Like many models, Jessica Vander Leahy posts pictures from photo shoots and everyday life on her Instagram account, where she has more than 7,000 followers. And like many models, the 27-year-old Sydney resident gets comments on her account calling her "gorgeous" and "stunning." But Leahy, who self-identifies as a curvy model, said women began contacting her to ask how they could feel more comfortable in their bodies. She told the Cut that as the messages and comments kept coming in, she felt "an obligation" to have an honest conversation about body image.
That conversation became video interviews with five of her curvy-model colleagues, who were getting similar questions. Leahy directed and edited Project WomanKIND, in which Stefania Ferrario, Olivia Langdon, Margaret Macpherson, and Sophie Sheppard talk about learning to embrace their bodies. But the YouTube series is not meant to only encourage women of one particular shape — it's about getting women talking about body image and self-acceptance. Leahy spoke to the Cut about "imperfect" photos, the normalcy of insecurities, and what it means to be kind to yourself.
Tell me how this video series came to be.
I had been getting messages from people on Instagram and on Facebook wanting body-image advice. It made me really think that there's a part of this conversation about body image and how women feel about themselves that is missing. These were complete strangers and they would say these deeply personal things.
What kinds of things?
You know, "You seem really happy and I wanted to know if you can give me any advice. I’m feeling really down about my body." Sometimes they’ll be really specific, like "I just had a baby and my body’s really changed."
There were also girls who had been following me on social media for a little while. One of them sent me a message saying, "I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ve decided that I’m going to get well." I think her exact words were "I’m going to fight for my life." She said she’d been struggling with an eating disorder. Whatever I was doing was so incidental, it was probably just one of a lot of other factors in her life, but she felt the need to reach out to me, and I was so moved.
This was before you launched the series, when you were basically posting photos from shoots?
Yeah, people were commenting on my everyday life — at shoots or at the beach. It wasn’t always just about the way they looked; it was also about the way that they felt. I noticed that a lot of other girls who were modeling, colleagues of mine, had been getting the same sort of commentary.
How did these messages make you feel?
Really sad. I couldn’t understand the way some people punish their bodies. That was kind of shocking to me. Even though some days I might not feel 100 percent amazing, I’ve been lucky in the way that I was raised because I’ve always felt a great sense of gratitude about my body and the fact that it works. At the same time, it made me just feel like: "Well, maybe there’s something I can do."
Do you think women reached out because they identified with your body?
I’m not tiny and I’m not super-leggy — I’m just not. Maybe women are reaching out to models like me because they just don’t feel as represented in the mainstream media and in fashion. It’s part of the commonality. A lot of the curvy models I know find that as soon as they post pictures of themselves that show stretch marks or cellulite — these pictures that aren’t super-duper perfect — they get this massive response from women going, "Amen, you’re showing me the real deal."
Why did you choose curvy models to talk about body image?
I used curvy models in the project because that’s who I had access to at the time. They’re friends of mine. They really could relate to the genesis story. They’ve all had the same experiences of women reaching out to them asking them for body advice. I would have included models of any size, it was just who I had access to.
I don’t ever want people to think that by only using curvy women in the series that it was a comment on what I think is beautiful. Project WomanKIND is about being comfortable and happy with yourself.
You said this is the first series. Are there more in the works?
I’ve just been so blown away with the response to the first series. And I really haven’t honestly directed anything before.
Wait, you directed it?
I edited it, too. I taught myself how to use [Adobe] Premiere Pro. Producing it on the day, I obviously had the girls giving up their time, and one of the most amazing makeup artists in Australia, Charlie Kielty, and a great team of people in there helping. I’m just so blown away that this series has gone wild on the internet. It was so unexpected.
I’d love to do another series where we can include women from all walks of life. The girls that were pictured in the series are all models and they are often described as being "hot" or "sexy" or whatever, but when they were asked what’s the one word they hoped people would use to describe them, they used words that would describe their internal qualities, like "kind" and "generous" and "loving." They’re qualities that everyone can relate to no matter what you look like on the outside. What you look like on the inside, to yourself, is what’s really important, and no one else can see that. Only you are lucky enough to spend time with that person, so the relationship that you really need to cultivate is the one with yourself.
It seems like you want people to know that everyone feels self-conscious at times.
I think one of the reasons I asked the girls to be vulnerable when they were speaking was the fact that everyone has insecurities. Don’t beat yourself up about ever feeling like that, just know that you won’t feel like that all the time. It’s a great leveler to know that everyone has a weak spot.
"Kind" is part of the name. What does it mean to be kind to yourself?
I think being kind to yourself means being brave enough to really be yourself unapologetically, as long as it’s not hurting anyone else. Women can so often be caught in that cycle of talking themselves down and comparing themselves to everyone else.
I don't want to sound preachy, like everyone should just subscribe to this specific way of living after they watch the project. Really, it’s just about giving you the confidence to be yourself — to step out and say, "This is who I am and if you don’t like it, I don’t care."
This interview has been edited and condensed.