“I’m scared you’ll be as fat as my mother.” This is the excuse that a young Ashley Graham was given when her then-boyfriend broke up with her after (thankfully) a couple of months of dating. But it was in the middle of 2000s that the adolescent Nebraskan truly realized that her body is different. It turns out that being 1.75 meters tall, having large breasts and wearing a size 50 represented a second-rate type of beauty for some and a ‘forbidden’ desire for others. That reality check proved to be both brutal and formative—paving the way for Graham’s in-depth understanding of feminine ideals. At only 12 years old, she was scouted by an agency in a mall and promptly started her career in New York. “Suddenly, I went from a shapely beauty to a fat model. Every time I happened to talk about what I was doing, I had to justify myself quickly and specify, ‘no, no, I mean plus-sized model,’” she explains.
Today, she one of the ten highest-paid models in the industry (earning a hefty sum of $5.5 million in 2017), she has posed for dozens of prestigious covers and campaigns from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar and Calvin Klein, to name a few. What changed was not her body or her weight, rather, “the way I look at my body.” Ashley Graham explores this transformation in her autobiography, A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty and Power Really Look Like, where she tells readers about the tears, fears and successes involved in being an activist and pioneer in one's field. Today, she’s a leading figure in the struggle for body positivism and self-acceptance both in the fashion industry and society as a whole.
It is clear that the fashion world is strewn with obstacles: “You should stop with the chocolate, Ashley,” “I doubt we have anything your size,” “maybe you’d be better as a mail-order catalog model”...And, yet, Graham describes the moment when she realized that, despite it all, she had a more important mission to play. “My mother reminded me that the sign of my body could change someone’s life,” that modeling could send a positive message that she had dreamed to receive as a child.
During her TED Talk in 2015, the model talked about her love for “my folds, my cellulite, my thighs touching. Everybody is unique, so it’s up to the fashion industry to be as diverse as the human beings consuming it.” After all, the majority of women would be considered overweight based on their standards. This Ted Talk had over 5 million views and received international press coverage and, shortly afterward, the supermodel graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Ashley Graham has certainly sent a clear message that everyone is free to love each other, love themselves and to present their body however they want.
“The response was incredibly positive. Suddenly, a large community of people (including many celebrities) began to talk openly about their battle for self and societal acceptance with regards to their bodies.” It takes strength and hard work to bridge the dualities that society likes to keep separate: the interior and exterior, appearance and substance, physical and metaphysical. As well as achieving an ever-growing career, Ashley Graham has built a veritable community of fans—with more than 7.2 million people following her modeling, advocacy and personal endeavors on social media.
Graham is also quick to answer the pesky trolls that comment on her every move. “Are you pregnant?” someone asked on a photo she posted of herself on vacation, “No, it’s just flab” she responded, simply. Moreover, to commemorate the 2016 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the model didn’t hesitate to highlight the brand’s lack of body diversity through a photoshopped post of herself with their trademark wings. Every incident is an opportunity to take initiative for this model.
“I am proud to be a body activist, to promote and represent body diversity. Beauty has nothing to do with weight and it is important to teach the next generation to feel good in their skin, and to celebrate differences instead of erasing them,” Graham explains. “Being a top model is no longer about having good cheekbones, it’s about representing a company, a brand and being a businessperson.”
This ethos is one that earned her a place in the prestigious ’30 Under 30’ Forbes list—a list dedicated to young people with the most striking career in their fields. Graham has also been invited to speak at the United Nations on behalf of her organization, ALDA: a collective of models whose vocation is to promote the evolution of aesthetic standards by ensuring that women of all sizes are made visible in the media. “The concept of beauty changes from country to country, and is defined by each society. So how can one single society speak of perfection? I’m not a plus-sized model, I’m a model of my size,” she explains.
As previously mentioned, Ashley Graham is the leader of a wider movement that seems to be taking place within the fashion industry, with the introduction of models like Paloma Elsessener and Barbie Ferreira, and campaigns like Fenty Savage. Now, she has added her own line of body inclusive underwear to the mix as well as a second womenswear collaboration with Marina Rinaldi for whom she has been an inspiring muse.
Photography by Danny Love
Styling by Donatella Musco
Here are all the looks of the Marina Rinaldi capsule for Fausto Puglisi.