There have been several instances over the past several months where I've opened my Instagram to an uncannily relevant post from Ashley Graham—it's almost as if the app's algorithm times them to when I'm feeling my most vulnerable. The more logical explanation, of course, is that the supermodel has a keen awareness of what body acceptance actually means, offering much-needed clarity in a confusing and chaotic landscape of societal double standards, body-positive hashtags and a lot of ideas on how we should and shouldn't feel about ourselves.
Consider an image Graham posted this weekend, in which she swiftly dresses down an overwrought (and frankly awful) media trope in just one sentence. It coincidentally landed on my feed after a long and emotionally exhausting day of shopping for swimsuits for an upcoming vacation, because even in the post-recovery stage of my eating disorder, trying on a series of flimsy lycra bikinis in unflattering lighting has a way of bubbling toxic thoughts back to the surface. (Shocking, I know.)
But in spite of myself, I gazed on Graham's virtual kiss-off and nearly knocked my own phone out of my hand with the enthusiasm of my double-tap. "She's a hero," I immediately texted a co-worker.
In this post alone, Graham effectively skewers one of the more counterproductive ways that our culture approaches "body positivity": namely, wrapping a passive-aggressive dig in a faux compliment. In this case, calling Graham "brave" implies that if you have a certain type of body that doesn't conform to society's impossible standards, mustering up some courage is a prerequisite for showing it off in public. It undermines any normalisation of cellulite and size. Showing off your body shouldn't have to be deemed "brave," just like Alicia Keys going without makeup shouldn't have to be deemed "brave." A makeup-free face is… a face. Your face. Your "swimsuit body" is your body.
That's not to discount swimsuit anxiety or even say that it isn't a thing. Even Graham has copped to dealing with it, noting an all-too-relatable situation in a recent interview with People: "I mean, of course like any girl when you get to the beach or the pool and you go, 'Oh, I have to take my cover-up off, crap,'" she said.
The distinction here is that this anxiety comes from years of arbitrary body standards that ignore the vast majority—something that, as Graham has vocalised, we should be working to unravel. But when the media or anyone other than you says that it takes "bravery" to show off your body, they perpetuate that anxiety instead of chipping away at it. Amy Schumer called a press outlet out on this exact thing after posing nude for the 2016 Pirelli calendar.
This is all to say that I needed a healthy dose of Graham's attitude as I went swimsuit shopping, surveilling my own thighs under the hopelessly awful light of the dressing room. How many people had stood in this exact spot, scrutinising every dimple on their butt and the curve of their stomach? How many people had to take a deep breath just to try on their swimsuits in full privacy? It occurred to me that this was yet another example of how women are hardwired to be apologetic. We're sorry our bodies aren't perfect. We'll try to make it better or else cover it up. Or on the flip side: I'm sorry for not loving my body 100% of the time.
Which is why we need Graham: She's gloriously unapologetic about her body, sure, but she also never apologises for her insecurities and anxieties. One issue that I tend to have with the body positivity movement is that its ultra-saccharine messaging can actually veer on the side of exclusionary. I don't need to feel ashamed for not loving my body or feeling less than fantastic about myself on certain days; that only exacerbates the problem by creating another kind of impossible standard. It's the reason I can get behind the surge of the term "body neutrality," which seems like a more feasible middle ground between self-criticism and unadulterated self-love. It's unapologetic, but it's also realistic. It's the middle ground that allows us to be human.
And I think it's the essence of what Graham represents, which is honest, authentic acceptance. I love my butt. I wish I could say the same about my cellulite, but I know that's not true, just as much as I know that it's never going to disappear entirely. That's okay. It's also okay that on some days, I really dread taking off my swimsuit cover-up, even if I'm over it 30 seconds later.
Just don't call me "brave" for doing it.