As a 16-year-old model, Hunter McGrady spent hours toiling away in the gym and starving herself to maintain her 114-lb., size-2/4 frame. But she was miserable — and she wasn’t booking jobs.
“My hips were always the bigger part of my body, and I was already so thin that I couldn’t keep shaving them down. I physically could not. And everyone was telling me that I could,” McGrady, 23, tells PEOPLE. “At that time I thought my dreams of becoming a model were crushed.”
And when she did get gigs, they weren’t going well.
“I walked into one of my very first modeling jobs at a size 4. They looked at me and said, ‘We didn’t realize you were this big,’ and they sent me home,” McGrady recalls. “And I was so upset, and so livid, that I was getting picked at, already, at just a young 16 years old.”
Fed up with trying to force her 5’11” body to be something it wasn’t, McGrady decided to accept her shape — curves and all.
“I love my body now. I love everything about it,” she says. “I’ve been an 18, I’ve been a 10/12, and I’ve been everything in between. Right now I sit at a 14/16, and I love it, because this is my God-given body.”
About four years ago, McGrady heard about curve modeling and went to Wilhelmina Models, where they signed her on the spot. She immediately landed jobs with Lucky Brand, Bare Necessities, Lane Bryant and more, but her big dream was the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.
“I always told myself that one way or another I was going to get in there.”
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In December, she got the call — and she made a serious splash when the issue came out Feb. 15.
“It’s a moment — not just for me, but for women in history — to be in this issue. Finally, we’re being heard,” McGrady says. “I just want women to see this and feel inspired and feel sexy and feel like they can own their body and own their skin. And men, too!”