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Model behavior

Ashley Graham is on top of the world — and changing how the world looks at beauty

By Ashley Crouch on August 14, 2017

In the U.S., 67 percent of women are size 14 or above, but, according to Refinery29, they make up only two percent of the images used to depict women by the mainstream media. Plus-size women have become something of an invisible majority in America. But one woman has been on a mission to change that and she’s having a dramatic impact. Ashley Graham is shifting the conversation to beauty beyond size and, when duty calls, shutting down the occasional internet troll whose chief agenda is body-shaming.

Graham is an internationally renowned model who has appeared in Vogue, Glamour, Elle UK, Style Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and was the first plus-size model to grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in 2016. She was included on the 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. And she has her own Barbie Doll. Her recent book, A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty, and Power Really Look Like highlights a way toward a more inclusive definition of beauty, where women are celebrated for their diversity — not in spite of it.

She spoke recently spoke with Women in the World correspondent Ashley Crouch about the adversity and the nasty things kids used to say to her when they learned she’s a model, how she manages her multiple businesses, and how she hopes to permanently shift the landscape of beauty.

Women in the World: You have accomplished so much. How did you become the Ashley Graham that we all know?

Ashley Graham: Being raised by my mother. She set such a positive example for us, never speaking negatively about her body or our bodies. She always practiced kindness, and her work ethic is admirable. Even after I would travel the world for jobs and experience all of these glamourous things, she would still make me come home and mow the lawn to ensure I remained humble and grounded.

WITW: Did you always envision yourself as an influencer, even from the time you were young?  
AG: My mom always says that I was a star since I was a baby, always self-aware and charismatic. [She] would say “your little sisters, they are watching everything that you are doing.” I used to use the fireplace ledge as my stage and make my family watch me perform. Confidence and being a role model to my younger sisters came naturally.

Graham is very active on social media, where she often promotes body positivity to her millions of followers.

WITW: You have always been comfortable in the spotlight. In your book, however, you share the criticism that came from your peers. How did you overcome insecurity as a child? 

AG: Moving a lot as a child and growing up in a relatively small town, I didn’t have a core group of friends. I was always defending my job as a model since I didn’t look like the stereotypical definition of a model. Kids would call me “the fat model” or make fun of the fat folds above my knees in photos. I would be lying if I said those comments didn’t get to me. As a kid, we believe what other people say about us, but my mother would always remind me, “your body has the power to change lives.” That helped me feel more secure in my own skin.

WITW: You experienced cutting remarks and criticism from all sides. In your book, you also share anecdotes of receiving attention from men at a young age. What was a defining moment in your childhood that set you on your path to today?

AG: A lot of moments from my childhood influenced the woman who I am today. My career path started very young at 13 years old, when I was still going through childhood. The moment that still sticks out in my mind is the day of my first photoshoot, which was with a local lingerie company. Before going inside to set, my mom and I sat in the car and thanked God for the opportunity. And that day, my mom had to sign a release form that granted the company permission to airbrush out my nipples. I realized that even though I was still a young girl, I looked like a grown woman and would likely be treated as such by the fashion industry.

WITW: You are also contributing to the fashion industry with successful partnerships with Addition ElleDressbarn, and Swimsuits for AllIf you could start building your brand all over again, what would be the biggest thing you would prioritize for highest impact?

AG: If I could start over, I would have been more proactive about pitching my business ideas earlier on. I had ideas for a lingerie line, but took “no” for an answer and became discouraged. I also stress the importance of having a financial advisor, especially for people who start their careers young like I did. When you get your first big check, your instinct might be to splurge on that Chanel bag. Instead, use that money to invest in yourself or a business idea that could potentially make you more money.

WITW: In your book, you highlight key individuals on your team who have helped shape your brand. Who is the person on your team you could never live without?

AG: They all play such an important, integral role. I’d have to say my husband [Justin Ervin], who has been my number one motivator and supporter, who always encourages me to reach for more.

WITW: As your career has flourished, there have been many surprises and unexpected twists. What is the most surprising thing you learned on the journey to becoming an international household name?

AG: I’m surprised that it’s taken people this long to embrace all shapes and sizes, but I’m happy it’s finally happening, and we should all make more effort.

WITW: How do you think we got the definition of beauty that we have today?

AG: Celebrities and media definitely play a major role in defining female beauty. Whoever the media claims is the hottest woman in the world, people tend to aspire to be her, or be with her. For so long, not enough diversity was portrayed in mainstream media, but thankfully now that’s shifting.

A shot from Graham’s groundbreaking Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue spread.

WITW: What do you think society’s standard of beauty teaches women?

AG: It creates unnecessary pressures on perfecting your physical appearance and teaches young girls to criticize their looks at an early age.

WITW: Your online community #BeautyBeyondSize offers space for women to feel accepted, beyond the societal norm. Where do you see the landscape of beauty going?

AG: Diversity across the board, from size to race, age, religion, and culture.

WITW: Your TEDx talk invites individuals to reimagine the definition of beauty. What do you want every woman to believe about herself?

AG: That she is worthy and that she has the power to change the world.

WITW: What mantra do you use, if any, to boost your confidence?

AG: My favorite affirmation is, “You are bold. You are brilliant. You are beautiful.”

Ashley Crouch is a visibility strategist, writer, and speaker. Find her at Appleseed Communications and follow her on Twitter here.