My life has always revolved on modelling. My mother was a model, and she used to take me to photo sessions when I was a baby, and I went back to it in middle school. I wanted to be a model when I was younger because I wanted to be cool, but my goals have since altered. I want to be a part of the industry since it has evolved so much and there is so much history to be made. I had no idea I'd be on the cover of "Sports Illustrated"—I just assumed I'd be in one of the magazine's photo assignments. I was simply delighted to be included in the publication. When MJ Day, the editor-in-chief of "Sports Illustrated," and the team surprised me with the cover, I was doing a false interview.
People often ask if I've ever fantasised of appearing on the cover of "Sports Illustrated," but I had no idea I could. Only in the last two or three years have companies, casting directors, and editors made an effort to embrace varied models, both in terms of body type and ethnic diversity. I didn't see someone who looked like me in the media when I was younger. That gave me a lot of doubts and self-worth difficulties. I'm half-white and half-Japanese. It wasn't cool to be anything other than white when I was a kid. I wish media, culture, and society didn't have such an impact on us, but they do, especially when we're young. We look to it for guidance on what's important and how we should think, dress, and act.
So all I wanted to do was blend in with the white people. I didn't have — or wanted — any ties to my Asian heritage because I was ashamed of how different it made me, and it was the thing that set me apart from the popular kids at school, as well as what I thought I needed to be beautiful. Being plus-sized had the same effect. I didn't have anyone to normalise or encourage me to be comfortable in my own flesh. I didn't know how to give myself that validation because I felt like I was in a situation where even the Asian people in my life had spent so much time whitewashing themselves in order to survive in the locations where they grew up. We've only recently begun to recover from all of that in the last several years.
Earlier in my modelling career, I was all over the place in terms of size—sometimes I was the perfect plus-size fit, and other times I was too little. It's a little slice of what we could be if we wanted to be models. Asian people do not value size in their culture, and this has bled into American perceptions of how Asian people should be represented. Until recently, I had never seen an Asian curve model. People were baffled as to what to do with me because I didn't fit the stereotype.
Finally, I got weary of hating myself and believing that I wasn't good enough because I wasn't a specific size or ethnicity. In 2016, I was in Hawaii and thought to myself, "Is it true that I won't go into the sea because I'm too big? Where did I obtain that notion?" I realised I'd be 80 years old and reflecting on the times I didn't get into the ocean, wear what I wanted, or live my greatest, most expansive life because I was ashamed of who I am. That was something I want. It's going to be a long voyage. I had to develop a new perspective and rewire my brain after the switch was turned on.
In the modelling profession, I'm witnessing a shift in that narrative as well. Shooting with "Sports Illustrated" was a fantastic experience: everyone on set is attentive, courteous, and ensures that you are comfortable. They make certain that all of my swimwear fits properly, that I'm in high spirits, and that I'm listening to music that makes me feel like my best self on set. (I pay attention to Megan Thee Stallion because she exudes confidence.)
However, there is still a significant resource gap in the fashion industry: everyone wants to recruit plus size models for their ads, but none of the sizes are available. "I can wear that since Yumi is wearing it!" people might say when they see me in an ad. Then they'll go to the store and discover that it only has sizes up to XL. Even I can't always wear the labels. A lot of tailoring, panelling, or sewing other clothing into outfits can be involved. Or there will be numerous outfits planned for me, but I will only be able to wear the one that fits while everyone else switches clothing. Because there are so few options, I've wanted to cry several times.
A large portion of the fashion business does not back up its claims with action. I'll continue to turn up for those jobs because it's critical that we be visible. We're getting to the point in the industry where we're ready to follow those trends and see those changes.'
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