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Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Cover Star Ashley Graham: Stop Labeling Women ‘Plus-Size’

7 minute read

Sports Illustrated announced that for the first time in 52 years it would have three women—model Hailey Clauson, boxer Ronda Rousey and body-positive activist Ashley Graham—on the cover of its annual Swimsuit Issue.

Motto spoke with Graham about body confidence, her feelings on the label “plus-size” and how she hopes the cover will affect women outside of the modeling world.

What was your reaction to seeing the cover?
I seriously went into “Is this really happening?” mode. I thought, “This would be a terrible joke.” I knew that it was a possibility because while you’re on set, they’re telling you every shot could be the cover. You just don’t know. So I took every shot very seriously, and I thought it would be really groundbreaking if Sports Illustrated put a girl who’s a size 14-16 on the cover—someone who’s considered plus-size—and then I thought, “Maybe it’s just too progressive. Maybe they’ll wait another year. Who knows.” When I saw it, I thought, “Oh my god, this is real life.”

Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson are so sweet and inspirational in their own way, and I’m so excited to share the cover with both of them.

I notice you said you could be “considered” plus-size—and in your TED talk, you say, “I don’t see it as ‘plus-size,’ I see it as ‘my-size.'” Could you explain why you think that distinction is so important?
I really believe that the word “plus-size” is something some women hold onto and something that is truly a community for them. They love this word, and this is something that they want to be called. But I’ve never considered myself an actual plus-size woman. I’ve never thought of it as a positive word, and I think there’s a huge division between straight-size models and plus-size models. Not between the models themselves, but with the designers, the magazines and things like that, because they see it as two different entities. If you book a plus-size model, she’s like your “other.” We’re just always looked at as tokens.

I know that a woman my size is the average-sized American woman—so why wouldn’t you want to represent a woman who’s the average-sized American woman? Why wouldn’t you want to help her embrace her curves and her body instead of tearing her down? I really think we need to get past that notion of putting a label on it—even curvy. I don’t go up to people and say, “This is my skinny friend Rachel,” and she doesn’t say, “This is my curvy friend Ashley.” I think there’s this huge, terrible, negative labeling happening, and I’m ready to get rid of it.

You went into modeling when you were in your early teens—what would you want to tell that girl about what lies ahead in her future?
I would have told her to stop judging herself against other women. I did a lot of body shaming, and I looked at a lot of women and thought, “I wish I looked like that,” and, “I wish I had her hair or her hips.”

The moment that it clicked for me that it didn’t matter if I had anybody else’s anything—but that I had to love what I had—that’s when my career really took off. And if it weren’t for these breasts and these hips and these round arms, I wouldn’t be on the cover of Sports Illustrated because that’s exactly what Sports Illustrated wanted— a diverse group of women on their cover this year.

Read more: Gina Rodriguez: I Look Like Me, and That’s Good Enough

What was that turning point for you when you were able to start accepting and loving your body as-is?
I had just broken up with a boyfriend who was bad news all the way. I looked in the mirror and was just totally disgusted with the woman I’d seen because I had gained a lot of weight in an unhealthy way. I had just totally taken myself off of the pedestal that every woman should be living on. I had to really look back at the woman that my mother had influenced, and I had to say to myself, “I love you.”

Around the same time, I read a book—I wish I remember what it was called—but it was a book about affirmations and how if you speak it, it will happen. Your words have power, and I thought, “I’m going to love my body.” I must have been about 20 years old, and I just decided to look in the mirror and say, “I love you.”

Read more: Biggest Loser Trainer Jennifer Widerstrom: How To Stop Letting Your Weight Define You

I grew up being called “thunder thighs” and “cottage cheese legs.” I was always a bigger, taller chick. Becoming more confident didn’t happen overnight—it was over the course of months and months of telling myself, “You are bold, you are brilliant, you are beautiful.” And then finally understanding that I was bold, brilliant and beautiful, and I could take ownership over my body and I could make all the things I wanted in my life happen.

What do you hope this cover will do for your career and for perceptions of models who aren’t stick-thin?
Sports Illustrated has said, “We are the norm, and putting curvy girls on the cover is the norm.” I think it has catapulted people’s perception of beauty into a whole different place where it doesn’t matter what size a woman is—it matters what she’s doing in the world and how she feels about herself.

The next thing I really want and desire [in my own career] is a hair and makeup campaign. I think you’re going to see the Ashley Graham show come to fruition very soon. I’m very excited, and I have three different clothing lines I’m excited to see take off, as well.

When you talk about those clothing lines, you always describe them as being designed to help women of any size feel sexy. Why is that so important to you?
The word “sexy” to me is my meaning of how I want to feel good. Your meaning of sexy might be completely different, and what I want women to understand is the word “sexy” doesn’t have to be what you see in a raunchy movie or magazine. The word “sexy” can mean you feel beautiful or elegant or empowered. To me, “sexy” has so many different meanings. I want women to feel sexy at any size because she hasn’t felt sexy at any size before. Retailers haven’t created clothes for her to feel sexy in, to feel like she has a boost of confidence in whatever she wears. I truly feel excited to bridge that gap.

Read more: How Blogilates Star Cassey Ho Deals With Body Criticism

I think every woman should feel confident, and she should feel that she is more than just her size. I said it in my TED Talk: I really want women to feel they’re beautiful for who they are and not hiding themselves because of who they’re not. I think that’s the next step. Yes, you’re going to see women my size on the covers of magazines and in films and in campaigns—and now we have to get to the root and have these women actually feeling better and believing in themselves.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Write to Robin Hilmantel at robin.hilmantel@time.com