The plus-size ‘Sports Illustrated’ swimsuit model gets real about finding her body confidence, erasing stigmas that fat women don’t work out, and eating what makes you feel good.

Plus-size model Hunter McGrady isn't afraid to share her love of chicken fingers. When the plus-size model and I sat down after The Knot x Kleinfeld's size-inclusive bridal show at the 2019 CurvyCon in New York City, the fried food somehow became the through line of our conversation, ranging from the moment she knew she loved her future husband (over a third date at Sticky's Finger Joint) to how eating them alone at a restaurant has made us both, as plus-sized women, feel self-conscious about how other people perceive our bodies.

Even though Hunter has strutted down many runways, became Sports Illustrated's first curve model (at size 16 in 2017), and was the first plus-size woman on the cover of The Knot this year, she still sometimes struggles with confidence. Years of bullying and living in a world that constantly tries to make you feel bad about yourself can do that to you! But through daily self-affirmations in the mirror and trying to prioritize loving herself over listening to the haters, she's emerged as a body positive icon in the industry, and she only hopes to impact more change in pop culture's perception of fat people.

Below, she shares her long journey to feeling comfortable in her skin, how she practices self-care by cooking with her husband, and what she eats to make herself feel good instead of eating her feelings.

Credit: Getty Images/Paul Archuleta

Rachael Ray Every Day: Did you have an a-ha moment where you felt comfortable with yourself and you were happy with your body, or was it a slowly over time progression that you've finally kind of come to a good place now?

Hunter McGrady: Confidence is not just an overnight thing. You don't just wake up, and go, "Oh my God, I'm confident! This is great, wow, how easy was that? I just prayed, and it happened!" For me it has taken 10 years. It's a slow progression, but you have these little a-ha moments through your life where you're like, "Wow, I don't feel like I'm shackled to these chains anymore, I don't feel like my stretch marks are so bad anymore, I don't feel like my rolls are so bad when I sit down, I'm comfortable with myself." Little by little you chip away at this insecurity buildup, peeling back a layer every day. It's a lifelong journey, and there's no answer to how you get there, but there's things you can do to feel good. For me, positive affirmation is something I do every single day. When I was 16 years old said, my therapist said to me: "Hunter, stand in the mirror naked and look at yourself, and tell yourself what you want to love about yourself, and you will love yourself, you will love that about yourself." I've done it every single day for the past 10 years.

What are some of the things that you say to yourself, and have they changed over the years?

I first started with "you are beautiful," because that was something that I never felt growing up; I never saw anyone that looks like me in media. Then it started getting more precise: your hips are beautiful, your rolls are beautiful, your stretch marks don't define you. I go little by little and remind myself to protect myself from those bad thoughts and be positive.

I've been thinking a lot about how food and body positivity connect. My relationship with food when I was younger was bad—I was like, "Oh my metabolism is slow, I have big bones, but if I don't eat that grilled cheese, will I be skinny?" How have you changed the way that you look at food, and how do you feel about it now?

They definitely go hand in hand. Food was the first thing we worked on when I first went into therapy, because I was the same way, telling myself I wasn't going to eat, or I'd just eat celery or salad without any dressing. I was the most unhealthy in my entire life then, until a nutritionist told me I need food for fuel, and to not get upset with myself if I had a piece of cake. I had to learn to enjoy myself once in a while. My relationship with food changed and did a complete 180. I used to hate food, I used to think it was going to hurt me in my career, and it was going to be something that held me back. Now it's something that I appreciate and savor! It's a huge part of my life because I travel all the time and I get to enjoy so many different cuisines.

When you travel, do you eat alone? If I'm eating alone, I get self-conscious about what people are thinking about me, like why I'm ordering chicken tenders, and if I should have had a salad instead. Have you ever felt that way?

I dine alone 80 percent of the time, because I'm a model and on the go constantly, in different cities and on planes and in airports. And if I want to eat chicken fingers, I'm going to frickin' eat chicken fingers, you better believe that, and I'm going to get the chocolate cake too. I used to feel so shameful, because I thought people were going to look at me, and think, "Of course this plus-sized woman's going to eat this." Then I wondered why I cared about what they think? They have no hold on who I am, what I do, or what I represent. I know I'm never going to make everybody happy. You just have to focus on making yourself happy and taking care of your mental health and your body. Eat what you want to eat and do what you want to do, because everyone's going to have something to say about something.

There's a difference between eating your feelings and eating what makes you feel good. What comfort food makes you happiest?

I love Sticky's Finger Joint in New York. I order the Buffalo Balsamic Blue and the Salted Caramel Pretzel. My husband took me there on our third date, and I was like, "We're done, propose to me here!" Even when I'm having a bad day, he will bring me a chicken finger and it will cure it. Chicken fingers are life's best food.

In pop culture, there's always been a thing about supermodels eating junk food, and being like, "Oh I love eating cheeseburgers, but I'm this small!" How do you feel about people flaunting how much they eat, and how they can still be a size two?

I think it's another way of digging at plus-sized women, and I'm like, "Sorry that's just not my genetics. Don't make me feel bad because that's not my genetic makeup!" I'm happy with who I am, so why do you have to make me feel bad about being bigger and what I can or should eat? It's something that you see all the time, and it's kind of bullshit. A lot of us don't realize how detrimental that is. There are so many kids and teenagers who look up to these people and it's damaging.

Did you experience any bullying within the modeling industry?

Oh my God, within the modeling industry, within my whole life. I was so bullied that I was actually homeschooled, and I stopped modeling for about five years. As a straight-size model, I could not keep up with the lifestyle. I'm 6 feet tall, and my frame sits at about a size 16 to 18. That's where I'm comfortable, that's where I'm healthy, that's where I'm happy. To maintain a size two was just unreasonable and unobtainable. I got a lot of people saying, "You're obviously too big, your hips are too wide" My hips were my problem, but guess what? My hips are what put me on Sports Illustrated, and I just shot my third season [of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue] so my hips are what got me the job.

There is such a horrible stigma and stereotypes that bigger women just sit on the couch and don't work out. But looking at you and how you work out, and women like Lizzo who can dance and sing for hours and not get winded, it's clearly not true.

Girl is doing choreography for an hour and a half straight and killing it every single time, and you're going to look at her and say plus-size women don't work out or have stamina or aren't in shape? I'm in the best shape of my life and I work out every single day with a trainer. That is another way to make women feel guilty and bad about who they are, and I call bullshit on it every time.

What makes you feel good about yourself while you're at working out, and not feel like it's a chore? Cardio? Weights? Classes?

I work with a trainer named Megan Roup, and she created The Sculpt Society, which is kind of like a dance cardio workout while lifting weights. It's a little bit of everything. It's kind of like hit training, interval training, and dance workout. I also love to do rumble and box to get my aggression out on those bags. Sometimes my husband comes with me and we punch together. There's so many fun exercises out there, so why just sit in the gym on the elliptical? I'll get bored if I don't do different things.

After work and working out, how do you practice self-care at home? Do you like to cook?

My husband and I love to cook. We actually love to make homemade pasta like ravioli and spaghetti. We got a KitchenAid stand mixer for our wedding registry in teal blue. I was jumping up and down when we got it, and my husband is Italian, so we had to get the pasta attachment. One of my favorite things to do during my time off is to cook with him. It's really relaxing for me. I also love to bake. Since it's finally fall, you better believe I'm cranking out pumpkin spice bread, banana loaf bread, and pies. One year I clocked in at 72 pies that I made during fall. I went nutso, I know!

You had a small but impactful role on Shrill, where you represented the confident fat woman that helped Aidy Bryant's character Annie embrace her own body. It helped me love myself more—how do you think it would have impacted you if you saw it when you were a kid?

Every episode I cried, because I related to it so much. Aidy is incredible and she's portraying what all of us have gone through. If I saw this when I was young, I would've been able to relate to somebody. I was trying so hard to go against what my body wanted me to do, and what I knew I was supposed to look like. I would tell myself not to worry so much and enjoy being a teenager and have fun with your friend and eat that piece of cake for God's sake! We need to see more shows like Shrill, because society's going to tell me that I'm not a lead because of my body size. But we can and should be.

At Rachael Ray Every Day, we have a hashtag #LikeaBoss. What makes you feel like a boss?

You know what? Connecting with people like you and everybody at this event, CurvyCon. It's nothing other than saying, "You know what? Yeah we're pretty frickin' cool!" We're both cool, we're both are taking a stand in this industry, and using our voices instead of being silent. To all the haters: You're not going to tell me to shut up—I'm only going to be louder.