Founder Laura Jane Kenny interviews plus-size model Adriana LeBaron on modeling, her background as an athlete and how she sustains her own body positivity.
Laura Jane: Tell me about your personal history with your body growing up?
Adriana: I didn’t have a body positive idol until Serena Williams came into tennis. I remember seeing her in high school and thinking, “That’s what I wanted to look like.” I was playing volleyball 11 to 12 months out of the year and Serena was what I saw as a goal , what I thought was beautiful, and what I wanted to work towards. She was my Spirit animal.
I was just really lucky that my parents were willing and able to put me in sports. Sports were the first place where I tried to find a sense of self and confidence. I am lucky too that I have a very strong mother who taught me self-respect. I was very grateful that I never had a mom who said, “Are you sure you want to eat that?” My mom didn’t grow up with sports in her own life but when her children started becoming sports fanatics , she adapted to her kid’s passions. She started to understand volleyball and become supportive of my passion for competition.
I went to a private, all girls, high school that was probably more formative than anything I did in college. It was a major foundation for me in terms of understanding myself and figuring out what I was comfortable with – what I liked and didn’t like. Single sex education isn’t for everyone, but I am all for it; it was the perfect fit for me. It was awesome, you could literally wake up with no makeup on, not worry about what you looked like in the slightest, and go to school and focus on school. My high school gave me the confidence and really helped shape who I was and who I wanted to be. The person who I came into high school was very different from who I was when I graduated.
LJ: You were an athlete for sure much of your life. How has being an athlete and playing volleyball played a part in your body image?
A: One thing that was hard about volleyball was that I always felt like I wasn’t feminine enough, not in the sense of looking masculine, but in being aggressive, in saying what I felt. That was an interesting part of being an athlete, not in how I looked but in how I was perceived. There is always this internal see-saw within female athletes, I think, concerning who they are as an athlete, and who they are outside of their sport.
In terms of my body, I was always a bigger athlete. In volleyball, there is this unspoken formula for what your are “supposed to” look like - 5’9 and taller and no more than 150 pounds. I was never told outright that I should lose weight, but I was told that I was big and could always be more fit. I always felt pressure because of that, but the truth was that when I was performing, it didn’t matter. I had some pressures in high school — volleyball is really big in the Bay Area. In my age group, there were only a handful of athletes who looked like me – tall, strong, and far from thin. I think it’s because of my size that I was only nominated for all-league second team and not all-league first team.
When I was injured, I didn’t know what I was anymore. I had spent my whole life being an athlete. There are many worse things in life that you can experience, but as a young athlete, being injured was one of the worst things I had gone through in my life. I couldn’t get up and go to class. I was so depressed. If I wasn’t playing volleyball, what else was I? I felt useless.
I literally went from being a size 12, 180 pounds, up to a size 16, 220 pounds after six knee surgeries over two years. My Junior year of college, I went from working out all the time to studying abroad and living with a homestay family in Croatia. Abroad, I ate a lot, was very sad, and slept a lot. I was in a graduate level type of program and I put all this pressure on myself to learn the language because I am Croatian. I probably gained 30-40 pounds that semester alone. My own body positivity is always up and down but it was the toughest during my college years.
Luckily, I had an amazing family. They weren’t going to let me fail. Having a Dad who was a collegiate athlete who also had a sports injury was a lifeline.
LJ: So now you are paid to model and are hired for the exact size you are. Tell me more about what it’s been like to be a plus-size model.
A: This last year, I tried out for Full Figured Fashion week and I made the cut for the second time. Things have kind of blown up since I had the opportunity to walk for FFFWeek in 2014. I think Plus evolving as an actual movement has been long overdue. I am excited to be in any part of it.
The more that I’ve been modeling, the more I try to approach it like an athlete. You need that confidence factor. I remember my first couple of shoots and not feeling very on. It showed in the pictures. I had to tell myself that ‘They are paying you to be here. They want you to look like this.’
One of the most amazing moments was when I did Full Figured Fashion Week in 2014. We have these fittings where all the designers come into this big room and they come with racks and racks of clothing. They pick out which models will wear which designers. I remember trying on clothing and looking around and seeing all the women in their underwear and trying on everything and I had this moment where I almost cried. I remember thinking, ‘These are my people.’
To have these moments in these fitting where you’re looking around and thinking, not only does no one care, but how amazing to collectively have this different sense of who we are and that we’re all part of the same team and that it is okay. I remember thinking, ‘I am making a memory.’
It was a vastly different experience then say when I was a collegiate athlete. When I was in college, I remember going into the locker room after practice and the upper classmate would strip as soon as they walked in, and shower right before going to class. And the whole time I was in college, I changed in the bathroom stall. I choose that. That’s what I felt comfortable with. That’s what I did.
LJ: And what about social media —what has that been like as someone who has become a plus size model recently?
A: Instagram or snapchat are completely different real time platforms that enable sharing of one’s self. After I made my profile public, I took a moment and thought, ‘What am I about? If anyone can access this, if you’re going to practice what you’re preaching, what are you going to do here?’ For me, it’s about being a good student, it’s about studying the most prolific models; I look at them and try to follow by example.
I post all sorts of things on my social media because I am a sociable person. I post when I’m in a bathing suit during summer. Would I have done that before modeling? Nope! But there’s personal growth in that. Truthfully, I’d like to say that I’ve always done tasteful stuff —I would never post something that I feel like I couldn’t show my family.
That more that I’ve been in modeling, the more I try to approach it like an athlete—you need that confidence factor. I remember my first couple of shoots and not feeling very on. It showed in the pictures. I had to tell myself that, ‘They are paying you to be here. They want you to look like this.
LJ: What advice would you give to younger women about having confidence and loving their bodies?
A: I think it really starts with the support system you have. I had the family, I had that one amazing coach who believed in me. I had that crucial support system most of my life and I have been very fortunate. For those who don’t have that initial foundation, think about how you can build it. Who can you add to your team who is going to support you and help you reach your goals? I was lucky that I had it. Whether I saw it all the time or appreciate it, I had it. I always had it.
I would also recommend traveling if you can. The only true way that you can educate yourself fully is to see how other people live. When you have the opportunity to do that then you can create understanding and empathy to understand other people. There was a time when my sisters and I were all playing sports and there wasn’t a lot of family time. My parents took us on family vacations around Christmas time instead of giving us Christmas presents. To have that privilege to travel really expanded my world and challenged me to think about the views I have of others, the countries they live in, how they live, and how it all relates back to me. Culturally there are so many different ideals of ‘What is beautiful’ and I would have had no idea if I didn’t travel to Eastern Europe, Indonesia, South America, Europe, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Jamaica. When you are taken out of your environment or routine, away from work, family, or school, you can actually be present with yourself and enjoy life. The key is being able to find that mindfulness and awareness in your everyday so that you can live your life to the fullest in health, joy, and happiness.
Nourish and take care of your body and mind. Enjoy the one vessel you have. it’s you and you are beautiful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.