“Why does skinniness hold such currency?” I ask Ashley Graham, the model-slash-activist whose luscious curves have done more to redefine what is considered beautiful than anyone since Botticelli. Because, among otherwise intelligent, educated, sensible women who should know better, thinness represents an ultimate ideal; frequently prized (even if we don’t admit it) above – or at least equal to – intelligence, compassion, humour or success.
Ashley looks at me askance. “Skinniness is a currency?”
“I mean, here’s the thing: I’ve never been thin. I’ve been really happy being a curvy girl, even with the ups and downs, but I’ve never ever desired to be thin. I’ve always been happy to have curves.” She walks the talk, confidently greeting me in a butt-skimming minidress from the new capsule collection by Italian designer Fausto Puglisi for Marina Rinaldi, the US size 8 to 24 label with whom Ashley also collaborates on her own designs.
Of course, she is right. Of course, we should all be happy in our own skins, whatever size. And yet… there’s a reason Weight Watchers is eyeing US$2bn (Dhs7.35bn) revenue by 2020.
“Yeah, I don’t know how that changes,” she concedes of so many women’s persistent desire to be ever thinner. “I’m not the person to ask why skinny is a currency. But I think there needs to be more emphasis on what confidence means; I think that confidence isn’t just about being a big girl and feeling good in her skin, it’s really also about a thin woman being okay with who she is and not striving for something that she thinks is perfect.”
Imagine the day when a journalist sits down in front of Ashley Graham and doesn’t ask her about her size – the day it’s a non-issue. I wonder whether she thinks that day will ever come. “Yeah, absolutely,” she says with confidence. “I’ve taken this crap door and opened it wide. I feel that there’s a responsibility on me, for probably the rest of my career, that I’ll be talking about this. I want to talk about it until I’m black and blue so the generation after me won’t have to. I don’t want to have to tell my daughters they have to excuse their hips or talk about their bra size. I don’t want the next generation to have to have that conversation.”
While Ashley, 30, credits her mother’s positive influence with forming her own unshakable confidence, she says it is down to us and how we value ourselves in front of our daughters that will cause a mindset change. “The best thing my mom ever did was never speak of herself negatively. She never said she was fat, she was ugly or she needed to change,” Ashley explains, “It changed who I was as a kid. I didn’t feel amazing about myself in middle school, but it was the confidence I wore on my sleeve that other girls who might have been my size didn’t have. Kids pick up on everything and they’re a product of you. If you want to change something about yourself, they’re going to think it’s just as bad on them.” These words will stay with me forever and serve as a daily reminder of the way I aim to conduct myself in front of my own daughter. But the fact remains that young girls still play with impossibly proportioned Barbie dolls and grow up watching femininity physically manifested in Disney princess form (and let’s face it, even the more modern ones still have hand-span waists and ad-campaign hair). “I’m not a mother so I have no idea the work you have to put into a child’s development with teaching them what’s okay,” Ashley admits, adding, “I could imagine it’s a constant conversation about the unrealistic idea of what beauty is. To have to explain that to a child is awful.”
That said, she is optimistic about the pace of change in attitudes towards beauty. “I’ve been modelling for 18 years and I’ve never seen change like this,” Ashley enthuses, “It’s only been the last three years that I’ve seen massive change.” She attributes this almost entirely to social media, which she says, “has been huge in giving women these platforms that fashion would never give them because they were ‘too different’. Social media is really dictating what is cool.” Yet, given that her curves are still top of the agenda for our conversation, there is undeniably a long way to go. “The fact that we still talk about size being an issue, that’s how you know that the battle is not over yet,” she agrees, “I know it’s not a trend and I know there is so much more that has to be done, but you can’t deny that we have had so much victory already.” Amen, Ashley