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In Her Own Words: SI Swimsuit Models Celebrate More Than Just Their Bodies

SI Swimsuit Models share their truth in 'In Her Own Words' project.
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In Her Own Words is a continuation and evolution of the essence of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. It is a platform that allows the voice, the strength and the passion of these women to be expressed in the rawest form…on the naked body…with all the artistic and creative control left to them. With a stripped down studio and team of all females, we handed over the control to the women who are our brand. We believed in, supported and encouraged them to become a canvas and share their truth.

Paulina Porizkova

For years now, I’ve had nightmares about being once again photographed for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. In those dreams, I’m in a bikini in some fabulous place, a sandy beach with palm trees and a glorious sunset. Although I’m ready for the photo shoot —makeup and hair in place — I just sit there and watch other young models pose. The photographer is yelling “fabulous” and “beautiful” while I wait and wait and the sun is going down. The truth is that I know I am a middle-aged woman and I can’t compete with these beautiful young women. I have other things to offer, but not in this setting. Here, on a beach in the sunset, the only thing that matters is how I look. One doesn’t have to be Freud to get the gist of it. In my opinion, nothing ages as poorly as a beautiful woman’s confidence.

When SI called right before Christmas to ask whether I was interested in doing something for them, my immediate reaction was “no way.” The pathos of my dream was still fresh in my mind, and at 52, I may have the assurance of knowing my strengths and weaknesses, but as far as modeling goes, my expiration date has passed. There are women older than I who can still pull it off, and bless them, for they are freaks of nature, but I am like a slightly worn piece of clothing, comfortable and clearly having seen better days. Then SI told me it was about words. Words and nudity. Now they had my attention. Reading is hands-down my favorite activity. I write. Words are my life. And as for nudity: Having grown up in Sweden, I was taught that being naked is healthy and honest. (Although nude photos are often sexualized, it’s usually the reveal of it — or the not reveal — that makes it so.) But believing nudity is fine doesn’t necessarily translate into wanting to pose nude for a photograph. Once your nudity is captured, it belongs to others who can and will dissect it and judge. And as I said, although I feel more confident as a person, this in no way translates to being confident about my looks. At 52 and unaltered, people tell me I look good for my age. This is not the same as being told you’re beautiful.

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But melding me the model with me the writer was an irresistible offer. I would get to use my body in a new way: to make people read!

The shoot was scheduled for two days after Christmas, not optimal given my cookie intake throughout the holidays. I scrubbed and depilated and hoped for really good light. The photographer was a young woman, the whole set was going to be all women. I was told I could pose any way I wanted and the words that were to be painted on to me could be whatever words I wanted. This was even more anxiety-causing to me than not being in perfect shape. I had to pick the right words. My nights were filled with words popping up just as I was drifting off to sleep. Or when I was in the shower. Or when I was taking the dogs out for a walk. Words wouldn’t leave me alone, especially when I had nothing with which to write them down. This was important: The words I chose would represent me. Who I am. Who I think am, who I hope to be. The words were what would give me the confidence to bare it all.

Paulina Porizkova was photographed by Taylor Ballantyne in New York City.

Paulina Porizkova was photographed by Taylor Ballantyne in New York City.

When I arrived at the photo shoot on a 17°F morning, I had found it. One word. It was one that represented and encompassed everything I believe in, everything I aspire to be, everything I think would make the world a better place. The knowledge that I had found it warmed me like a little pocket warmer. Which was good, since the photo studio was actually a garage. A garage in Brooklyn with three parked cars and no heat. A corner had been fenced off with paper dividers, and that was the set. The four young women there were all dressed in parkas, gloves and hats. I must admit it took some deep breathing on my part to not just bolt out of there. The makeup artist kept apologizing for her icy hands on my face, even as her makeup began to freeze in its bottles. I’m not a quitter. And I have been in worse circumstances while modeling, like that time I almost drowned in a waterfall, or had to stand in stilettos on top of the cage of a live, terrified jaguar as we were both lowered by a crane from the roof of a Los Angeles high-rise in the middle of the night. But at this stage of my life, this isn’t my job, I have no one I need to impress with my modeling skills. I probably would have left if Taylor, the young woman photographer, hadn’t shown me the photos she had already shot.

They were beautiful. Women of all different sizes and ages, naked, their skin shouting words they wanted the world to see. Fierce. Human. Lover. Real. Mother. Optimist. Genuine. Strong.

None of it was sexy or coy, just vulnerable and honest. The beauty lay not in the perfection of the bodies, quite the contrary, it was in the confidence and bravery it took to reveal their imperfections.

I realized the word that I was so proud of having picked wasn’t just mine. Although none of the other women had used it, they had the outcome of that word scribbled all over them. One word that demanded we gather our confidence. Demand we be seen. Demand we speak. Demand we are heard.


Hunter McGrady

The “In Her Own Words” project is a perfect example of what happens when powerful women with compelling visions come together and create.

I remember going into what I thought was going to a regular photo shoot with Taylor Ballantyne.  Before the shoot began, I was chatting with some of the other women that were participating in the project: Jamie Frankel, Robyn Lawley, and Mary Guthrie. All different sizes, all different walks of life, all different ages, all different experiences, and all talking about the one thing we had in common - The pressure we felt by society to change and fit the norm. 

As we were talking, Jamie came up with the brilliant idea of doing the shoot with words written on our bare bodies. Words that were personally meaningful to us. Words that we thought embodied our story, our truth, and our viewpoint.

It was no longer just a typical photo shoot for all of us. It transformed into a very personal, intimate, empowering and profound moment in our lives. 

A blinded and brainwashed society has tried to convince me that as a tall blonde woman with a pretty face, I’d never be taken seriously. The beauty with out brains, blonde bimbo has for too long been the cliché de jour. Additionally, I was told that I would never make it as a model because I wasn’t thin enough, had stretch marks, cellulite on my legs, rolls when i sat down, and less than perfect skin.

Both my grandmother and mother enjoyed successful modeling careers. As a young girl, I heard them tell stories of their many adventures, world travels and interesting experiences. Naturally, I wanted to join in that legacy. But it seemed I was not qualified. 

So when I was graciously given the opportunity to share my truth and voice with the world through this shoot, I chose my words deliberately, thoughtfully, consciously and responsibly. 

I know and understand from experience the power of words to hurt or to heal, to hold back or to inspire, to criticize or to embolden, to deliver or to bind. As spoken and written thousands of years ago, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  

Hunter McGrady was photographed by Taylor Ballantyne in New York City.

Hunter McGrady was photographed by Taylor Ballantyne in New York City.

The first word I wrote on my body was “worthy,” which means “having or showing the qualities or abilities that merit recognition in a specified way.” I genuinely believe that we are ALL worthy of feeling this way regardless of the way we look. 

As a society driven by social media and modern technologies, we put far too much emphasis on physical appearance. We are living in the generation of Face Tune and Photoshop. We can morph our images into perfect versions of ourselves—versions we think people will be more approving of. Nothing is more disheartening, more inauthentic, more self-alienating, and self-damaging than desperately trying to be someone you are not.

The second word I chose was “fearless.” I have had to become fearless in an industry that has not always accepted my body type, and still has trouble doing so. I had to be fearless doing this shoot knowing that I am putting myself out there and allowing myself to be vulnerable to criticism from people who have not quite got on board the inclusively train yet! (Choo! Choo! Were leaving! Lol.) 

I remind myself everyday that, while I do this for me, I also do this for the women AND men who don’t have a public platform to demonstrate what fearless looks like. 

The third word I chose to write on my body was boundless. I deliberately wrote this down my leg, the strongest part of my body, to represent the very literal foundation of my body and the foundational mindset one must have in order to fully realize and bring into fruition their dreams, desires and passions. Short of a limitless mindset, one is left with nothing more than unrealized wishes and daydreams. 

Humans are evolutionarily predisposed to resist change because of the risk associated with it. Despite that natural inclination, we must resolve to do so, for it is needed now more than ever.

When I received the phone call from Taylor informing me that not only did SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day want to pick this shoot up for Sports Illustrated, but that she wanted to keep it, black and white and UNEDITED, I just broke down in tears of gratitude. That’s when I fully realized the magnitude of passion I have for society to change its preconceived notions and prejudices. 

We must get to a place where we are not ashamed to be who we are, not afraid to speak our truth, not held back by the gatekeepers, the experts, the naysayers, the uninformed and unenlightened.   

This crusade is so powerful, so challenging, and so very needed right now. The current misguided and blindly accepted narrative must be challenged and ultimately changed. To open this magazine and see something like this shoot, is groundbreaking and controversial in all the best ways possible. 

This particular shoot is for every little girl who has never felt like she could live up to the expectations and unrealistic, inauthentic images she sees daily in the magazines, on TV, in the movies, and on billboards blanketing the world. This issue, this shoot, these personal and honest words are for you. We want you to know we hear you, we see you, you matter.

Robyn Lawley

​In Her Own Words itself started and remained an all-female endeavor (one of my first all-female crews). I had the pleasure of working with my partner-in-crime/photographer Taylor Ballantyne and the effervescent Sailor Brinkley Cook (fellow photographer and model.) I was given the glorious opportunity to be behind the camera, and I believe it turned out to be an amazing and honest journey for the group of us. 

This was the second project that I have done with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. They also invited me on one of their trips to Aruba to do some backup videography work. Never have I felt more support from a magazine, not only putting me in their pages at my glorious 6'2" frame, but also nurturing my passion for cinematography.

In Her Own Words was a very personal and “naked” project for the models. Being naked often seemingly comes with the territory as a model, however being naked with my words painted on my body made me feel more exposed and vulnerable, baring my soul so to speak, and yet at the same time the words began to feel like a blanket protecting and empowering me. It also reminded me while, yes, I am a model, I am so much more. 

Robyn Lawley was photographed by Taylor Ballantyne in New York City.

Robyn Lawley was photographed by Taylor Ballantyne in New York City.

Hearing the stories from all the women involved and their journeys to self-love and acceptance was beyond moving and deserving. Too long have we seemingly pushed body diversity aside without a thought to the detrimental effects it will have on generations to come. All the women I filmed were beautiful. All the women I filmed were strong, fierce, sexy and deserving. The best part of the shoot was to be able to relate to all the women, to be able to cry when they cried and to learn that every single person has to overcome so much in the world in which we put so much "weight" into appearance.

This was one of my most honest moments. Rarely have I been able to see the images photographed of me, but to be able to go through them with my friend and say no to certain shots and yes to ones I liked was the most thrilling part.

I’m very thankful to all the beautiful women we were fortunate enough to photograph and film. And I’m thankful to my crew of talented women who helped fan the flames of my passion and interest for film.

Sailor Brinkley Cook

Every day I feel further and further away from the dark thoughts and notions that once tried to occupy my head. I no longer dread the thing that gives me energy and life. I no longer hide myself away in the fear of breaking the little rules I created for myself in an attempt to feel in control of the world around me.

Growing up as a young girl in this world is not easy. Glossy magazines filled with glowing, sculpted women I’d scan through while in the waiting room of my pediatrician’s office. Beauty ads blarring on the television screen after my favorite show takes a commercial break. Walking the streets of New York at age 12 eating an ice cream cone, and looking up to see the long, thin legs of a supermodel dancing across a 10-story billboard. There is no escaping our society's ideas on perfection and beauty in this image-driven world.

I don’t remember a time in my youth when I felt like the body I had was good enough. I had a family that loved and supported me, I had friends I could rely on who made me laugh, I was so fortunate. So lucky. Yet there was always a fog over the beauty of my life because of my relationship with myself. Summer days by the pool were prepared for by an hour in front of my mirror carefully assessing the perfect cover-up that concealed my puffy stomach and muscular legs. Squeezing my lower stomach wondering why the universe cursed me with this body. Cursed. Me. I was a preteen with no knowledge of my health and my body and thus I felt I had no control.

Midway through high school, I found a way to take control. I became overly involved in the idea of being just like those girls in those images. I wanted to be everything I wasn’t. I wanted to have a 23-inch waist and fit into a D cup bra from Victoria's Secret. I wanted to eat the way I thought those girls ate; steamed vegetables, no salt, no oil. I became so involved in this goal, this goal to be “perfection.” I quickly fell into making this goal and these routines my entire life. Friends would wonder why I wasn’t eating anything at our 7:30 dinner party, and I would reply strongly with, “Eating after 5:00 p.m. is not good for you.” I disappeared for hours at the gym and hours in the kitchen constructing the perfect “healthy” meal. I barely spent any time with the people who loved me and lost sight of the things I once loved doing. My attempt to gain control ended up controlling the entirety of who I was.

Sailor Brinkley Cook was photographed by Taylor Ballantyne in New York City

Sailor Brinkley Cook was photographed by Taylor Ballantyne in New York City

Over time I released the reins. I slowly stopped being unhealthily concerned with my exercise routines. If I’m too tired, I give myself the day off and don’t think twice about it. I slowly started learning how to eat healthily and consciously, but not obsessively. I try to eat clean but if I want something I will listen to my body and eat it. If you told me at my darkest time that I would soon start eating dinner whenever I wanted to eat dinner, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. I realized through months and months of arguments with my inner thoughts and ideals how much more there is to life than myself. I looked further than the “perfection” I felt I needed to have and saw the beauty of the world. I spent more time outside with nature listening to the sounds of the Earth and staring at the clouds in the sky. I became a better friend, a better daughter and most importantly I was kinder and more understanding to myself and who I have always been. All through letting myself lose control over something so trivial as my appearance.

Once I felt strong enough I brought myself into an industry dictated by appearances. Funny, right? You would think after years of inner struggle with my outer self I would be the furthest away from a beauty industry. But hear me out. Our culture is not going to change overnight. Our image-driven society is one of the aspects of our world that make it so beautiful, if the contexts behind the images are mindful of the connotations the image can hold alone. The industry is changing for the better. I see that every day and I want to be a part of that change. I am seeing people on billboards that a wider range of human beings can identify with. I am reading important messages that go along with those beauty commercials that come on in between TV shows. I open up a magazine and there is emotional, social or political context to these images that have such a strong impact on our world.

I then got lucky. I got invited to be a part of the change. I got to work with a magazine and people that I have admired my entire life, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. Joining a group of women that represent not only one body type, not only one skin tone, not only one culture is an honor beyond my years. Not only did I get lucky enough to create sexy, fun, empowering images on a beautiful beach in Aruba, but I get to share my story and my voice with the world. And you know what the best part of that is? I got to do it on my own terms and IN MY OWN WORDS.

I feel now I have almost entirely given myself the allowance to live imperfectly and enjoy it all. I feel now that I am more understanding toward my choices and mistakes. I want anyone struggling with their bodies, or with eating, or with themselves, to look around at the world. Take a deep breath. There is so much more out there than a measurement. There is so much more out there than what you see in the mirror. Treat yourself with the respect you would treat someone you love. Give yourself enough love to want to take care of your health, but also be mindful that you are only human. There is so much beauty in the mistakes, in the fight. There is so much beauty in the uncontrollable.

I am a fighter. I am strong. I am romantic. I am creative. I am optimistic. I am natural. I am a work in progress.

Watch the full 'In Her Own Words" video and see more of your favorite Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models on SI TV. Start your seven-day free trial now on Amazon Channels.