When Lexi Mendiola was looking at a photo of herself in a one-piece, her eyes immediately went to the stretch marks that were visible on her upper thigh.
“My ‘tiger stripes’ were the first things I saw — I guess it’s because I’ve always been insecure about them,” the Philippines-based commercial model, 23, tells PEOPLE. “It just made me feel discouraged, and immediately warped how I felt about the image altogether, which was so frustrating because I really liked everything else about it.”
Initially, Mendiola did not want to post the photo, but when she started thinking about the reason why, she had a change of heart and shared it on Instagram earlier this month.
“It was at that moment when I caught myself throwing out maybe one of my best photos, only because of lines on my skin,” she says. “I was about to throw it away, but then I saw the bigger picture (literally!) and realized how crazy it is to let stretch marks dictate what I do, or post, or rethink what I ‘need’ to wear. It was ridiculous, and I just didn’t want to allow something that made feel embarrassed tell me what to do!”
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But she admits she didn’t feel totally confident posting the un-retouched image.
“I was really nervous,” says Mendiola. “Social media is quite a competitive platform in the Philippines, especially for models and influencers, so the only thing I was sure of was that I was doing something against the grain.”
“I wasn’t sure how people would react to it, especially after seeing it in the middle of a feed which is probably [filled] with women who look like they’re fresh off a runway or fit beyond belief,” she continues. “I was really, really insecure about it, but part of me just thought, ‘Oh what the heck.’ People need to realize it’s not always the way it seems online, at least not for me.”
Despite her fears, Mendiola’s post was praised by may of her followers — it now has over 21,000 likes and hundreds of supportive comments.
“It was so emotional for me!” she says of the positive response. “I cried reading some of the comments, especially the ones where people share their own experiences, or how much confidence it gave them, or just supporting each other. I got hundreds of personal messages from people just thanking me. I just never expected so much love and honesty coming in. I didn’t realize it would get this far and touch people the way it did. I am so incredibly grateful.”