Christen Harper says wearing a bikini was her ‘worst fear’ in high school. Now, she's modeling a two-piece in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit.
"I don't want girls to look at the magazine and say, 'Oh, I want to be a model.' I want them to look at that and feel confident to go be something amazing."
It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
You might recognize Christen Harper from her previous appearances in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, the latest which earned her the title of Rookie of the Year in 2022. But modeling swimwear didn't always come naturally.
"I didn't even go to a pool party in high school because I was too worried about what my body looked like. So it's funny now that I'm modeling bikinis all over the world," the model and designer tells Yahoo Life. "Back then it was my worst fear because it was a constant comparison."
It was a dynamic that played out in different areas of Harper's life as she pursued modeling from a young age. She recalls being compared to other girls in the industry since she started working at 9 years old. Although she didn't feel pressure in her jobs, noting that it wasn't her livelihood at the time, the way it affected her life outside of castings became apparent.
"I didn't realize the impact that it had on my body image. But I modeled from about nine to like 14 or 15, and I sized out," Harper explains. "So towards the end, I was dropped by my agency because they told me I didn't fit into the sample size anymore. And that was in those days where you fit into the clothes, they don't fit to you."
She continues, "I remember times on set where they would cut the back of my pants open. The back of my jeans would be just wide open because I couldn't button them. From the front, you know, it looked like the jeans fit. That's so embarrassing."
In hindsight, she recognizes how those experiences taught her to think about her body. "Feeling like my body was the most important thing about me. And the most important thing I could do as a young girl was to fit into a specific size," she recalls.
That became particularly difficult as her body evolved as a teenager alongside her friends.
"I was developing around that time and I was a little curvier than my friends and wasn't the same size as them," she says. "My whole life became about, if I could just lose a little bit of weight, I'll be happy."
That was until she started to see what happiness and true confidence looked like on others who she felt reflected her. Namely, Kate Upton.
"Seeing Kate Upton in Sports Illustrated at that time, when I was in high school, was like life-altering to me because I realized that I can be beautiful. I'd look at her like, she's happy, she's confident," Harper says.
Upton was just 19 when she landed her first cover with the magazine in 2012 and gained international recognition. At the time, she was praised for representing body diversity that wasn't otherwise seen.
"I did start to see women in the media that had bodies that looked like me," Harper says. "But [Upton] really made an impact on me and how I started to view myself."
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit went on to pave the way for more size inclusivity with model Ashley Graham on the 2016 cover. As the publication gained notoriety for pushing the industry forward, Harper set her sights on appearing in it herself one day.
She returned to modeling when she was in college as a way to help pay for school, although that she still didn't have "the best relationship" with her body. "I was still told by agencies that I was too big and I would try to shrink myself down a little bit more to get them to hire me," she explains. "But through time I realized I have so much more to give than just my body. I show up to set and people rehire me because I'm a hard worker, I'm a good energy on set. Those things I started to realize as my magic and my power. And that's something that has nothing to do with my body."
She also now had the proof that finding success was possible by way of women of all shapes and sizes having success elsewhere in modeling. "Comparison is going to always be there. So that's why it's important to see people that look like you. So you can start to realize that you do have a place and you are good enough the way you are," she says.
She pursued Sports Illustrated Swimsuit by participating in the 2021 Swim Search, which scored her a spot in the magazine's pages. "It's a really a full circle moment," she says. Three issues later, it's still her figure that's being displayed in the publication, but she hopes that her experience speaking to the importance of inclusion is what's truly showcased.
"It's such a trickle-down effect for generations and generations. And I just feel like little me would be just so proud to see women that are just fully themselves. It's not about what they look like and how beautiful they are and how perfect they are. It's about seeing women that feel confident in themselves and are happy. And you could see that coming through the pages of these magazines," she says. "I don't want girls to look at the magazine and say, 'Oh, I want to be a model.' I want them to look at that and feel confident to go be something amazing. Go into science, go into anything. It's about helping girls feel that confidence to then walk through life with that confidence."
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.