"He never hit me, but he did throw me up against a wall," she says of the ex. You have to work through this.' " But only after hitting emotional rock bottom did Graham begin to build herself back up. I was looking in the mirror, crying, and I started just saying, ' I love you.' " From that day on, she made a conscious effort to speak to herself positively."I didn't know to get out then because I was so insecure." When a different boyfriend dumped her, "He said, ' I'm afraid you're going to be as fat as my mom.' " The now oft-quoted remark, Graham says, "was the start of how I began to look at my body and relate it to men. "We've been taught to say negative things to ourselves—to pinch our fat and be like, ' One day it'll leave.' To say ' Sorry' when someone bumps into us. "But it didn't happen overnight." While Graham's motivation to love herself at any size was pure, it also ended up being pragmatic: Her dad, a business consultant, had long advised her to approach modeling as an entrepreneur. "I had to realize that if I didn't really love who I was and if I couldn't appreciate this—my body—as my moneymaker, then I wasn't going to make any money."At 21, determined to change her relationships with men, she decided to become abstinent."I went from a size 12 to a size 18," she says, trying to keep up with the constant partying and networking that seemed effortless to the other models and agents around her."It was a dark place." At the time, Graham couldn't see herself as beautiful at a size 18, but more than that, "It was the way that I was treating my body.Graham was scouted at a mall in her hometown at age 12, already 5 feet 9 inches and a size 12. "But it was automatic because plus starts at size 8." That's not to say she was insecure about the term."Confidence starts at home," says Graham, "and something my mother never did was look in the mirror and say she was ugly or fat." Still, she was hardly immune to teenage struggles. I was never the prettiest, never the skinniest, never the fastest in my sports. Then, all of a sudden, people were like, ' You're gorgeous.' And I was like, ' What?! At 17, Graham signed with Wilhelmina Models and moved to New York City on her own.Like, Oh, I'm not pretty or skinny enough for men."At her lowest point, Graham called her mom in tears, planning to quit modeling and move home to Nebraska. You're there for a purpose,' " recalls Graham. "I was looking for love in the wrong places," Graham says. I know that working out releases endorphins and makes me feel my best."Graham has been working up a serious sweat ever since."I wanted to keep a level head and make sure I was dating not in a lustful way but in a logical way." Graham also realized that part of reclaiming her body was prioritizing her health, weight aside. Today, she exercises three mornings a week and recently took up boxing.
This full issue is available September 27 on national newsstands.'s first-ever size 16 cover star in February, closely followed by a screen-melting role as Joe Jonas's love interest in DNCE's "Toothbrush" video (35 million views and counting).
She met Ervin in the elevator at church in New York City.
Their chemistry was instant, but she kept her pledge.
I didn't understand the health aspect of it." The former high school basketball and volleyball player stopped exercising, losing her tone and definition.
Within a year of moving to New York, "I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ' I hate you. "I'm looking at my cellulite and my back fat and thinking, I have to go shoot lingerie tomorrow and smile, and I am heinous. "Her splintering self-esteem propelled her through a series of toxic romances. "I thought I could feel appreciated in my body through guys." Graham speaks openly about being in an abusive relationship during this period.