Ashley Graham: A Body Uprising

Collection Leah's Got Issues

I’m a stand-up comic and contrary to how it may seem, I find it hard sharing certain personal details about myself. On any given night you could come see me perform at a comedy club in New York City and think to yourself, wow, that’s a really personal story she’s telling. (Ask my mom and she would definitely tell you that I divulge too much.) Apparently what I find to be “normal” things to discuss, others might think are private. The flip side to that is I feel very vulnerable about certain topics that many people have no problem discussing.

Here’s one that’s hard for me to admit: the first time I saw Ashley Graham in a TV underwear ad I cried. I cried like a child cries. I’m probably about to cry right now. I think the reason I find it so personal is because on stage, I need to be confident. I want young women to see me and think, I can do that! I can get up there and talk about things I believe in. I can be loud. I can be big. I don’t want to let on to how much of a struggle it was for me to give myself permission to be “too much,” both with my words and with my hips. I’m afraid to be a cliche, sappy or sentimental.

So often we see women talking down to themselves about what they look like. I don’t want to do that. I have noticed that, in my experience, if I make a joke about my body, it makes people stop listening to the words coming out of my mouth. It’s like the audience either feels the need to come over and say “Oh honey, we don’t think you’re fat,”“I love a thick girl,” or they spend the next 10 minutes trying to figure out if I am fat or not. I just don’t want it to be a part of the conversation. That’s not why I’m here. I have also noticed that if I bring up topics surrounding my body, people then feel free to come over and talk about my body, too. And I’m just not interested in that so I don’t open up the floor. I have no jokes about my body in my act anymore. I’ll talk about food addiction but I don’t talk about my figure, positive or negative. I would like to be a woman who has an opinion on things and it’s not about her looks (which seems impossible, but a girl can try).

That being said, Ashley Graham has changed how I see myself. It’s hard for someone like me — someone who loves sci-fi and Ben Franklin and pretends to not care about beauty expectations — to say that. But it is the truth. If you aren’t familiar with Ashley Graham, here’s a brief rundown. She stepped into the limelight in 2010 when ABC and FOX wouldn’t air an underwear ad she was in. (Apparently women over a certain size showing skin are far too racy, but in actuality it got people talking, so maybe those networks actually did us all a favor.) Since that ad ignited a firestorm of controversy, Ashley Graham has been on fire also. She has her own swimsuit line with Swimsuits For All, her own lingerie line, and she’s all over magazines, in a music video with Joe Jonas, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in Lane Bryant’s new campaign and now she’s on “America’s Next Top Model.”

She is really truly changing the way people see beauty because she is changing what we see.

I want to repeat that because I believe it bears repeating: Ashley Graham is changing the way people see beauty because she is changing what we see.

I cried when I saw her on screen wearing underwear because I had never IN MY LIFE seen someone of size reflected back to me in such a positive, confident and unclothed way. I cried again when I saw her runway show at New York Fashion Week because she was out there strutting her beautiful stuff with legs and hips like mine. I didn’t even realize how much it meant to me until that moment. I felt suddenly less abnormal, like “big girl” was no longer an insult. She openly talks about having cellulite and how people told her she would never be more than a catalogue girl. She dismisses the term “plus size” or “real model” because creating a separate category for anything makes someone else feel like the other. She uses the hashtag #BeautyBeyondSize.

It may seem trivial but it is not. What it feels like to finally see someone who is shaped like you represented in an affirmative and alluring light is nothing short of glorious. All of a sudden it makes you feel less “wrong.” It’s freeing. There has been an overwhelming sense that if we don’t look a certain way, then we aren’t allowed to be proud and we should apologize for our bodies. How offensive is that?! I know politically that’s not true but in all honestly it’s been hard for me to convince my inner self of it at certain moments in my life while lying on the bathroom floor. It’s stifling. It’s constricting. I’m so tired of trying to make myself smaller so other people think I’m acceptable. (But the sad part is, it was also so I’d think I was acceptable.)

Big girls do cry. And spend money. Ashley Graham has started an empire: fashion lines, huge online followings, and lectures on body confidence. Women are coming out of the woodwork to buy her brand and other clothing companies are following suit. Money talks. Groups of women who have never seen themselves represented are throwing their wallets down in support. It is my hope that this is only the beginning and we will see more types of women in all shapes, sizes, races and ages represented confidently in magazines, on runways and in film and television (which has been starting to happen).

Ashley Graham is changing how people feel about themselves, which equals changing lives. It’s hard for someone with my sarcasm level to say that. But I genuinely mean it. Ashley Graham made my life better. It’s a bust outbreak, a hip insurgency, a thigh uprising. Rock on with your big bad self!

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