Rick Day
Gabrielle Olya
April 10, 2017 11:34 AM

Rosa Barney can confidently pose in lingerie, but the curve model says she wasn’t always comfortable in her skin.

“When I was a kid, and even as a teenager, I always felt really out of place,” Barney, 27, tells PEOPLE. “I was always the tallest kid in the class — taller than the boys. I was never small in any way, whether it was height or being bigger in the middle, and it was definitely something I was very self-conscious of. It wasn’t really until I was an adult, and actually the true turnaround was when I was approached to model, that I really felt the confidence that I have now.”

But Barney still struggled with self-esteem when she started out as a curve model. When her agent suggested that she take some lingerie photos to include in her portfolio, Barney hesitated.

“I started with a one-piece bathing suit,” she says. “I felt really uncomfortable, but when I got on set, the photographer and the team were like, ‘You’re rocking it!’ It took other people to give me the encouragement and to see myself through their eyes in order for me to get to the point that I’m at now. It definitely was baby steps! It can be a dark place to feel that way, and I’m so happy to have this light of positivity around me now.”

Rick Day

As a size 12/14, Barney says she sometimes gets passed over for jobs because she is on the smaller side for a curve model, but she maintains her body positive outlook.

“I don’t care what anybody says — I love my body and I love the way I look and that’s all that matters,” she says.

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Barney, whose father is Black and mother is Italian and Irish, hopes the modeling industry will continue to diversify to include women of all shapes and backgrounds.

“Women come in every shape and size, so why can’t models come in every shape and size?” she says. “Models either have to be a size 0 or size 16, but those aren’t the only two sizes of people we have in the world. I’m also mixed race and that’s another thing that I feel is underrepresented. When you go to castings people are looking for the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, or the African American girl. They want to put everyone in boxes, but we don’t fit in boxes. We’re all so different and it’s a beautiful thing, and we should embrace that.”

Barney — who has posed for Macy’s, J.C. Penny, Trish McEvoy and Ashley Stuart — hopes her inclusion in the modeling world can be an inspiration for other women who have previously been unrepresented.

“I always felt there wasn’t anybody that looked like me, and now I can be that person for somebody else,” she says. “The modeling industry needs to be more inclusive and diverse, but we are getting there slowly — I’m a testament to that.”

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As someone who struggled with body image herself, Barney offers some advice for anyone else who may be struggling: “Body acceptance doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “You can’t just flip a switch and all of a sudden love yourself. I still have days when I don’t feel my best. I want people to understand that it’s a journey, and part of that journey is taking care of yourself — that means making healthier choices, going to the gym. When you start to put in that care and effort, you will love yourself, because it’s not just a surface level thing. The most important thing is loving yourself from the inside out.”

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