Bodied is a series in which we ask people to get real about their relationships with their bodies. As the body-positivity movement challenges unrealistic beauty standards while insisting we love what we got, we want to push the notion that self-acceptance is a process. Here, we’ll examine how people have grown to love and accept their bodies ― or not ― and the steps they took to get there.
Plus-size model and activist Denise Bidot was pretty surprised when a swimsuit campaign she appeared in went viral in 2015. The revolutionary-for-the-time Swimsuits for All campaign featured Bidot’s bare stomach, legs, stretch marks, cellulite and not a drop of retouching.
She had already posted the un-retouched campaign images herself when the brand asked if she would mind if they left the photos as-is for the circulated ad. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit,’” she told HuffPost. “I had posted them on Instagram, but for the real world? Like an ad? I was not prepared for that.”
Fast-forward three years and the idea of a brand embracing a model’s natural body is a lot less radical. Numerous big brands have taken to ditching Photoshop, and Bidot and her real, un-retouched body have since fronted many campaigns, including her latest in honor of size-inclusive NYDJ’s 15th anniversary.
We chatted with Bidot about the changing fashion industry, the way she speaks to her 10-year-old daughter about her body and her journey toward self-love.
You always appear to be so confident. Can you describe your relationship with your body as it stands today?
I get so many emails from girls that are like, “How do I get to this place of confidence and self-love?” And honestly, it’s a day-by-day struggle. Some days I wake up feeling absolutely flawless, and other days some of those pre-registered things that are in my head from childhood come back to haunt me. I have to be proactive about pushing those feelings away. But currently, if I’m being authentic, it kind of varies.
What do some of those thoughts sound like?
My stretch marks and cellulite are things I’ve used as an incentive to show people we’re all beautiful, and I’ve put them on the front line more than people even thought I should have at one point. And still, I sometimes go to get in a bikini and the thoughts come back like, “Oh, God, your belly. Can I get something that’s a little higher?” And I have to say to myself, “No, girl, you’re good. Put on that little bikini. Don’t be scared about it.” It’s a learning curve, being aware of yourself and your body and your thoughts and emotions.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just so sick of hating my body and focusing in on every little thing. It’s exhausting, and it feels like a waste of time.
You’re wasting your life, wasting your opportunity to be happy, limiting yourself from your full potential we all have the ability to get to by self-loathing. I watched my mom go through it, so I refuse to do it.
The dynamic between mothers and daughters is interesting in that way.
Because I have a daughter, I often think about the fact that I have to push against those thoughts. I never want her to see me feeling bad about myself. I know how quickly she can mirror those things. Women will ask me, “How do I talk to my daughter? She’s gonna be a teen. She’s struggling.” And I’m like, “First of all, how do you talk to yourself?”
I think parents often don’t realize the impact the words they direct at themselves have on their kids.
What people don’t realize is you can tell a child, “You’re beautiful, you’re perfect, you’re equipped,” but if they’re watching their parent looking in the mirror doing the exact opposite, what are they going to intake? When I have that funky moment, you better believe my daughter is not gonna know about it. She’s supposed to feel empowered and limitless. I need to show her so she knows.
I’m so jealous of young people today who get to see imagery of you and other women in the industry they can look up to. It wasn’t around when I was a kid.
I know. My daughter is 10 now and she’s grown up in a generation where body positivity has been in since she was born, so I’m always intrigued to see how she thinks about and processes things. The girls she sees in magazines and billboards represent her. She’s so blessed to have that as her truth and therefore won’t have the same insecurities I sometimes have to push away.
You are widely praised for proudly sharing images of your body and posing for campaigns without Photoshop. Why is that so important to you?
When I first started working, some jobs would say I wasn’t a good fit for lingerie because of my stretch marks and cellulite, and that they would need to retouch it. Even for the clients that did book me, the final images were a glossed-over version of what I would look like if I didn’t have cellulite and stretch marks, and it used to internally impact me. That’s why I think I started posting un-retouched images of myself online, because I started getting all these girls who would hashtag me on #WCW like, “Oh, my God, body goals” and I’m looking at these pictures they were tagging and realizing how unrealistic it was. I didn’t want those same women I’m trying to help steer away from body image issues thinking that’s what I actually look like.
How did people react to you sharing those unedited images?
Some people were like, “Don’t post that, the clients will see what you really look like.” And I was like, “But that is what I really look like, and that’s OK.” What I realized was that women wanted it. It created more following, people like them more, there was more traction and interaction, I think, because people couldn’t believe I was posting it. When the Swimsuits for All campaign came out, I was not prepared for it to go viral, but I knew that if it needed to be done I was the only one ready to go for it. I think it really set a precedent.
Since then, even though there’s a way to go, there’s also been a ton of progress in terms of seeing realistic body types represented.
A year after that, Target did a cool project with me with un-retouched photos and I was like, “Holy crap, I never thought you’d stand beside that.” Then Lane Bryant did it. Then that image ended up in Sports Illustrated. I couldn’t believe it, you know? But it took those Instagram posts and that belief in myself for brands to get it. I think that’s what people don’t realize.
We ask the industry to change, but we have to be that change. We have to show them how to do it. Little by little, they all start to learn. I think my power and strength came from knowing this was bigger than me. This is for everyone who has been told they’re not perfect and would never fit the mold. I made it, I’m on billboards. I have an amazing career when every single person told me I wouldn’t when I started.
You mentioned earlier that despite your success, you still have days when you’re not feeling 100 percent. What do you do on those days?
I think everyone should have a good list of affirmations. Vocalizing your truth is really important to how you feel on the inside. But I also think having a really great circle of friends that you can trust at any point ― high or low. I also make sure when I’m on Instagram that I’m looking at things that are fueling me in the right way, so I’ve started unfollowing things that don’t serve me or make me feel insecure.
What advice would you give to other women who might not be as far along in their self-acceptance journey?
My advice would be to make the decision every day to love yourself. It’s not an on/off switch, but consciously wake up every day and believe in yourself. Say:
“I’m smart. I’m equipped. I’m going to take on this day to the best of my ability.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.