A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty, & Power Really Look Like
By Ashley Graham
Dey Street Books, An Imprint of William Morrow
Ashley Graham has become a leading supermodel and designer, and has made her mark as a body activist and a voice for the body positivity movement.
In this memoir, Graham gives incredible insight into the modeling industry and what it took to get where she is today, with many funny anecdotes that let the reader have a real sense of who she is.
Graham, 29, was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and was discovered in a mall at the age of 12. Her natural beauty and electric personality led her to signing with an international modeling agency at the age of 13. She has done work in many areas of the fashion industry, including editorial, catalogue, runway, commercial, television, and film.
In looking at her rise, Graham poses her own question in thinking of her career and when giving advice to new models.
Graham writes, “‘Let me ask you this: Do you want to become a model because it’s going to make you feel pretty, earn a lot of money, or become famous?’ And here comes the hard truth. ‘Because, if so, none of that is going to happen.’
“I know that must seem like a real load of BS coming from me, or even cruel. I’ve been lucky, because becoming a model has given me all those things and more than I’ve ever imagined. But fame, in my case and in pretty much all cases, is pure luck (not to mention a ton of hard work). It just is. If there were a formula to it, a lot more people would be famous. Most models who work consistently do so in complete obscurity, like any other job. It is a select few who become household names in the modeling world. A very select few.
“And the money thing? You can definitely make a lot of money – if you’re the ‘it’ girl, which is as rare as making it as an actress or pop musician. (if you are the ‘it’ girl, you’d better know how to invest your money, because you won’t be the ‘it’ girl for long – more on that later.) The rates for magazine work and fashion shows are much less than people imagine, and a lot of a model’s time is taken up not with paying jobs but with going from casting to casting, where the competition is so fierce that she’s much more likely to be rejected than hired.
“Last up: the pretty thing. No matter how many hairstylists, makeup artists, fashion stylists, and Photoshop experts you employ, being a model makes you feel seriously ugly. Because your appearance is your profession, it’s also fair game for criticism. When you’re a model, people pick apart and manipulate every single aspect of your exterior. No part of you is off limits.”
Graham’s first brush with fame came in 2010 when she was featured in a Lane Bryant ad that was banned on television because it was deemed too risque.
On that experience, Graham writes, “I was in Texas in the spring of 2010, on my way to do a catalog shoot for JCPenney, when I received this text from my friend: ‘Your boobs are all over page two of The New York Post.’
“‘What???’ I texted back immediately. He replied with a picture of me in the red, lacy bra I had worn for the recent Lane Bryant commercial, with a headline proclaiming, ‘Banned-ad model: ABC is a big bust.’
“Filming my national commercial had been one of the highlights of my career. In the clip, I am trying on a bunch of frilly bra and panty sets and frolicking in a gorgeous mansion until I get a reminder on my phone to ‘meet Dan for lunch.’ So, like any girl would, I slip a trench coat over my red bra and panties and, with nothing more on, head out for ‘lunch.’ I’m no Meryl Streep, but I had so much fun acting in that commercial.
“The ad, though, had been banned from running during prime time viewing hours by both ABC and FOX, which is why the Post had done a story in which I was quoted saying, ‘I was very surprised [ABC] can’t handle bigger on TV, bigger boobs on a normal-sized woman on TV.’
“The networks had a different story. The reason they provided for banning the ad was that the commercial was too risque. Sure, it was full of innuendo (ahem, ‘lunch’), but within the context of television’s contemporary landscape, my Lane Bryant spot was pretty harmless, if not kinda cute. So what was really going on here? What were those networks really reacting to? The ‘girls.’ (aka my boobs).
“Nobody ever told me this directly, but it became obvious to me in the minds of network executives, a size 16-18 woman in lingerie was just too much to show during family hour. As I told the Post, Victoria’s Secret had ads featuring its angels in much skimpier lingerie and in much more compromising positions all over prime time, so it was my shape that made me overtly ‘sexual.’ Nobody told me this was true; I was just going off my own experience as a woman. When I went through puberty and got curves, I immediately attracted male attention. And the bigger the curves got, the more attention I got.”
In February 2015, Graham starred in #CurvesinBikinis, a campaign with swimsuitsforall that made her the first size 14 model to appear in an ad in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit edition.
The following year, she was selected as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Rookie and also landed one of three covers for the magazine.
That was one of the many things that made 2016 the year that Graham became a star. In January, Graham was named to Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” list, in November, Glamour named her “Woman of the Year,” Mattel created a one-of-a-kind Barbie in her likeness, and in December, People Magazine named her one of the “25 Most Intriguing People of the Year.”
As a role model and body activist, Graham is invited to speak at national conferences, high schools and girls’ groups about body image, self-acceptance, and female empowerment. Her first TEDx talk “Plus size? More Like My Size” was given at TEDxBerleeValencia in April 2015.
Graham writes of her activism, “This is the generation of body diversity. We are sick of being told by society, by the fashion industry, by Hollywood, that we are too thin, too fat, too flabby, too tall, too small. Being a woman in the United States now almost definitely means hating at least part of your body, if not all of it. As a woman unafraid of celebrating my thick thighs in public, I’ve made it my goal to help others embrace, even love themselves, stretch marks and all.
“My evolution into an activist for self-love was a gradual process. I trace the very beginnings of it to the start of my career, when I was surprised at how insecure most models acted. Big or small, it didn’t matter. I noticed that so many of these women complained about their cellulite popping out of their arms or their arms looking big. It was honestly no different than when the tiny, popular cheerleaders at my high school complained, ‘I’m so fat today.’ Although it’s so commonplace for women to put themselves down, it’s also really uncomfortable to be around. If you hear it enough, you start to believe the things that person if telling herself – and even apply it to yourself.
“But when we models put down our physical appearance, it’s especially sad because we are being paid to look good. If you are cast in a shoot, the theory is that you are the most beautiful woman for this job. So why would you feel any other way about yourself? I’ve seen it over and over on set, and it’s always ugly to watch. I wanted to be appealing – the girl you can trust and really talk to – so I vowed to myself early on that I would not belittle myself, no matter what anyone else said to me or how I feel about myself, privately.
“I don’t know if it’s the reason for my career success (I’m sure it’s a part of it), but I’ve achieved more than anyone ever thought possible for a plus-size model. I have appeared on many magazine covers (like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue) despite being told I’d never be a cover girl, landed campaigns for major retailers like Levi’s and Sephora, and even walked in a fashion show for H&M in Paris. All of that has helped me push against the status quo for beauty within the fashion industry.”
Graham is seeing the effects of her body positivity movement on the evolving fashion industry, and has used social media to her advantage. She writes of progress made:
“I believe fashion should be aspirational. Seeing a gorgeous plus-size model wearing a holiday dress in a catalog can inspire you to glam yourself up or give you new ideas on your style.But there’s also a place for reality. I’m talking about the size-22 woman, or the girl who’s five-one with very small breasts and a large stomach. When they all started coming out and posting #beautybeyondize, it was a way for women to see themselves through other women’s eyes (as opposed to the eyes of marketers and editors). The Instagram page under that hashtag has become a safe place where you can find a woman who looks like you as well as confident and gorgeous role models who aren’t famous.
“The community that has risen up around that hashtag is nothing short of inspirational. Each of the 136,611 posts (as of March 2017) brings something amazingly unique to the conversation. I urge you to go and see, and if you are inspired, post for yourself.
“Heck, there is a paparazzi picture of me wearing a see-through, body-clinging polka-dot dress that shows my every ripple, curve, and crease.
“Social media is just a jumping-off point. I want my voice to be louder than a picture of my cellulite on Twitter with a caption that reads, ‘Love who you are.’ I’m in a position now – thanks to the hundreds of thousands of women who have put me there – to speak to my industry and demand better treatment for those of us who have hated our bodies because we weren’t properly represented. I am standing up to demand that we feel better about ourselves.
“In this revolution, the quiet moments are just as powerful as the loud ones. My mom received a letter from a student at the high school where she works in Nebraska. In the letter, the senior detailed how she was always the big girl and never wore jeans because she always felt fat. Because of her size, she also never felt as good as her friends. Then, on Instagram, she came across a plus-size model in her underwear and the image was life changing. To see someone really, truly big wearing gorgeous lingerie with pleasure, out on social media for the world to see, well…
“The senior know who I was even before she realized my mom worked at the school. When she found out, though, she wrote a heartfelt, eloquent letter to my mom, where she said, ‘Thank you for raising Ashley.’ When I came home to visit, my mom arranged for the three of us to have coffee, and we talked about all the stuff you’d imagine we would. What was remarkable about that afternoon was to witness my mother as she heard this conversation. She had never had this experience before.
“‘When I’m with you, I see the difference you’re making in people’s lives,’ my mom told me. ‘And it’s not just because you’re pretty; it’s because you are making other people feel okay with who they are. That’s what’s important. Beauty doesn’t last, but how you made those people feel will.
“‘I did something right,’ she told me.
“To hear those words from my mother was more meaningful than any award ever could be.”
Ashley Graham’s “A New Model” is a meaningful, important work that is a great addition to any bookshelf.