Upon meeting model Hunter McGrady, you instantly feel her warm, kind spirit and infectious smile. It’s no wonder she has been able to champion so many women around the globe to embrace their curves, stretch marks, and cellulite. At just 25 years old, she is already a seasoned Sports Illustrated model and fashion designer, and she’s also a newly engaged woman. McGrady is on a mission to change perceptions of what it means to be beautiful.
McGrady is part of a growing number of curvy models who are making a big splash in the swimwear space, alongside household names like Ashley Graham and Tabria Majors. Recently, McGrady joined Christie Brinkley and Kate Upton in Miami to help with Sports Illustrated‘s model casting call during Miami Swim Week at the Paraiso Fashion Fair. The casting resulted in a spectacular, diverse runway show featuring women of all body types, including Paralympian Brenna Huckaby and a model who breastfed her baby on the catwalk.
These moments are monumental for the body-positive movement, and McGrady says they allow women to think, “‘OK, I am beautiful as I am, and I am worthy, and I am enough,’ and I think that’s so powerful.”
But as a plus-size model, it’s equally important to work with the right partners who champion diversity and inclusion, like Paraiso Fashion Fair and Sports Illustrated. “Paraiso and its partners are committed to empowering people to feel good about themselves no matter what color, shape, size, background, height, sexual orientation they are,” Sam Ben-Avraham, Paraiso Fashion Fair’s founder, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We used our stage to make the statement about who we are, how we see the world, and to scream to the world that we are living in times of inclusivity.”
“This year’s representation of models in the Paraiso fashion show was a continuation of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit [issue] messaging that diversity in beauty is very real and very important to represent,” MJ Day, editor in chief of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s something that we believe in passionately, and where better to celebrate that than on the runway in swimwear, where it makes so much sense to our brand!”
But beyond a few supportive brands and partners, there needs to be more significant changes in the societal mindset of what constitutes beauty, McGrady says. “I think that we need to continue growing still. … You know, we’ve always been told as plus-size women that we can’t wear certain things or we can’t show our skin, [but] I’m the first person on the beach in a little tiny string bikini,” she says.
McGrady’s level of body-confidence and positivity appears to be second-nature at this point, but her road to self-love didn’t happen overnight. She began her career modeling at 16 years old as a “straight size model,” she says, a size 2 and 6 feet tall. One day, her whole world changed. “I got turned away from one of my jobs for being too big. And so I … took four years off to really just grow into my body, eat healthy, [and] nourish myself because I was so unhappy before. And during that time, I really learned to honestly and truthfully tell myself positive affirmations because our mind is so important and it’s so powerful.”
These positive affirmations were central to McGrady’s success in achieving self-love. She says she would look in the mirror and say, “‘Hunter, you are loved. You are worthy. You are powerful. You are beautiful. You are heard’”
But not every day is easy. “I still wake up … when I don’t want to go get out of bed. I don’t want to do anything.” According to McGrady, on those days, the most important thing you can do is “renew your mind and really make it part of your thought process.”
After taking a few years off, McGrady returned to modeling at 19 years old as a plus-size model, signing with the agency Wilhelmina Models on the spot. Since then, McGrady has landed covers for Sports Illustrated and a campaign for Icelandic Glacial, and even launched her own plus-size bathing suit line. McGrady is proud of her body and all of its “flaws.” “The thighs that I once was so nervous about and that touched, they’ve traveled me around the world,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The stretch marks that I have signifies growth.”
Earlier this year, McGrady posed nude for Sports Illustrated, covered in positive words of affirmation like “worthy,” “confidence,” and “fearless.” Some were critical of the photo shoot in light of the recent #MeToo movement, but for McGrady, the story signified something much bigger. “Women are to be respected whether they’re naked or if they’re fully clothed. … And that is, I think, the most feminist thing you can say.” She adds, “I never posed nude because I wanted anything more than to make women feel good about themselves and feel empowered because I felt empowered. And I felt sexy. I feel more comfortable naked than I do with clothes on. And I deserve the same respect … as anyone else.”
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle: