May 31, 2023

Christen Harper explains how her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit career is a full circle moment.  (Illustration by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo / Photo: Getty Images)

Christian Harper shares how her Sports Illustrated swimsuit career is a full circle moment. (Illustration by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo / Photo: Getty Images)

It will is Yahoo Life’s body image series, which delves into the journeys of influential and inspirational figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

You may recognize Christen Harper from her previous appearances in Sports Illustrated swimsuitthe latest to earn her Rookie of the Year title in 2022. But modeling swimwear didn’t always come naturally.

“I didn’t even go to a pool party in high school because I was too worried about how my body looked. So it’s funny now that I model bikinis all over the world,” the model and designer tells Yahoo Life. “At the time it was my biggest fear because it was a constant comparison.”

It was a dynamic that played out in different areas of Harper’s life as she pursued modeling from a young age. She remembers being compared to other girls in the industry since she started working at age 9. While she didn’t feel any pressure in her job, she noted that it wasn’t her livelihood at the time, but the way it affected her life outside of castings became apparent.

“I didn’t realize the impact it had on my body image, but I modeled from about nine to about 14 or 15, and I passed out,” explains Harper. “So towards the end I was dropped by my agency because they told me I didn’t fit the sample anymore. And that’s when you fit into the clothes, they didn’t fit you.”

She continues, “I remember times on set where they cut open the back of my pants. The back of my jeans was just wide open because I couldn’t button them. From the front, you know, it looked like the jeans fit. That’s so embarrassing.”

In retrospect, she acknowledges how those experiences taught her to think about her body. “Feeling like my body was the most important thing about me. And the most important thing I could do as a young girl was fit a certain size,” she recalls.

That became particularly difficult when her body evolved along with her friends as a teenager.

“I was developing around that time and I was a little bit curvier than my friends and not the same size as them,” she says. “My whole life was about, if I could lose just a little bit of weight, I’d be happy.”

That was until she started to see what happiness and true confidence looked like in others that she believed mirrored her. Namely Kate Upton.

Kate Upton appeared on her first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover in 2012. (Photo: Getty Images)

Kate Upton appeared on her first Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover in 2012. (Photo: Getty Images)

“Seeing Kate Upton come in Sports illustrated at that time when i was in high school it was like i changed my life because i realized i can be beautiful. I would look at her like she’s happy, she’s confident,” says Harper.

Upton was just 19 when she landed her first cover of the magazine in 2012 and gained international recognition. At the time, she was praised for representing the diversity of the body not otherwise seen.

“I started seeing women in the media with bodies that looked like me,” says Harper. “But [Upton] really impressed me and how I came to see myself.”

Sports Illustrated swimsuit went on to pave the way for more size inclusivity with model Ashley Graham on the cover of 2016. As the publication became infamous for helping advance the industry, Harper set her sights on appearing in it herself one day.

She returned to modeling while in college to help pay for school, though she still didn’t have “the best relationship” with her body. “I was still being told by agencies that I was too big and that I would try to make myself a little bit smaller to get them to hire me,” she explains. “But over time I realized I have so much more to give than just my body. I come on set and people hire me again because I’m a hard worker, I’m a good energy on set. Those things I began to realize as my magic and my power. And that has nothing to do with my body.”

She also now had proof that finding success was possible because women of all shapes and sizes were successful in modeling elsewhere. “Comparison will always be there. That’s why it’s important to see people who are like you. So you can start to realize that you have a place and that you’re good enough just the way you are,” she says.

She gave chase Sports Illustrated swimsuit by participating in the 2021 Swim Search, which earned her a spot in the pages of the magazine. “It’s really a full-circle moment,” she says. Three issues later, it’s still her figure that’s featured in the publication, but she hopes her experience speaking about the importance of inclusion really shows.

Harper now appears in her third issue of the magazine.  (Photo: Amanda Pratt/Sports Illustrated Swimsuit)

Harper appears in her third issue of the magazine. (Photo: Amanda Pratt/Sports Illustrated swimsuit)

“It’s such a trickle down effect for generations and generations. And I just feel like little me would just be so proud to see women who are just completely themselves. It’s not about how they look and how beautiful they are and how perfect they are. It’s about seeing women who are confident and happy. And you saw that in the pages of these magazines,” she says. “I don’t want girls looking at the magazine and saying, ‘Oh, I want to be a model.’ I want them to look at that and make sure they’re going to be something great. Go into science, go into anything. It’s about helping girls feel that confidence and then go through life with that confidence.”

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