The model and body positivity icon spoke candidly about beauty and body image at a recent event.

By Maggie O'Neill
Updated March 31, 2020

On Sunday, model and body positivity icon Ashley Graham, 31, spoke about how she battles the exclusivity of the fashion and beauty world at an event hosted by the New York Times called Reshaping Beauty, which Health attended.

Graham talked about how people often told her she needed to lose weight when she was a younger model. The constant criticism was intensified by the fact that she felt lost trying to navigate the modeling world of New York City, where she'd moved from Nebraska at the age of 17. The stakes felt extra high for Graham because her parents had told her that she had one year to "make it" as a model in New York. If she didn't make a name for herself within that year, she'd have to return to Nebraska and go to college, they said. "I did not want to go to college," she told the audience.

She felt intense pressure after first moving to New York. "I was trying to make business decisions not knowing anything, walking into this wild world of fashion where they're telling me I'm too big. They're telling me to not talk. They're telling me that I'm just a clothes hanger and to just keep your mouth shut. That's the epitome of everything I'm not," Graham said. "I came from a family who was like, 'Be proud of who you are. Be loud and have an opinion, but do it with kindness.' So everywhere I went I said what I wanted to say but with a smile on my face, and, sure enough, it ended up working out really well for me."

Joanna Nikas, New York Times fashion and style editor, asked Graham about her experience being the first curvy model on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2016. She mentioned that Graham said then that she hoped people would stop using the word "plus-size." Graham responded by saying that, while she personally doesn't love the descriptor, many women find their identity in it, so we shouldn't discard it completely.

"The word 'plus-size'—everybody has their own viewpoint on it," Graham said. "People want to be called it because they feel like it's their community. There's some people who don't want to be called it because they feel like it's divisive. I feel like it's divisive and a bit archaic, but we can't discredit the women who actually want to be called 'plus-size.' [W]e're not describing our friends based off the number inside their pants. So why do we have to do it for big girls? And we don't do it to men."

Graham credited one specific behavior as helping her better her relationship with her body. She recites this string of positive sentences to herself every day: "I am bold. I am brilliant. I am beautiful. I am worthy of all. I love you." She said she came up with this affirmation when she was 18 and was constantly being told to lose weight.

Reciting this mantra wasn't easy at first, but over the years she's learned to say it wholeheartedly. "This really just started shifting my brain because I know words have power," Graham said. "If you're telling yourself you're dumb, if you're telling yourself you're ugly, if you're telling yourself you're not worthy enough to have anything that you want, then that's going to be your future. So I had to change my words."

Even though she's skyrocketed in popularity since that 2016 Sports Illustrated cover, people still try to "fix" her body by editing pictures of her. "This is the kind of conversation I'm still struggling to have on set: 'You see those red stretch marks on the inside of my thigh? Leave those. Those are new and those are real, and we need to talk about those.' People will take them out, but I'm not afraid to talk about it. I'm not afraid to show it on social media."