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Felicity Hayward, plus size model
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Meet the Londoner who became one of the UK’s first plus-size models

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Felicity Hayward moved to London to be a photographer. Instead, she became a plus-size icon and body positivity campaigner. This is her story…

‘I was born in Bury St Edmunds and grew up wanting to be a fashion photographer. At 17, I moved from Suffolk to London to study photography at the University of East London. At that time, the idea of being a model hadn’t made it anywhere into my brain! I’d grown up curvy and as a bit of an outsider. There was no one out there on TV, in magazines or in fashion who looked like me. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was in a pub dancing to Diana Ross, that I got asked to do a shoot as Anna Nicole Smith. I just thought it would be a fun thing to do.

‘The photographer was a guy called Miles Aldridge, who’s one of my heroes. It was a dream come true, but I thought: I’m a bit of a gimmick – I’ll be thrown around a few fashion magazines, but this isn’t something that’s going to kick off. Little did I know, the shoot was my first step towards becoming one of the UK’s first plus-size models.

‘Back then, we had a few high-street brands that did plus-size fashion, but it was all a bit dated. I was shot as the first plus-size model for TK Maxx in 2012, and did a MAC Cosmetics campaign. People online started saying, “We thought we’d never be represented – we thought we’d never be in these magazines.” Every time I got those reactions, I thought: It shouldn’t be abnormal that I’m here. It lit a fire in me. I idolised women like Beth Ditto for being unapologetically themselves, and I thought that if she was doing it in music, I could do it in fashion.

‘Britain has some of the worst body-image issues in the world. We’ve got much better in the last five years, but we still have issues. Several years ago I started a body-positivity brand called Self Love Brings Beauty. It’s based on the idea that there are no two people on the planet who are the same, so you have to aspire to be the best version of yourself. It’s such a simple message and it’s something I’ll always push. I see myself as a role model: I’m the self-love fairy godmother!

‘As much as I want to spread positivity, there will always be challenges. I posted a naked picture on Instagram recently. It was a picture of me holding a glass of wine and celebrating, taken from behind. Naturally, someone complained. But showing naked bodies in a non-sexualised way helps people with their own body confidence. The more people come to me with hate, the more I have to keep pushing.

‘When the TV show “Naked Beach” came along, I went to a casting and it felt like the perfect match. The concept is based on a study which proves that being naked around other naked bodies significantly improves your body image. For each episode of the show, three contributors came to a villa in Greece. There were eight of us hosting, and we were there to help them change their views on their bodies.

‘The whole idea of “naked” is different for each person. It could be that it’s taking all their make-up off or showing their chest. It really was an emotional journey: I found out where these people’s ideas of their flaws came from. And I was there the whole time, showing my cellulite, my stretch marks and my back rolls, and saying, “Yes, I’m a model. We do get Photoshopped in some of our work. But I am real and I want you to embrace yourself.”’

Watch Naked Beach’ on Thursdays at 8pm on Channel 4.

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