The 28-year-old model opened up about her journey to body positivity on her YouTube channel in August

By Katie Intner
December 27, 2019 10:30 AM

Four months ago, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model Emily DiDonato, 28, opened up about her struggles with body image acceptance throughout her modeling career — and ever since she’s been blown away by the reactions she’s received.

“I was building my YouTube channel, and I realized that I had this very engaged female audience,” the model tells PEOPLE exclusively at Aerie’s Delivering Good holiday campaign, supporting women and girls in homeless shelters. “I felt like I had this channel where I was really showing people the most real, authentic me, and I wanted to use it in a meaningful way. It was a message that I was ready to share.”

Credit: Michael Simon/ Courtesy of Aerie

In August, DiDonato filmed a 15-minute video on her YouTube channel detailing her experience as a model, recalling times when agencies told her she was “too big” causing her to lose 20 pounds, and the moment she experienced true self-acceptance.

“So many people reached out, and so many outlets picked it up. I was blown away,” she says. “I had girls like Karlie Kloss repost it, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I couldn’t believe how much it resonated with so many different types of people. But, I mean, now that I think about it, it’s actually a no brainer that it does.”

The model, who has graced the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and starred in Maybelline campaigns, credits body-positive brands like Aerie for giving her the push she needed to share her story.

“A couple of years back, I’m not sure how well that message would have been received,” DiDonato explains. “But I do think, because of brands like American Eagle and Aerie, who really champion this message, it has slowly changed our industry and made it more acceptable for women of all shapes and sizes to be a full force.”

She also looked to other industry leaders, like fellow Aerie model Iskra Lawrence, for support.

“Iskra is one of those people who posts things that are positive and relatable,” DiDonato adds. “So I can wake up and go, ‘Okay, I’m not the only one who feels that way today.’ I tend to veer away from following people who post the perfect, retouched version of themselves.”

DiDonato has even jumped onto the TikTok bandwagon, but is mindful about who she follows.

“There are so many outlets that are purely there for comedic relief or positivity, like TikTok, YouTube or Instagram, and that is what I gravitate towards. You have to remember, if you want to feel good, think about who you’re following.”