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History-making, ground-breaking, trailblazing, body-positive, shocking.

These are a few of the words and phrases being used to describe this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. The brand revealed not one but three cover girls, including Ashley Graham—a curvy Size 16 model—along with UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and high-fashion model Hailey Clauson.

For the first time in 52 years, and annual swimsuit issue features three women with three very different body types.

The controversial, unprecedented move has generated a lot of buzz and stirred up body image conversations in a big way. Some say this year’s SI Swimsuit issue will inspire more women to love and accept their uniquely different bodies, while others say Ashley’s body type has no business being in the popular men’s magazine.

There are so many varying opinions about what’s hot, sexy, healthy and acceptable when it comes to body image. Working as a curve model myself alongside models like Ashley, I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of judgment and confusion about what exactly a “plus-size” model is. I think the biggest debate is, “Are plus-size models and women size 12 and larger healthy?”

Here’s what I know for sure:

1. Healthy looks and feels different on different people.

Plus-size models range in size from a 6 to 18. When I was a size 14, I booked a lot of modeling jobs, but I didn’t feel good about myself, because my body naturally is a size 8/10. So for me, being a size 14 is not healthy. However, I have friends who are size 14, who exercise, eat healthy, maintain a healthy BMI and have bodies that are naturally meant to be that size.

To look at Ashley Graham and assume she is out of shape, never works out and eats pizza and fries everyday because she is a size 16 isn’t a fair assessment. Only Ashley knows what’s best for her, just as only you know what’s healthy for you. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to body types. You have to own and honor your own specific body type, and make healthy decisions that are best for you.

2. I am not everyone’s ideal standard of beauty, and I am ok with that.

I’ve learned (through a lot of tears, weight fluctuations, losing clients and not feeling good enough), that I can choose to be MY OWN standard of beauty.

3. I am so much more than what I look like.

Being physically beautiful isn’t the most important thing to aspire to. Seeing a woman in a bikini, regardless of her size, is never going to empower me.

Cultivating characteristics like kindness, compassion, a sense of humor and intelligence is always drop-dead gorgeous sexy to me.

Women who encourage, support and lift-up others are empowering to me.
This notion that a size 16 woman on the cover of a mainstream magazine in her swimsuit is supposed to make all of us who are not a size 2 feel good about ourselves is extremely misleading. The message being sent is that a woman’s value is based on what she looks like in a swimsuit. It’s completely missing the point of what self love and a healthy body image is all about because size 16 is not a healthy size for many women, and we are certainly more valuable than our bathing suit size and appearance.

4. What people say about me has more to do with them than me.

Whether you think Ashely looks incredibly stunning and healthy or overweight and unappealing says more about how you feel about your own body than Ashley. One thing’s for sure, she is an extremely confident woman to put herself out there and own and embrace her unique shape and image. That’s so sexy to me!

5. Learn to love, honor and validate yourself. You’re worth it.

It doesn’t matter who SI or anyone else puts on the cover of their magazines. Nobody can validate you or determine your worth except you. I think it’s great some brands are choosing to promote body diversity, but ultimately, it is up to each of us love ourselves rather than wishing or waiting for someone else to do it for us. I’m finding that when I am confident in my own skin, just as I am, others are naturally drawn to me as well.

6. Listen to your inner voice, not society.

Society tells me I am too old and too big to work as a model. I smile every time I cash a modeling check. Advertisers show me ways I don’t measure up to some pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic standard of beauty everyday. I choose not to subscribe to those messages. I pray, meditate and tune in to my own inner wisdom for strength and guidance.

7. The next time you start to criticize your body, stop and think of everything it does for you, and say thank you.

Sure, I have been guilty of comparing myself and my body to other (much thinner) models on set, especially when shooting swimsuits and lingerie. I used to criticize my thick thighs and wonder why I could never attain those beautiful washboard abs. Then I realized what a waste of time that was. I have so many positive messages to spread, people in need to serve and more important things to create. And my body, my strong, beautiful body is the vehicle through which all great things are possible. I choose to love and honor it each and every day.

Check out my interview on this hot topic on CBS News.

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