The stunning transformation of Ashley Graham

Ashley Graham is bringing a whole new perspective to the world of modeling. Being the first plus size model to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition and making it onto Forbes' 2017 list of the World's Highest Paid Models, she continues to challenge the views of what modeling has been in the past.

The 30-year-old also uses her recognition for good, making sure young girls know how beautiful they are. This beauty bombshell may be very successful now, but she had a difficult time growing up and had to work very hard to reach the success she has today. So let's take a closer look at Graham's life and her stunning transformation throughout the years.

She started getting attention from men when she was just a child

Graham had a difficult childhood, dealing with her changing body at a very young age. As she described in her memoir, A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty & Power Really Look Like (via Hollywood Reporter), her body was changing and her breasts were already growing quickly when she was in fourth grade. As the article shared, men began making sexual advances towards Graham when she was just 14 years old.

In her preteen years, Graham did not know how to handle the situation and liked the attention she received. In her memoir she reflected on this time and where she thought this need for love stemmed from, sharing, "When I had just turned 12, I loved to flirt and be flirted with…. It didn't matter how inappropriate, unsolicited or confusing it was — any male attention was good attention as far as I was concerned…. I know now, this is because I never got the love and attention I needed from my dad."

She was badly bullied in high school

High school was not easy for Graham, either. She had to deal with a lot of bullying from girls in school. As she described in her memoir (via Hollywood Reporter), some of the names used to describe her were "thunder thighs" and "cottage cheese thighs."

One of the worst memories for Graham was when her boyfriend broke up with her when she was 16 years old. The model described what he said to her at that moment, sharing that he said: "I have to break up with you because you won't have sex with me. And I'm afraid you're going to be as fat as my mom."

She struggled with drugs and alcohol during her first years in New York

Graham moved to New York in her teen years to pursue modeling. Being on her own, she experimented with drugs and alcohol. As she shared in her memoir (via Hollywood Reporter), she once had to go to the hospital for an alcohol overdose.

And while she was successful in her modeling career at the time, making $100,000 at 17 years old, she still struggled and ended up spending all of her money. This income went towards Graham's partying, "from $2,500 bar tabs to retail therapy."

She almost gave up on her modeling career

While Graham was making a good income as a model, she received negative feedback from agents and other models.

As she shared at Glamour's Women of the Year Summit (via CNBC), they were telling her to lose weight in order to be successful in the field. She said, "I called my mom, I was 18 years old, and said, 'Mom, I'm coming home,'…. I said 'I'm not doing this modeling thing anymore, I can't take it anymore.'"

The model's mom encouraged her to change her attitude about the situation. This ended up being the perfect solution for Graham. She would stand in front of the mirror and repeat to herself, "I love you. You are bold. You are brilliant. You are beautiful." She described the results of this practice, saying, "I stopped comparing myself to the women around me and competing with them…. I started focusing what I was doing, how I was impacting my own career…. And boom! I started excelling in my career. I knew whatever I wanted, I could have."

She didn't sleep with her husband before marriage

Graham experienced some difficult relationships in her life. As she shared during an interview with Glamour, one previous boyfriend had a drinking problem and was abusive. When Graham first met her husband, Justin Ervin, he wasn't what she expected.

They met at church, and as the model described in her memoir (via Glamour), he wasn't exactly her type. "With his short hair, ill-­fitting, baggy Old Navy jeans, white Hanes T-shirt, and Converse sneakers, he exuded a major nerd factor."

But her perception of Ervin changed over time. They began dating and decided not to have sex before marriage. She shared in her book, "Because we weren't sleeping together — for Justin, abstinence was a firm commitment to his faith — we never tempted ourselves by going over to each other's apartments late at night. But we'd go to late movies or take walks through the city together. We had a spot on 14th Street and Seventh Avenue where we loved to sit and chat."

As reported by Brides magazine, the two married in 2009 when Graham was 22 years old.

Her issues getting work in the fashion industry are systemic

While she was receiving work in her early career, she still struggled, primarily due to the lack of sample items available in her size. During an interview with Vogue, Mina White, Graham's manager, spoke to this disadvantage for her client. She said, "Our hardest hurdle, and our biggest challenge to this day, is the lack of size diversity when it comes to clothing samples…. I believe this prevents Ashley and other curvy models from landing the editorials and advertising campaigns that are so important for a top model's portfolio."

She isn't afraid to speak up against the fashion industry

Graham has never been afraid to share her story of success, and, sometimes, lack thereof. During a Tedx Talk in 2015, Graham did not hold back in her story. The 27-year-old shared, "Back in Nebraska I was known as the fat model — the girl who was pretty for a big girl…. My body, like my confidence, has been picked apart, manipulated and controlled by others who didn't necessarily understand it."

It took Graham changing how she thought about herself and the modeling world's standards to break out and succeed. She continued, "I felt free once I realized I was never going to fit the narrow mold society wanted me to fit in…. The fashion industry might persist to label me as plus-sized, but I like to think of it as my-sized."

Graham has since done what she could to make a difference. As reported by Time, she co-founded ALDA, a coalition of plus-sized models. On the coalition's website, it describes itself as "a new collective of models that represents beauty without divisions, boundaries, and — most importantly — beauty that doesn't conform to body shape or size."

She has a fool-proof method to handle her nerves before big shoots

Even though the modeling industry has not always made things easy for Graham, she worked for it and landed major work — notably, the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2016.

The 28-year-old at the time was the first plus-size model to grace the magazine spread. This accomplishment did not go unnoticed by Graham, who was quite nervous for the shoot. How did she handle the nerves? As she described to Elle, it's all about talking to herself. She shared, "My thing really, truly is affirmations — talking to myself. I might sound like a crazy person, but that's the way I pump myself up…. 'You got this. Don't think of this as Sports Illustrated, just think about this as the best swimsuit campaign you've done in your life. And just kill it and own it and don't put that pressure on yourself.'"

She gave herself a goal and made that her focus. She continued, "This is my Sports Illustrated moment. And I didn't even think about hiding anything — I honestly went into it [with the idea that] I'm going to show myself off because no one of my size has ever been in this magazine and I need other women to know that they are just as beautiful."

She hopes her SI cover inspires other women to love their bodies

While it was impressive that Graham made history with her Sports Illustrated cover, she wanted something bigger to come from it. Graham never thought that day would come, but she reached her goal; she then wanted other women to realize they could also reach their goals, no matter their size.

She shared with Elle, "For so long I thought that I was so big and so thick that people like Sports Illustrated wouldn't look at me — and for so long I had people telling me that that wouldn't happen…. Don't let your image, don't let your size, hold you back. If I had let my hips or my jiggly thighs hold me back or the fact that I've got these big heavy breasts, then I would not be where I am today. And I don't want women to hold themselves back." 

She continued, "I think there are too many women who are self-conscious about the way they look ― the way they see themselves in the mirror. I hope that this cover is a testament to them, proving to them that they are beautiful no matter what."