Hunter McGrady and Sports Illustrated Swim Models on Body Diversity: 'It's About Time'

Sports Illustrated made its focus body diversity in the 2017 Swimsuit issue — and the models could not be happier.

Hunter McGrady, who debuted in the issue as its curviest model ever, was thrilled to see the magazine push for change.

“It’s about time that we are seeing this in the media, like come on now, it’s been long enough,” McGrady, 23, tells PEOPLE. “I feel so proud to be a part of it.”

And three-time cover model Kate Upton, 24 agrees that the issue is empowering for women.

“Every page you flip through, every woman is different, different shape, different size and different age,” she says. “The one thing that’s consistent through the magazine is that they feel confident and they feel good, and they exude that.”

Robyn Lawley, the first curvy model to pose for the magazine in 2015 — and who again graced its pages this year — says body diversity is something she’s been working toward her entire career.

“Considering my whole career has been based on that, I’m thrilled and very excited, and to actually witness change and be a part of the actual change is the best part,” Lawley, 27, says. “Having Serena Williams, Christie Brinkley, having iconic athletes, there’s something literally for everyone, it’s very exciting.”

One of those “iconic athletes,” Aly Raisman, was wowed by just how many female athletes are represented in the pages.

“They never had this many athletes, and it’s amazing,” the gold medal-winning Olympian, 22, says. “I’m 5’2 and as a young girl I didn’t know it was possible for me to model in this issue because I wasn’t tall enough. I think it’s amazing that now it’s changing and you can be any size, any height and any size jeans you can be and I think that’s amazing.”

Raisman has plenty of fans among the other models, including Bianca Balti, who was named SI‘s 2017 Rookie of the Year.

“My favorite is the sporty and muscular type that was shown, like finally in a Sports Illustrated magazine,” Balti, 32, says. “My favorite was Aly and Simone [Biles], because I spent the whole summer looking at them at the Olympics and I feel like it’s so feminine and beautiful.”

Plus-size model Hunter McGrady stars in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue

Sports Illustrated has released its 2017 swimsuit issue featuring one of its most diverse line-ups yet - Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Robyn Lawley all star in the magazine, with Kate Upton on the cover.

The issue is full of beautiful women sporting different swimsuits, but one model in particular has set tongues wagging because her body is larger than the rest.

Hunter McGrady is bigger than the women we normally see emerging from the sea or arching their backs in the sand, and so of course her inclusion is still causing a big reaction.

McGrady says she cried when she found out she was going to be a part of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.

“I was shocked because this was a dream of mine. I don't even think it's hit me yet. I think that once it comes out I'll be like, ‘Oh my God, it's really real!’ You know what I mean? It still feels like a dream to me.”

And instead of wearing an actual swimming costume or bikini, McGrady is in fact wearing bodypaint cleverly designed to look like a swimsuit.

She undoubtedly looks fabulous, but McGrady is the only woman of her size in the line-up - the vast majority are the ‘straight-size’ models that dominate the industry.

However the issue also features top athletes Serena Williams and Simone Biles, and has received praise for including strong women whose bodies help them achieve incredible sporting feats.

McGrady is a champion of diversity in the modelling industry and is an inspiration for women all over the world because she doesn’t try to hide or cover her body, as so many of us who aren’t model-sized do.

“My main goal is to get across to women that you are able to love your body at any size and that you're sexy and beautiful at any size,” McGrady said. “Beauty is not a size and I'm really happy that the industry is accepting body diversity.”

Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue was first created in 1964 to boost sales, but many people now find it unbelievable that it still exists, seemingly objectifying women just as much as many now defunct lads mags did.

In 2013, the swimsuit issue sold ten times more than an average edition of the magazine. But in an age where naked women are just one internet search away, the magazine has been forced to create some sort of controversy or talking point each year.

For 2017, that talking point may just be Hunter McGrady. We only wish her inclusion wasn’t such a big deal.

Hunter McGrady, 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Star, Is the Body-Image Hero We Need

The Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated always makes a splash (sorry), and 2017's is no different. This year you can find Kate Upton on the cover for the third time, along with model Hunter McGrady, a rookie SI model—and the curviest model ever to appear in the magazine.

It's a welcome addition to what's already a game-changing issue, featuring both perennial BAMF Serena Williams and 63-year-old supermodel Christie Brinkley. McGrady, 23, initially began her career as a straight-size model but never got a lot of work.

"I remember being 16 years old, and I drove down with my mom to a T-shirt line that had booked me for the day," McGrady tells "I showed up, and they told me I had to go home because I was too big, or I was bigger than they thought. They didn't even give me a chance to try on any of the T-shirts; they just had already made up their minds that I was too big for them," she says. "I remember being sad, upset, embarrassed, but, more important, angry, because they had judged me without even letting me try anything on. I felt very sad for them, not for me. Because they missed out on that opportunity."

So McGrady decided to change her attitude. "I just decided I'm not going to live my life for people to criticize my body, because I have only one of these—and I'm going to make it count, and I'm going to love it," she says. "As I started getting taller and my hips started coming in, I started getting stretch marks, and I fell in love with them, because that meant that I was growing, and it meant that I was becoming a woman. That was OK with me. I started getting cellulite, just like every other woman in the world. And I started to accept those things because to me that was beautiful. I was becoming a woman! That was so glamorous to me."

When McGrady saw plus-size peers like Robin Lawley and Candice Huffine on the cover of Vogue Italia, a lightbulb went on. "By that time I had gained some weight, and I was about a size 10-12. And that’s what kind of opened my eyes to the plus-size world," she told Sports Illustrated. Clearly, she's been successful.

When she learned she was going to be in SI's swimsuit edition, McGrady burst into tears. "I knew not only what it meant for me, which was a huge success in my career and a dream of mine coming true, but also what it would and what it will continue to mean for other women when they see the issue," she says. "This is a time when we need diversity and acceptance.…I've even had men message me and say thank you for shedding a light on the way they look at women. It's so important. I feel so proud of this issue and to be in it with these women."

Now McGrady is quickly making a name for herself as a body-image activist, and we're here for it. "Beauty is not a number. It has no limits. I have never felt sexier than I did in this shoot," she wrote on her Instagram. "Women, for anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable or insecure because of rolls, or stretch marks, or cellulite, or acne, or felt like you didn't measure up because you weren't represented in the magazines—THIS IS FOR YOU!"

If that didn't hit you right in your feels, no worries. There's more: "You are beautiful," McGrady continued. "You are STRONG. You are powerful and together we need to lift each other up and inspire one another. There's too much going on on this world to let each other fall by the wayside."

Besides her powerful words, what we also love about McGrady is how proud she is of her body. It's obvious in the issue—plus that swimsuit is painted onto her body. (Yup.) She has nothing to hide, and why should she? Our hope is that while this may be the first time she appears in the pages of Sports Illustrated, it will definitely not be the last—because we need more body-positive (role) models like her in our lives.

McGrady is grounded, too, and doesn't see herself or her fellow models as being that different from the people looking at them in magazines. "I want women and men to realize that at the end of the day, we all take off our masks and we lay down and go to sleep," she says, "Even the people you see in the media, they have a team of hair and makeup and lighting behind them. And they lay their head down at night like you and me and everybody else. They take their makeup off and their eyelashes off. And that's something to keep in the back of your mind. We are all human, we all have 'flaws'—or what society deems as flaws. We're supposed to enjoy life and have fun and not be so caught up in what our image is."

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