The plus-size fashion industry is powerful. Not only does it generate $17.5 billion in annual revenue, but its size range (usually above 18 in U.S. women's sizes) also represents the average size of most American women. Yet despite this supposed commercial power, plenty of women still face size discrimination, and fatphobic attitudes persist in this country.
In a TEDx Talk uploaded to YouTube this week, plus-size model and body-positive activist Ashley Graham explains how she found empowerment and self-acceptance — and why we may need to push back on the term and concept of being "plus-size" altogether.
Here are the four major lessons Graham shares.
1. True confidence can only come from within.
Graham, who was discovered in a Nebraska mall as a teenager, says she struggled with self-confidence for years.
"I would go home and look in front of the mirror and only hate what I saw," she admits, adding that she turned to partying and alcohol, "looking for self-love, for affirmation from somebody when in reality I didn't love who I was."
It wasn't until she faced her insecurities head-on that Graham found self-acceptance.
"I had to learn to reclaim my body as my own, and in reclaiming my body as my own I understood as a woman I had a greater purpose," Graham says. "I felt free once I realized I was never going to fit the narrow mold society wanted me to fit in."
"I believe beauty is beyond size," she adds. "With so much emphasis on the body and the external, it's no wonder we all suffer so much internally."
2. We need to find authentic role models.
Shirking external standards doesn't mean completely ignoring other people, though. Graham notes that finding authentic role models is key to self-acceptance.
While Graham says she felt pressure to look up to "notable curvy women in the public eye" like Marilyn Monroe or Jennifer Lopez, for example, the woman she idolized most was her own mother.
"She told me I was beautiful and she never devalued herself, so why would I?" Graham says. "She told me and taught me that true beauty comes from within and that validation and self-worth must also come from within. In my lowest moments of insecurity, this is when I realized that I had to reclaim my body and its image as my own."
3. We need to redefine beauty and push back on existing labels.
"My body, like my confidence, has been picked apart, manipulated and controlled by others who didn't necessarily understand it," Graham says of her experience in the fashion industry. "I was never going to be perfect enough for an industry that defines perfection from the outside in. And that's okay. Rolls, curves, cellulite — all of it. I love every part of me."
And she's not the only one who is pushing back.
"Curvy models are becoming more and more vocal about the isolating nature of the term 'plus-size,'" Graham continues. "We are calling ourselves what we want to be called: women, with shapes that are our own.
"The fashion industry may persist to label me as plus-size, but I like to think of it as my size."
4. Pay it forward and uplift others.
The industry won't change overnight, though, and until then we must all do the immediate work of creating an accepting and uplifting environment for each other.
"My goal is to give a voice to ... [those] who struggle to find somebody they look up to," Graham says. "For girls who struggle to look inside the mirror and say 'I love you.' For women who feel uncomfortable expressing their confidence they locked away inside themselves. For women who have relinquished their rights to someone else.
"Men and women alike must create spaces in which everybody is able to "express their body and their beauty for who they are, not for who they're not."
Ultimately, though, Graham is hopeful for the future. "This is the generation of body diversity," she concludes. "The current is changing."
You can watch her full Tedx talk below.