Graham has been working as a model since she was 12 years old.
Claudia Greco—Reuters

I was 9 years old when I was first confronted with the idea of beauty. I’d always been a larger kid—stout, athletic. People would tell me I was “big and strong.” But this girl, a stranger I saw one day at Target—she was different. She had long, thin legs, a flat tummy, and grown-up breasts. Her blonde hair fell perfectly down her shoulders. I was so young, and yet I knew: she was pretty. I wanted to be that. I didn’t know what modeling was back then—I didn’t even know what fashion was—but I wanted what she had. I wanted to command attention.

My story began like so many women’s, as my sense of self evolved under the influence of feedback from others. In middle school the kids called me “cottage cheese thighs.” I craved acceptance of others and the empathy of a friend group that might understand what I had to offer beyond my exterior.

And then, suddenly, I was a model. A scout spotted me at the mall in Omaha when I was 12. Soon I was being paid to have my picture taken. Adults were telling me that my looks had value.

It came with a caveat, though. I was “big pretty” or “pretty for a big girl” or “pretty from the neck up.” There was always that double label: pretty and plus-sized. In school, the plus-size wasn’t cool, but the pretty was interesting. My teachers would tilt their heads and squint at me, looking for whatever the industry saw. I would fly to modeling jobs in New York City over the weekend with my mom, and be back in school facing the name-calling on Monday. I wish I’d had a mentor back then—someone to help me understand my value and my purpose as a model. But there was no one I could look to and emulate, no one who’d gone through the same challenges to hold my hand and tell me that none of the noise mattered, that I just needed to keep moving forward.

Read More: The 5 Words That Help Me Accept My Body

Developing my confidence in my own beauty came later—and it’s something I still struggle with sometimes. There isn’t one top model who doesn’t live with some sort of insecurity. You could talk to any of them, and I bet they would tell you all about it. We’re constantly being picked apart, constantly being told what’s right with how we look and what’s wrong, how we aren’t meeting the bar, what we need to change about ourselves. It’s enough to make anyone want to give up, and I almost did once, early on. I was 18 years old, living in Manhattan under tremendous pressure to build a new kind of career in a hyper-competitive city with skyrocketing rent. And it was complicated to be a plus-size model at a younger age, because there was even more scrutiny on the messaging—there was a negative connotation that came with youth and obesity and what it might mean to promote body diversity. I felt like I had to work twice as hard as everyone else because I was different. One day I finally called my mom crying, looking in the mirror and just feeling like I couldn’t do it anymore. She told me something I’ll never forget: your body is going to change someone’s life. You have to keep going.

That was the “aha” moment for me. My mom helped me understand my purpose. As I let her words sink in, I thought about how for years I’d let other people tell me who I was. I needed to define my worth for myself. And I could use words, like my mom had, to do it.

Affirmations are a trendy concept now, but back then I’d never heard of them. I literally searched “better words for self,” and I discovered that this was a tool that had helped other people. I could come up with my own personal phrases to use to speak directly to my insecurities. This is what I landed on: I am bold. I am brilliant. I am beautiful. Bold because I’d always been told I was too much—too big, too loud, too much personality—but I knew that my intensity and presence is what would set me apart. Brilliant because I was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia in the fourth grade and never had the resources I needed to really thrive in school—but I knew that I was smart and capable. Beautiful because I was starting to learn the fuller definition of the word, that beauty is about so much more than the parts of myself that were commoditized.

I used that affirmation for more than a decade as a tool to develop my self-love. Now I know I’m bold, brilliant, and beautiful, and I’ve moved on to other words. That doesn’t mean I don’t still suffer from waves of imposter syndrome or have hard days though. My body has changed things for other people, and there’s an incredible honor—and an incredible pressure—that comes with knowing that. I’ve always wanted women to see themselves in me, to know that any validation I get is equally theirs. But sharing my body with the world has also meant that the people I’ve set out to represent sometimes assume an ownership over my appearance. We all change. I was 28 when I appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. Now I’m 36 and a mother of three. My body looked different when I was pregnant, and it looks different now that I’ve given birth to my three sons. Losing weight after having kids has brought on comments from people who feel betrayed by the changes they see. I never want women to think I’m leaving them behind, and at the same time, all I can do is accept the journey I’m on and to focus on the things that make me feel strong and empowered—which is all any of us can do. Maybe I’ll lose weight, maybe I’ll gain it. This is my body, and I’m incredibly proud of everything it has accomplished.

That’s what beauty is. It’s knowing who you are, for better or worse, and loving yourself anyway. It’s learning and exploring and forgiving ourselves for the ways in which we differ. It’s grace.

Ashley Graham is a model, activist, author, and a member of the 2017 TIME100. Her latest book is A Kids Book About Beauty.

—As told to Lucy Feldman

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