of body shaming, Graham believes platforms like Instagram have a lot of positive motivation to offer. “Social media has created a community for women to feel better about themselves, because they see women their size doing things they didn’t think they could do.”
Don’t let others interfere with your goals
Graham acknowledges the gym can be an intimidating place. But it’s important to stay your own course, she says. “A lot of women who are my size and bigger think they can’t do some of this stuff,” she explains. “But if you follow me on my Snapchat or Instagram, you will see this big ol’ size 14 girl sweating it out, and not having any problem, it’s just a matter of doing it.” And for anyone who makes you feel out of place, take some advice from the queen of confidence: “If you think everyone is staring at you, just think, ‘It must be because I look awesome.’”
Give yourself a break
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle also means knowing when to rest, says Graham. “I’m a morning workout girl. So if I don’t go in the morning, I’m not going to work out that day. The thing is, I feel if your body needs rest, that’s more important than the gym.”
Exercise for your mental health, too
For Graham, moving her body and working out is about much more than staying fit. It’s crucial for mental health as well. “Working out releases endorphins in my brain that help me feel better about myself,” she explains. “It helps with depression, it helps with sleeping, and it helps with my confidence. Whether or not you’re at that ideal weight or jean size, those endorphins are making you feel better regardless.”
Remember that everyone's health is personal
At the end of the day, Graham feels this is the most important thing to know. You can’t listen to people who call you unhealthy, because that's not something that can be determined simply by appearance. “I’ve been told I’m a promoter of diabetes, and those people are just uneducated,” she says. What’s crucial is that you're working towards your best self, whatever that may mean for you. “The healthier you are, the more comfortable you’ll be in your own skin,” says Graham. “And that’s all that matters."