Leah Stanley, 32, is a plus-size model and advocate for body positivity in Schenectady, New York. As many women start the new year struggling with strict diets, she focuses on self-acceptance and self-confidence. Stanley shared her story and advice with TODAY.
As a kid, I was the biggest girl in the class — the butt of all the jokes. Something that happened to me in the 4th grade really stayed with me for years: I had gone to school in a tank top and a pair of shorts, I sat down next to a little boy and he told me he didn't want to sit next to me and my fat arms.
From that point forward, I spent a lot of time covering up my arms with cardigans and sweatshirts. Through high school, I wore sweatshirts to school every day.
Then just a few years ago, I said, what does it matter if I have these big arms? Covered up or not, people can still tell they’re big, so why am I spending my time living uncomfortably wearing cardigans when it's 90 degrees out to satisfy the judgment of others? That doesn't make sense. So I did a closet clean out and I ditched cardigans for about a year.
While I was always confident, I did always fight with my thighs and my arms. Those were my two biggest struggles. But I was finally able to acknowledge my body and my arms and say, these are the only arms I'm ever going to have. Don't hide them. That's what really pushed me to find a whole new level of confidence. I just decided it's time for me to be comfortable, live the life I want and dress the way I want.
Growing up, I really didn't have a plus-size role model, which means I was always going out on a limb, fashion-wise. I never really knew what to wear. What I knew was that big girls aren’t supposed to wear big prints. Big girls shouldn't wear stripes. Big girls should only wear black.
If I had seen someone else like myself dressing fashionably, my fashion sense probably would have kicked in so much sooner.
About five years ago, I was scrolling through Instagram and I discovered the whole world of body positivity. Having been bullied, I knew it was my time to show other women and young girls and people in general that it's OK to be yourself.
I actually didn't even own my first two-piece swimsuit until a few years ago — what I used to wear to the beach was a one-piece swimsuit with a big pair of men’s board shorts to cover up my thighs.
It was really the body positive moment that drove me towards finding a two-piece and just putting myself out there to wear it. At first, I was hesitant to pose in swimsuits, but after the first couple of times, I realized people want to see this. They need this.
To step outside your comfort zone, I have a process that I always share with other people.
If you are uncomfortable wearing a crop top, but you really want to, go online and order one that you are swooning over — maybe it's the cut, maybe it's the color, maybe it’s sparkly. Something that makes you want to wear it. Then you're going to put it on, you’re going to watch TV in it, you're going to do the dishes in it, you're going to go to the mailbox in it and slowly you're going to work up towards going to the store in it. Then maybe going grocery shopping in it. It's just little steps that will take you a long way.
I get online trolls and bullies all the time. They do it because they're struggling internally so they're coming from a place of hate on the inside and that's what they radiate. They have some of their internal demons going on and they can't look at someone like me and say, how can she be happy?
I don't do the diet thing and I’m currently not on an exercise plan. I go on three walks a day with my dog, and for me, that's about mental health. We can't even think about our physical health until we're there mentally.
If I decide to change my habits, like start eating more vegetables, it's not because I hate my size. It's because I just want to do something a little healthier. I do go to doctors and I am considered a healthy fat person.
If you're struggling with your body or self-image, find little things about you that you love and focus on those. Over time, you're going to start finding more things that you love about yourself and that's how you can start to grow your confidence.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.