I joined a gym at age 9. Now, as a plus-size role model, I have a message for my younger self

Plus-size model and activist Natalie Hage takes us on her journey of becoming a role model for curvy women nationwide, with the introduction of her original Yahoo series, “Curves Ahead.”

I’ve always been a little … different. I was never a delicate girl. I was born with a big, boisterous laugh, probably a little too much courage, and a body that wasn’t mirrored in anyone else my age. But being plus-size from a very young age has made me who I am today.

When I was 9, my birthday gift was a gym membership.

While everyone else was getting dolls and dress-up clothes, I was receiving (well-intentioned) punishment for looking the way I did. I was the youngest person at the gym and learned that my body was something I needed to apologize for before I even knew what self-esteem was.

I spent my formative teenage years searching for someone like me in the media to look up to, but at the time there were no plus-size “cool career women” or models, or full-figured women on TV who “got the guy” and had a really cool life. The only plus-size bodies I saw were Ursula on The Little Mermaid and Natalie on The Facts of Life. Neither was an accurate, full-bodied representation of what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I figured out at a very young age that if I wanted a plus-size role model, I would need to become her myself.

As a kid fashion was something I dreaded with every fiber of my being. Trying to find clothing that fit my body that was also age or trend appropriate was nearly impossible — by age 13, I was relegated to maternity wear and grown women’s clothing because there simply wasn’t anything for me. But I began challenging myself to wear what no other fat person was wearing — and to be unapologetic about it. The courage I gained through fashion bled into every other aspect of my life: I gained courage to pursue my dreams, courage to help others, and courage to change the world’s very incorrect stereotypes of fat people.

We all have insecurities, whether we’re deemed too fat, too thin, too short, too tall, too this, or too that. There are so many ways to find and flaunt your inner and outer beauty, and it’s my ultimate goal in life to help everyone discover them.

If you had told me five years ago that I would be where I am today — with a large social platform helping hundreds of thousands of people on their journeys to becoming more self-assured, while landing opportunities like modeling for clothing brands and getting to be a correspondent for New York Fashion Week alongside my thin peers — I would have believed you. I always knew I needed to be here; I just didn’t know how until now.

In a shoot for my new Yahoo series, Curves Ahead, which you can watch above, I wore a shirt by @fatgirlflow with ‘fat bi***’ emblazoned on the front. This is a really important term to me. Since age 9, boys and girls used to hurl the insult at me like a bowling ball, knocking me further down an already deep well of self-loathing and shame. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I realized being fat wasn’t the worst thing I could be. On this shirt, those two words take on an entirely different meaning — it’s adorned so cutely and sweetly because we’ve reclaimed the term.

This “fat bi***” is a hard worker, a student, a girlfriend, a dog mom, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a human.

There are millions of people just like me who are on relentless journeys to stop hating themselves because of what they see in the mirror. I spent years doubting myself because, when you’re living by other people’s standards, it feels like the only logical thing to do. Now, if I ever get down during my journey of body positivity, I always try to remember little 9-year-old me. I strive to be everything she always needed, and I won’t fail her now.

It might sound crazy for me to think I can change the world, but like I said, I’ve always been a little … different.

Natalie Hage is a model and body-positivity advocate covering all things curvy for Yahoo Lifestyle. Read her articles for an honest take on navigating the world as a plus-size woman, and follow Hage on Instagram for more.

See Natalie Hage’s adventures at Fashion Week: