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“Sometimes I’ll look at myself and be like, ‘Dang girl, you got a lot of stretch marks.’ But then I’m like, ‘That’s just the road map of my strength,’ ” the actress, 27, tells PEOPLE exclusively during her makeup-free photo shoot for the 2017 Most Beautiful Woman issue. “They remind me of things that I’ve gone through. I need to just embrace them and celebrate them. For the most part, I find ways to embrace my body.”
“Sometimes I can brush it off. You know, tha haters,” Brooks says, laughing. “And sometimes it’s not always easy to do. But for me, I think it all starts with self, and how you feel about yourself that really matters. It doesn’t matter what other people think of you.”
“I know for a fact that I am beautiful, and what I do know for a fact is that we are spirits, at the end of the day, regardless of how much melanin we have, or how many pimples we have, or how curly or straight our hair is. It’s really about what we have inside of us, that makes us who we are.”
Brooks says she’s more comfortable without makeup — she does go without it on Orange is the New Black, after all — but she was nervous ahead of her shoot. Still, it was nothing compared to posing in lingerie for Lane Bryant’s #ThisBody campaign.
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“I kept calling my manager and being like, ‘Are we really doing this?? Why are we doing this?? Ahhhhh!’ But I was the one who wanted to do it!” she says.
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Brooks re-convinced herself by thinking of all the people it could help.
“I knew that this moment was going to empower a lot of people, and a lot of people were going to feel like they could see themselves in me, and they could discover their own beauty. And that to me is what it’s all about,” she says. “We all have to find our way to leave a mark in this world, and if I could help one person know that they are beautiful, I’ve done my job.”