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.
Natalie Noel quickly became known as the internet's favorite girl next door as people fell in love with her for being the assistant and best friend to well-known YouTuber David Dobrik. But even as Noel has grown a social media presence of her own, she stays true to herself by showing up authentically and embracing those that praise her for being "normal" — even when it comes to her latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit debut.
When 24-year-old announced on Instagram that she was one of the 2021 rookies for the famous magazine, her 3.8 million followers couldn't wait to see what she had in store. Among a diverse cast of beautiful women who flooded the pages, Noel was called "relatable," something that she finds flattering.
"I think it's really cool," Noel tells Yahoo Life. "In the modeling fashion world, you see a lot of really skinny and you see a lot of plus-size [models], and being able to be that middle norm, which is such a large amount of the population, I think that's so cool. So when people say 'You have the normal body,' I love that. Like I love that I represent body normalcy."
Although Noel didn't seek out to become a fashion influencer or a role model for body positivity, it makes sense that she's fallen into that position as mid-size fashion begins to gain traction on social media. For her, and the majority of women who fall into this in-between of straight and plus sizes, it's carved out a space dedicated to those who felt that they haven't fit into a specific category prior.
"I think it's weird that there isn't more body normalcy in fashion. Like why is it two extremes?" she says. "Fashion is super important just because I feel like it's your first interpretation of who I am when you first meet me. You see what I'm wearing and either I'm in my sweatpants, my pajamas and that's one side of Natalie or I'm like full glammed out in a really cute, sexy outfit, and that's the other side of Natalie."
But the influencer's versatility goes far beyond what she wears. In fact, she explains that she's gained a better understanding of her body and her self-confidence by allowing herself to explore different interests throughout her life. She even credits her athleticism for being so secure in her body image.
"I played soccer growing up, so I always had an athletic body shape, which is just a little bit bigger, a little more muscular, you know. But I've always been on a team and I've always been surrounded by family and friends that have always supported me. And I mean, that's the biggest thing in everything is having people around you that are positive and support you," she says. "It makes everything so much easier to get through no matter the situation. Especially with my body, I always had my parents telling me 'You're beautiful. You're great. You can do whatever you want.' If I didn't have that. I would definitely not be here today. "
She also had role models that demonstrated the importance of a powerful body, separate from physical appearance.
"I always watched the women's soccer teams, so that was kind of my standard. I think Alex Morgan is the most beautiful. She has the most perfect body and it's super strong and you can see she's a superior athlete," Noel says, noting that sports helped her to trust that she was the authority of her own figure. "I know my body better than anybody. Nobody can tell me if my body is fit enough or looks the best because I know it better than anybody."
Still, stepping into the arena of social media proved to be difficult for Noel who felt she was "fully consumed" by the images and highlight reels of so many other people's lives. Building a platform herself pushed her to realize that confidence cannot come in the form of instant gratification from others, but instead from within.
"You have to learn that you are you and there are millions, billions of people on this planet that are beautiful and skinny and all those things, but you can't compare yourself to other people," she says. "You have to just be yourself and you have to love yourself and know yourself. That's where the confidence comes from."
It's that confidence that landed Noel a spot in the 2021 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit and on the runway during Miami Swim Week — although the opportunity also challenged her.
"I've definitely struggled with my body just as much as any other woman, especially during this time where it's put on full display," she says. "As much as there has been like constant positivity and I've gotten so, so much positive feedback from this whole experience from the team and from friends and family and other supporters online, that also comes with a large amount of negative feedback. People tell me that you don't deserve to be in the magazine or you're not like the other model...whatever negative stuff they say, but you just have to persevere."
Overall, Noel says that her inclusion in the magazine has been the most "empowering" experience of her life.
"It's incredible that I was even chosen to be a part of this and I feel that way every day," she says. "I think that I represent a population of women that are just like your average girl and I don't think that I'm superior to anybody. I feel like that's what so many people relate to. And that's exciting to me. It's just cool that people can be like, 'I look like you, I have the same body as you, I have the same hair.' Whatever it is that they can relate to, they can say that about me and I can make them feel represented."