Danika Brysha
Brian Whitely
Gabrielle Olya
March 31, 2017 09:20 AM

Danika Brysha had struggled with self-esteem and an unhealthy relationship with food for most of her life.

“I’ve been dieting since I was a kid,” the curvy model, 29, tells PEOPLE. “When I was 14, I was going to Weight Watchers. When I was 16, I was doing Atkins. I was always a bigger kid, and all the people in the magazines that I saw were size 0, size 2, and that was what was considered beautiful.”

Brysha aspired to be a model herself, and felt that she needed to lose weight to get there. After she was unable to continue to lose weight by sticking to the Atkins diet, she resorted to binging and purging to get her weight down.

“When I was on Atkins, I ended up losing 45 lbs., and I remember seeing how different people were treating me and being blown away over this power that I felt over my body,” she says. “Then the weight started creeping back on, and I had to find other ways to manage that, and that’s when I started throwing up.”

Danika Brysha
Brian Whitely

The body positive activist recalls winning the title of homecoming queen after a particularly bad binge-and-purge.

“In high school I was class president, I was a cheerleader, I was all these things, and then behind the scenes I was so miserable and so insecure,” she says.

Brysha continued her disordered eating through college, and finally reached a breaking point.

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“After I graduated college, I was so exhausted from dieting,” she says. “I looked at how much energy I had spent trying to manipulate food and my body. I made a commitment to relax and let myself settle at my natural size, and I ended up at a size 12/14.”

It was when she finally allowed her body to be the size it was meant to be that she was scouted to be a model while working in L.A. as a production assistant.

“I was at the bank, and this couple approached me and asked me if I ever thought about plus-size modeling,” she says. “I hadn’t really realized that was a thing. When I finally stopped trying to be something I wasn’t, that dream that I’d always had to be a model came true, and I didn’t have to hurt myself.”

Brysha signed with a modeling agency, and landed campaigns with Forever 21, Target and Kohl’s. She credits modeling with helping her finally feel good about her body for the first time.

Danika Brysha
Brian Whitely

“Being a plus-size model actually really helped me with my body image,” she says. “It was the first time I felt, ‘I’m beautiful, and they want me exactly as I naturally am.’ I had an a-ha moment of being like, ‘I’m not fat!’ ”

Brysha — who now has a positive relationship with food and even started her own healthy meal delivery service, Model Meals — believes the expansion of the modeling industry to include women of diverse sizes has also played a large role in her body acceptance, and hopes she can be a role model for young girls who may be struggling with body issues of their own.

“I’m not perfect, and we all have our body stuff, but I think the industry has helped me by showing me so many gorgeous, curvy women and acknowledging them as beautiful, and allowing me to be that girl that I didn’t see growing up,” she says. “Now I have that opportunity to be that woman that a young girl can identify with over someone who may be smaller, and so she can say, ‘Oh, I’m beautiful too.’ “

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