In the words of Ashley Graham, “Dream big and get what you want.”
In the final hours of 2016, the supermodel signed off with that very message to her nearly 3 million Instagram followers. There is no better proof of those seven words than Graham herself, particularly after a year packed with milestones that she has spent more than a decade pushing and posing toward.
While the Nebraska native blazed into 2016 with the high honor of a coveted Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover—the first in the magazine’s history for a plus-size model—it would not be the only trailblazing moment for the self-described body activist nor was it the start of an overnight success story.
Instead, the 28-year-old’s sartorial tale began more than a decade earlier after she was discovered in a local mall in her early teens. Already armed with her signature curves, Graham found initial success with plus-size retailers like Torrid and Lane Bryant and suddenly her face and hourglass figure were recognizable to average American consumers who shared her shape.
After all, the size-16 stunner, albeit an anomaly thus far in couture, was one of the few representations in advertising of the average size of women at the time.
Soon, Graham’s body was causing a stir, but as they say, there’s no such thing as bad press. In 2010, she sported a bra and underwear from Lane Bryant’s newly launched lingerie line for a commercial, but ABC and FOX initially did not want to air the spot during its night shows, claiming it was too racy for early evening hours. The brand shot back, claiming Victoria’s Secret had not run into any such problems when its scantily clad ads were aired at similar times.
The networks initially requested Lane Bryant make edits to the spot and, upon the brand’s refusal, eventually agreed to show the commercial after “family hour.” Meanwhile, Graham’s bold approach to body inclusivity was already in full force as she sounded off to the press, from Jay Leno‘s late-night couch to the morning news women her size were watching at home.
“I know there’s plenty of women my size watching American Idol, watching Dancing with the Stars who would love to see what they look like on the television screen. And I feel bad for the plus-women out there who can’t see that,” the then-22 year old said on The Early Show. “Victoria’s Secret commercials are airing all throughout the day, but when it comes to a Lane Bryant commercial, we have a little bit of extra, you know, overflowing, and then everybody freaks out.”
Evidently, the fashion industry and society alike were still years away from embracing fuller figures equally, but Graham was well prepared for the resistance thanks to her encouraging mother.
“My mom really instilled in me, ‘Ok, you’re a big girl—who cares?” Graham recalled during an interview on The Talk. “Embrace your curves. Embrace your thick thighs.” It was a mantra she would deliver to anyone who would listen.
Graham proudly flaunted those thighs as she rose in the modeling ranks, acquiring additional campaigns with the likes of high fashion plus brand Marina Rinaldi and international fast fashion retailer, Forever 21. Young or mature, size 4 or size 14, women from all walks of life were shopping with Graham’s figure in front of them.
Then, she made history in a black string bikini. When the 2015 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue hit newsstands, there was one other woman people were talking about besides the year’s cover girl, Hannah Davis. In a two page ad for swimwear brand, Swimsuits for All, there was Graham—her thighs touching in all their glory as a gawking man behind the knockout rubbernecked his way into a pool.
Ultimately, the spread was still an advertisement and Graham was not officially a member of the magazine’s elite roster. The hard truth ignited yet another national conversation about the tumultuous relationship between size and style, particularly at a time when the fashion industry was failing to recognize an integral portion of its customers.
Graham saw the silver lining. “I’m in Sports Illustrated. That’s all I needed,” she said during an interview on The View at the time. “I’ll be on the cover next season.”
While her words sounded solely like a public affirmation at the time, a mere 12 months later, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit finally put Graham, a plus-size model, on its front page.
“This cover is for every woman who felt like she wasn’t beautiful enough because of her size,” Graham wrote to her fans on Instagram. “You can do and achieve anything you put your mind to.”
It wouldn’t be her only cover for 2016. In the months that followed, Graham’s face was emblazoned on the fronts of Maxim, Cosmopolitan and Self to name a few. Meanwhile, she was continuing to lead the plus-size front with a string of empowering Lane Bryant campaigns, including the #ImNoAngel, #PlusIsEqual and #ThisBody slogans.
The visibility was more than welcome. “I’m giving curvy women a seat at a table that we’ve never been invited to before —a table with high-end fashion people who have never considered us beautiful,” she told Cosmopolitan.
Ever the savvy businesswoman, Graham used her newfound momentum to make her body equality platform a front and center subject. If the industry was going to be slow to the punch, at least she could help move things along her way.
Fernando Leon/Getty Images
She focused on two areas of the industry that plus-sizes were typically shut out of the most—bras and bikinis. Graham rolled out her first line of swimwear for Swimsuits for All in 2016, which featured the same string sets and cutout bodysuits typically only available to the 00-8 size camp.
A year prior, she strutted her own lingerie designs for Canadian retailer Addition Elle down the runway at New York Fashion Week, deeming the collection “size sexy.” The following fall, she did it again and simultaneously demanded more visible change.
“Its not about talk about anymore, it’s about action,” she told reporters backstage at the second show. “It’s a time in the industry when people are given the opportunity to make change, and we’re really seeing who is actually doing it and who’s not.”
DNCE was doing it. While Graham had quickly become the industry’s hourglass It Girl, she broke a major barrier on another front when she was cast as the love interest in the band’s music video for “Toothbrush.”
“I knew that putting me in the music video was going to get some buzz, but I had no idea the buzz it was really going to bring,” she told E! News. “I applaud DNCE for making that statement that love comes in all shapes and sizes and I think it’s really important to talk about. I think it’s important to showcase what a real relationship might look like on camera.”
The fruits of all her labor culminated just in time for the new year when Graham broke through a career threshold and landed her first Vogue cover for the January British issue. In the words of the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Shulman, “It seems strange to me that while the rest of the world is desperate for fashion to embrace broader definitions of physical beauty, some of our most famous fashion brands appear to be travelling in the opposite— and, in my opinion, unwise—direction.”
Finally, one of the most revered names in fashion was jumping on the bandwagon in a very visible way and was not mincing words in the process.
Of course, there were naysayers who weren’t mincing their words, either. When Graham landed the cover of SI, modeling icon Cheryl Tiegs told E! News she didn’t think the cover was healthy. “I don’t like that we’re talking about full-figured women because it’s glamorizing them because your waist should be smaller than 35 [inches],” she sounded off. “That’s what Dr. Oz said, and I’m sticking to it.” Tiegs later issued an apology for the remarks.
Shulman also acknowledged that, while British Vogue welcomed Graham with open arms, designers enlisted to dress her for the shoot didn’t want the job. “Sadly there were other houses that flatly refused to lend us their clothes,” she revealed in her Editor’s Letter.
After coming under fire for appearing to shed weight over the summer, Graham took her critics to task and used the backlash as an example of the very behavior she has spent her entire career fighting to end.
“To some I’m too curvy. To others I’m too tall, too busty, too loud, and, now, too small — too much, but at the same time not enough,” she wrote in Lena Dunham‘s Lenny Letter. “I refuse to let others dictate how I live my life and what my body should look like for their own comfort. And neither should you…My body is MY body. I’ll call the shots.”
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Glamour
By the close of 2016, Graham was calling the shots for a handful of modeling hopefuls as a judge on the rebooted America’s Next Top Model, where she could show industry newcomers how to use their differences to get to the top just as she had done.
“I believe I’m living proof that there is no one standard of beauty anymore,” she said on the show. “I don’t even really remember how many magazine covers I’ve been on now.”
2016 held yet another first for the star—her very own Barbie. Mattel unveiled the Ashley Graham doll in November as a part of its “Sheroes” collection and, per her request, the doll’s thighs touched. After more than a decade of championing on behalf of fuller figures, Graham now had a doll who could do all the talking for her.
“Now I’m not striving to be Barbie—I am Barbie,” she said during the Glamour Women Of The Year 2016 LIVE Summit. “Everyone can be Barbie.”
Before the beauty could ring in 2017, she had to accept one final title as one of Glamour‘s Women of the Year. He remarks were not only the pièce de résistance of the last 12 months, but of the last 16 years.
“Never before have I seen such size diversity in fashion, in film, on buses, on covers of magazines,” Graham said during her acceptance speech.
“This isn’t just for me. This is for the girl who got into a bikini for the first time this year, the mother who just had a child and she’s embracing her stretch marks on her stomach, for that girl who said, ‘No I’m actually not going to lose weight for you, boyfriend,’ and for the woman who can actually look in the mirror and say ‘I love you’ and mean it. It’s for those girls.”