Hunter McGrady has a mission—several, actually. She wants, among other things, a retail industry that caters to shoppers beyond the size-two, white, and cisgendered. She wants a social media platform that feels genuinely social, rather than a space to boast the most filtered and fictionalized versions of ourselves. She’d like to see us ban the phrase “real women,” and reclaim “body positivity” from those who use it as a marketing tool. And she’d really like it if everyone finally went to therapy.
At 23, McGrady hit the scene hard when she appeared in Sports Illustrated’s 2017 Swimsuit Issue wearing a “suit” made of nothing but body paint. At six-feet tall and a stunning size 16/18, she was both a perfect fit and a bold move for the outlet. Her arrival underscored a sea-change even within the world of plus-size modeling: No longer did a plus-size model need the airbrushed hourglass shape of a slightly more buxom straight-size model. Now, she might have visible thigh dimples, stretch marks, and curves all over instead of just in the “right” places. And she might have a mouth on her, too.
Nearly three years later, both McGrady and her platform have grown tremendously. She’s newly married, and recently appeared in her third Swimsuit Issue for Sports Illustrated, where she’s become a familiar face. She also remains one of the most vocal and visible women in the plus-size modeling industry: She’s open about her own struggle for self-acceptance, while urging the rest of the world to confront their own biases. Our bodies are not the issue, “it’s how we think about them,” she insists. “Half the battle—more than half—is in your head.”
First things first: Congratulations on your very recent wedding!
I know! Three weeks ago! Thank you so much. It’s been a whirlwind.
You’ve been pretty open about your experience with the wedding-dress industry. People assumed you were trying to lose weight or wanted to look as thin as possible. Looking back, what’s your take on all that?
I’m really against the concept of “shedding for the wedding.” I think it’s just complete and utter bullshit. It’s something society has projected onto us, trying to make us believe we have to look a certain way for our wedding. And I’m like, that’s not the way your significant other asked you to marry them! It doesn’t add up. I get wanting to feel your best, but I know a lot of women who drag themselves through major diets, and it just makes the whole wedding process not fun. I wanted it to be memorable. I wanted to enjoy it! And after all, this is about the communion that my husband and I made together, in front of our people, and the love we vowed to each other. It’s not about how thin I am, or how I look at all. I don’t think anyone’s even thinking about that. They’re thinking about the couple.
Amen. But I know it took you a long time and a lot of work to come around to self-acceptance—and it wasn’t an easy ride.
When I started out in this industry as a teenager, I was what they call a straight-size model. I was six-feet tall and had gotten myself down to a size two. But even that small, I was still being told to lose weight. I was 18 years old, and I realized there was no way I’d be able to attain the body they wanted me to have. So I told myself, if that’s the deal, then I guess this is it for me: This is just going to be a dream that died.
So what did you do?
I quit. I let go of the modeling dream. And, at the same time, I started letting go of that idea of what beauty was in my head. That was wonderful, because I no longer had to strive to make my body be something it wasn’t. I could just let it be its natural shape, and be myself! I was so much happier and more carefree. All of a sudden I was enjoying life. I really needed that time out for a few years, to learn about my body, and to learn how to love it and care for it, as well as my mental health.
That’s an incredible mental transformation. It’s amazing that you were able to do all that at 18, which is such a vulnerable time in any person’s life.
Totally. You’re still a sponge at that age. Therapy had a lot to do with it. I think everyone should try therapy, whether or not they think they have an issue. It’s so powerful, just the act of talking to someone and getting an outside, unbiased outlook from a professional who does this day in an day out—someone who will tell you, “This isn’t weird. This isn’t anything I haven’t seen before.” For me, after so many years of thinking I had to eat a certain way, to workout a certain number of hours a day in order to be thin, to just reverse that? It was a lot. It took work to let go of those ideas in my head. Therapy, my faith, and my family are what got me through those years—and then suddenly it was like my dream arose from the dead. Because of plus-size modeling.
Had that not occurred to you before, or seemed like an option?
No! Growing up, I had never even heard of plus-size modeling. I’d never seen a plus-size person in a magazine, on TV—nowhere. So at first I was like, “Wait, what are you calling me?” I didn’t like being labeled that way. Now I’m like, hell yeah I’m a plus-size model! You better believe it! But then I started actually seeing plus models who were out there changing the game. There were these new faces and voices coming into the industry saying, “This has got to change. We need to see diversity.” So my own thinking began to shift too.
You were doing all this at a time when the concept of body positivity was just beginning to hit the mainstream. And, years later, there are still so many people who don’t get it. What’s your take on body positivity now?
I have a love-hate relationship with that term. I love it for what it stands for. I hate it because it’s so often used in the wrong way. The fact is, body positivity is for everybody, whether you’re a size two or 32, whatever your race or gender. But it’s often misapplied in a way that actually segregates us, and makes it seem like body positivity only applies to certain people in certain bodies. And then brands use it because they know this concept sells. You’ll see a lot of companies these days claiming they’re body positive and inclusive, and yet they only go up to a certain size and they never actually showcase any diversity.
Yes. I think that often gets lost in the conversation is that, while self-acceptance is hugely important for everyone, there is also such a thing as size bias.
Yes, absolutely. So I hate seeing body positivity used as a hot topic or as a way to make money. For a lot of people, this is everyday life. This is what we live and breathe, and what we fight for. It’s not just a way to drive sales.
As you point out, we’ve made progress, but still have a long way to go in terms of truly diverse representation. What next steps would you like to see from your own industry?
Um, I would like to be able to shop? [Laughs] I mean, it’s so simple that it sounds funny! But it’s like, if I have any downtime in Manhattan, I’d like to go window shopping or browse at stores like most people do. But I can’t! No one carries my size! Clothing retailers have yet to rise to the occasion—of course, with the exception of some incredible designers who get it. But for the most part, retail is still stuck in its old ways and brands don’t see the need to carry plus sizes. But this is a $20 billion—with a B!—dollar business. The demand is way greater than the supply. So what are you going to do about that? Don’t you want to make money?
I know, it’s crazy!
Right?! I also think it’s important for the brands that do carry these sizes to actually show them. If you go up to a 32, use a size 32 model. Because people want to be recognized. I always think of this quote from an interview Oprah did with Diane Sawyer probably 15 years ago. Diane Sawyer said something like, “You’ve interviewed everyone from sheiks to celebrities to refugees. What’s one thing they have in common?” Oprah said the one common denominator is that people want to be heard. And that is still so true. We all want to be heard and seen. That’s why it’s so important to showcase all different body shapes, races, and genders. And it’s important to be thoughtful about it. Don’t just throw diversity in there because we told you to. Believe in it. That, I think, is the hardest part: changing people’s mindsets. As humans, we’re predisposed to run away from change. We don’t like it. We don’t want our feathers ruffled and we don’t want our world to look different. But if we want a better, more positive world, then we need to embrace change.
So do you think that’s the key to changing hearts and minds, then? Just keep ruffling feathers until no one’s bothered anymore?
Yeah! You have to! You have to scream louder, even though people are trying to quiet you.
I hear you. But at the same time, it means dealing with a lot of hateful, bigoted commentary which, as a public figure, you have to confront more than most. You tend to take the high road, saying you pray for them, and pointing out that hurting people hurt people. But do you ever just feel like saying, “Oh, fuck off?”
Totally! I’m only human, and there are definitely moments where all I can think is, “What a piece of shit. What a miserable prick.” I just don’t say it because that’s exactly what they want me to do. It’s really frustrating when you’re constantly fighting so hard for something and change is only happening little by little. But these are issues people have been dealing with for so many years. I mean, look at the #MeToo movement. It’s the same thing. These battles have been a long time coming. It’s frustrating, but it’s also such a powerful time right now. We have the power to speak out and to make things happen.
And you certainly are. You’re often touted as a role model and an important voice in your industry — and yet, you’re also fairly young, and that can be a lot of pressure. How do you navigate that?
It’s interesting, because on the one hand I tell myself, “Hunter, you’re a role model. You have to present yourself positively.” But on the other hand, I want to be as real as possible. For me, being a role model means being authentic. It means that if I have a bad day, I share that. I want to be honest with people that follow me—I hate saying the word ‘fans’ because they’re my equals. At the end of the day, none of us are curing cancer. It’s fashion, you know what I mean? I want to make sure people really feel they can connect with me. So I try to show people that, look, I’m a Sports Illustrated model, but you better believe I’ve got dimples for days, girl. I’ve got stretch marks covering my stomach. I’ve got acne scars. I’ve got all this shit going on, and I’m in the magazines too.