Hunter McGrady Shares How She Finally Embraced Her Natural Size

Highly acclaimed Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model, Hunter McGrady shares her journey towards self-acceptance in an industry that often promotes unrealistic body standards. Having admired her mother and grandmother's modeling careers, she always aspired to follow in their footsteps. However, this was met with criticism and doubt from her high school peers, who continuously belittled her dreams citing her height and lack of conventional beauty.

Despite relentless body shaming and relentless bullying, she defied the odds by forging a successful career as a plus-size model. This was a far cry from the path she initially envisioned for herself, given that she never identified as a "bigger girl". Standing at six feet tall and weighing approximately 114 pounds, she was typically seen as "skinny". Her story underscores the importance of embracing one's natural body and silencing external negativity.

Accepting That I Wasn’t a Straight Size Model

My peers never ceased to ridicule and deride my looks and dreams, forcing me into homeschooling as the torment turned intolerable. Alone at home, I despised my reflection in the mirror, constantly criticizing myself for not meeting the standards of acceptance set by my schoolmates or the modeling profession. My self-esteem plummeted, and I succumbed to deep depression and intense anxiety related to my body image and diet. The fear of others' thoughts about my physique consumed me. However, my desperation to conform to the model's ideal image did not fade, and my resolve to pursue my dream remained unwavering. This relentless determination bagged me my first modeling assignment at age 16. Yet, even on my inaugural day on the job, the stipulation was evident: To truly make it in the industry, I had to shed more weight. As a teenager, you're akin to a sponge, absorbing everything said about you and accepting it as truth. Consequently, I endeavored to lose additional weight, which meant reducing my food intake, engaging in excessive cardiovascular exercise, and doing anything else that would help me attain the 'perfect' body, necessary for a successful modeling career. However, the lifestyle I was leading was not viable long-term. Eventually, the impact of others' opinions about me began to take a toll on my physical and emotional well-being, affecting me in every conceivable way.

The rock bottom came just a year after that first "break" into modeling. Despite all my efforts to fit a certain mold, I was told to leave the set because they hadn’t realized how "big" I was. But I was already killing myself in the gym, barely eating and doing everything I could to be my smallest. That day, when I walked away with tears in my eyes, I knew something had to change.

Embracing My Natural Size

Following an impactful realization, I acknowledged the necessity for professional help to alter my detrimental mindset. Therapy became a useful tool in building up my emotional resilience and proficiency to regain normalcy. Reflecting on that phase in my life, I now understand that seeking assistance was the initial stride towards understanding my natural beauty and self-worth. I comprehended the significance of expressing emotions, particularly in young adulthood, and managing personal insecurities and discomfort in a secure and regulated setting. This led me to advocate for organizations like the JED Foundation, a non-profit committed to aiding teenagers and young adults in dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies in a beneficial and constructive manner. Collaborating with high schools and colleges, the foundation develops suicide prevention initiatives and practices that assist the youth in managing their mental health and substance abuse issues.

Initiating self-love and acceptance was a journey that received its impetus from periods of introspection and guidance. The path to realizing that alterations in my appearance weren't necessary for societal acceptance, as long as I was content with my individuality, was indeed not an immediate one. Initially, I had to step away from the modeling world because engaging in anything that was intensely concentrated on aesthetics wasn't conducive for maintaining a stable mental health. Undeniably, recovering from the emotional scarring left behind by incessant bullying and body shaming spanned over several years. (Truth be told, it occasionally remains a battle even today.) By the time I was 19, I had emotionally evolved and was in a healthier mental space. However, I felt that my opportunity to fulfill my aspiration of becoming a successful model had slipped away. I had taken a substantial break of a few years, during which my physique had transformed. I now had a curvier silhouette, far removed from the 114-pound young girl who, despite being extremely petite, was still not petite enough for the conventional straight-size modeling industry. How could this new version of me; my authentic self, make it in the modeling world?

The idea of plus-size modeling was introduced to me at a time when there were no prominent figures like Ashley Graham or Denise Bidot celebrating their fuller figures in media and online platforms. The notion that one could size above a two and still have a successful modeling career felt alien. Plus-size modeling mirrored everything I had struggled to believe about myself: that my beauty, worth, and eligibility for this profession weren't determined by society's skewed beauty standards. Upon learning Wilhelmina was scouting for plus-size models, I decided to seize the opportunity. I can still recall stepping into their office, where, for the first time, I wasn't asked to shed pounds. My body was deemed perfect as it was. They offered me a contract right away, and I remember rushing back to my mother's car and sobbing uncontrollably. It was incredibly liberating to be accepted and cherished without having to alter anything about myself.

A New Set of Challenges

Throughout my career, I've discovered that even the plus-sized modeling industry has its darker aspects. There's a widespread belief that as a plus-size model, there are no restrictions; that we have the freedom to consume whatever we wish, refrain from exercise, and are unconcerned about our appearance. However, that is far from reality. Body-shaming and unrealistic standards are constant encounters for myself and other plus-size models. The industry still anticipates me to be the 'perfect' size 14 or size 16—meaning possessing the optimal body shape and proportions. This expectation exists even if your body isn't naturally inclined to those sizes. (Refer: Why Body-Shaming Is Such an Enormous Issue and What Actions You Can Take to Counteract It).

While there remains a pervasive societal bias against non-traditional models in mainstream media, the reception I receive as a plus-size model featured in Sports Illustrated often carries undercurrents of prejudice and misunderstanding. Condescending remarks such as "She doesn't look like a model," "How did she land a magazine shoot?" or "If she can be a model, anyone can," are far too common. These comments often arise from the flawed belief that plus-size models lack health and therefore do not deserve to be celebrated for their beauty. Contrary to these misconceptions, I am well-informed about my body and health. My daily exercise routine and generally healthy diet contribute to maintaining my overall health; in fact, my health indicators are stable and even better than when I was a skinny 16-year-old. However, I see no necessity to validate or justify my health to anyone. What my experience in the modeling industry and exposure to negative viewpoints have taught me is that resistance to change is a common human trait. However, it's this very resistance that underscores the need for transformation. The existence of detrimental comments only emphasizes the necessity for women of all sizes and shapes to showcase themselves, ensuring they are seen and appreciated.

Inspiring Women to Continue Fighting for Change

My current profession brings me immense joy. I've been identified as the model with the most curves to be featured in Sport’s Illustrated, which is a milestone I treasure. Every day, women connect with me, expressing their appreciation and empowerment for seeing a representation like mine when they flip open a magazine; a representation that resonates with them.

Even though we've made significant strides, it's still required for platforms such as SI to showcase diverse body types and sizes in their publications to encourage other major brands and publications to do the same. It's disheartening that many barriers still exist for non-straight-size women. For instance, it's not feasible for me to stroll into any store on Fifth Avenue and anticipate finding my size. The majority of popular brands disregard the fact that they're excluding a substantial portion of American consumers who wear a size 16 or larger.

Despite these challenges, we're making steady progress, and women are more vocal than ever. I firmly believe that if we remain persistent in advocating for ourselves, demonstrating our right to be included, we will eventually achieve full acceptance. At the close of each day, everyone simply seeks acceptance, and if I can provide that for someone through my work, then I consider my job well done.

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