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Plus-size Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Robyn Lawley: ‘Being strong is always more important than being skinny’

Robyn Lawley may be known as the first plus-size model to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, a former face of Ralph Lauren, and a Vogue Italia cover girl, but her start in the modeling industry was anything but smooth.

Lawley started modeling when she was 16, at which point the native Australian tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she “was advised to drop a ton of weight and change my thighs. I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall, and wide in general — I can’t shrink my bones. So I didn’t do very well.”

Robyn Lawley walks the runway during the Hammock 2017 Collection at SwimMiami — Backstage at W South Beach, July 15, 2016, in Miami Beach. (Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Hammock)

She recalls traveling for a solid year in an attempt to book modeling work — and failing “miserably.” When she returned to Australia after her year of striking out, she says, she was still regularly stopped on the street by strangers who insisted that she go into modeling.

“I would say, ‘No, I can’t — I can’t make the measurement standards,’” Lawley recalls.

And then one agent suggested that Lawley go in for a casting for a plus-size client, and after that, Lawley says, “I never looked back — and was never again advised to lose weight.”

Which isn’t to say that the early years weren’t still immensely difficult.

“It was awful,” she remembers. “At that age, I was so impressionable. You take all that information in, and you blame yourself. You don’t blame anyone but yourself,” Lawley says of feeling body-shamed for her striking, tall frame and her American-size 10-12 dress size. “I have no idea where this size 0 phenomenon even came from. The problem is that models are blaming themselves, when we should be blaming the agents and the designers who are relaying that message to girls.”

Lawley says she didn’t reach her true “turning point” in how she thought about her own body image until her photo turned up on a thigh-gap inspiration page in 2013 — and internet trolls soon called her out for not having enough of a thigh gap to warrant said inspiration.

Robyn Lawley attends “A Night at Sea VIP Boat Cruise,” sponsored by Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2016 Yacht Cruise, Feb. 18, 2016, in Miami. (Photo: Sergi Alexander/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)

“I was mad and I was angry,” Lawley says. “All I could think was, I don’t give a s*** about thigh gap anyway. I don’t want to be on your site anyway. This isn’t what’s important to me.”

In October of that year, Lawley wrote an article for the Daily Beast in response, championing body positivity and declaring just why she loves her thighs, lack of gap and all. The story went viral — and soon, not only was Ellen DeGeneres calling to ask for an interview, but Ralph Lauren was booking her for campaigns, and a Vogue Italia shoot with famed photographer Stephen Meisel was soon underway.

“I just felt completely different about my body when I was speaking differently about it,” Lawley says. Writing about her body — and her pride in it — “helped me overcome my issues,” she adds.

Now the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Lawley says she’s concerned more than ever about the messages that girls are given about what their bodies are supposed to look like and the people who feel they have the right to dictate those messages. “It becomes so different once you have your own daughter,” Lawley emphasizes. “I’m responsible not just for her physical well-being, but for her mental well-being. My daughter is on track to be 6 feet 5 inches tall. I come from a group of really tall women in my family, and my height was my biggest obstacle in learning to love and embrace my body. So I just reiterate to her every day that being strong is beautiful, and that being strong is always more important than being skinny.”

Lawley says she tries to take her daughter on hikes and other activities in nature as much as possible, to get her into an environment where she can feel like the strongest version of herself without the judgmental eye of others who are already suggesting what little girls should look like and be. When she’s with her daughter, Lawley says, she also makes a point to not wear makeup.

Being a mother has also shifted her attitude about work.

“When you’re working a lot, it takes a big demand on your health. You just don’t have as much time to take care of yourself,” which is why Lawley says she’s “cut back” on work since her daughter’s birth, to instead focus on the projects that excite her most and show the most potential for making real change in the industry.

“Most days, you don’t have time to brush your hair, let alone have time to exercise,” Lawley adds about the way that being a mom has affected how she thinks about her career.

Robyn Lawley at Lincoln Center, May 13, 2013, in New York City. (Photo: Getty Images)

That said, she is seeing the industry start to change, albeit not as quickly as she would hope.

“I was considered big when I first started,” she says. “I’m still the same size today, but the industry has changed enormously and regularly casts size 14 and size 16 girls. The change is happening — but I want mainstream brands to cast all kinds of girls. We’ve got to get rid of the ‘curvy’ label.”

For her part, Lawley says she recently met with the not-for-profit Model Alliance to help encourage a discussion on where “this superskinny look came from” and how we can change the way we talk about bodies.

“I think it’s interesting that ‘fit’ is becoming more normal now. Girls want to become fit. And I think that’s a great way to start changing it, to show fit women, healthy women. Because there are a lot of ridiculously skinny models who smoke ridiculous amounts of cigarettes and drink ridiculous amounts of coffee. You can’t judge health by size,” Lawley says.

Still, Lawley says, she’s surprised that it’s taken the industry so long to wake up to this fact.

“I still want designers to cast more sizes and not segregate sizing, and for agents to step up and not segregate sizing. I want to see all sizes, races, ethnicities, ages, everything. Someone is missing the point here, and that’s that by casting for only one certain look, you’re excluding a huge amount of women — and buyers are diverse.”

Model Robyn Lawley attends the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2016 — NYC VIP press event, Feb. 16, 2016, in New York City. (Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)

Which is why Lawley jumped into the design game herself, creating an eponymous swimwear line manufactured for American sizes 6 through 20.

“Girls my size, when it comes to swimwear, it’s no man’s land,” Lawley says. “So I wanted to design high-fashion swimwear for them. I was constantly hearing designers say that to do so would cost too much, and I wanted to prove everyone wrong. Adding an inch of fabric isn’t going to be the downfall of a company.”

As an added perk, Lawley now has “a lifetime supply of amazing swimwear that fits me.”

Up next for Lawley is focusing on her career off-camera and finding even more opportunities to “go behind the camera and make change at an even stronger level.”

And for those 16-year-old girls just starting out in the industry as models themselves, Lawley offers some advice that she wishes she had had as she was building her own career: “The more girls stay their natural size, the more girls out there we are going to have. And if an agent or a designer puts you down, turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to them. If you go in and you’re a size 16 and are told to drop a size, say, ‘No — I am fine the way I am.’”

If everyone speaks up, Lawley says, the industry won’t have a choice; they will have to listen, and they will have to act.

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