Around 2013, when Instagram went from a hipster photo editing app to a full-fledged social network, I found something that would help change my relationship with my body. Amid sepia-filtered photos of cappuccinos and sunsets, a stunning galaxy-print two-piece bikini appeared on my Explore page. It would have been all I needed to complete my collection, which at the time included galaxy leggings and galaxy nail art—galaxy-print was very in, in 2013. But what drew me to this particular swimwear wasn’t the graphics. It was Gabi Gregg, the full-figured black model who has since become a major player in the plus-size fashion world. Growing up, I had always struggled with my size, and to be frank, I still struggle with it today. By the time I was in tenth grade, I was a six-foot-tall, full-figured teen who had no clue how to carry herself. Coupled with the fact that I grew up in the suburbs of upstate New York, where my blackness was constantly made to be a “thing,” I was clumsy, awkward, and insecure, led to believe that if you had a stomach, a bikini was a hard no. You’d better wear that matronly dark-colored one-piece and be happy letting some other girl frolic on the sand, I’d tell my sad, chubby, 19-year-old self. Finally, in my freshman year of college, I found GabiFresh rocking the bathing suit I'd always wanted to, with a militia of larger woman behind her. Showing women unashamed, rolls, stretch marks and all—this was a page of possibilities.
Today, Gregg has an even greater hold on the plus-size fashion world. Not only have her posts gone viral, turning her into a celebrity, she’s successfully launched Premme, a clothing line of her very own. With the launch of a new collaboration with Swimsuits for All in January, I gave her a call to talk about her journey into fashion as a curvy woman of color.
“I went to a private school where the majority of people were rich, white, and thin. And I was none of those things,” Gregg told me over the phone. Although she had a good amount of confidence as a teen, she admitted to wrestling with the idea that weight loss was the answer. “My mother is a super strong woman who instilled a sense of confidence within me, but she also struggled with her weight. She always talked about how badly she’d feel about her body. I’d be telling her she was beautiful, and tell her she should feel better about herself, although I was just a little kid.”
The influencer said she never experienced “overt bullying” because of her skin color and size, but as a full-figured woman of color, it's daily microaggressions that threaten to make her feel inadequate. "I’ve never been told to my face that I’m disgusting or anything like that, but it’s a lack of invitation at fashion shows where I’m sitting two or three rows behind someone who might have less influence than me, or getting ignored at events, or people not paying attention to me or not speaking to me until they find out how many followers I have." Gregg began looking at body-positivity and fat-positivity blogs soon after graduating in 2008, and began her own because she was having a hard time finding a job that combined her two passions, fashion and journalism. That's when her fat-positivity content began to generate an unexpectedly supportive response.
The catalyst, which helped Gregg’s blog reach the tipping point, was a 2012 article about finding and being comfortable in a bikini. Part of the post reads, “Don’t let body shame keep you from having a good time! I don’t expect everyone to feel comfortable in a two piece, but hopefully, I can inspire some of you to take the plunge. I can’t tell you how freeing it is to just have fun without worrying about what other people think.”
Soon after came her first of five partnerships with Swimsuits for All. “When they approached me, I was so surprised, but also really grateful and excited because I knew there was a big opportunity there.” Swimsuits for All’s focus is on creating a diverse and appealing product that favors curvy woman and celebrates beauty across body shapes. Gregg expressed how apprehensive she was about her first launch, but also knew that the idea of plus-size women wearing bikinis was huge for the industry. “The bikini thing is specifically influential because it’s when most women feel insecure—they are showing their ‘flaws.’ People always asked me, ‘Did you know it was going to sell out right away? Did you know how big of an impact you were going to make in the industry?’ Part of me says no. I was as nervous as anyone would be, but another part of me knew that this was a big deal for plus-size women because I’m one of them.” After several other Swimsuits for All lines, an Ava & Viv line for Target, a lingerie line with Playful Promises, and a horde of other partnerships, Gregg still holds strong to the attitude that helped her launch her own line. Frustrated with finding wardrobe as a bigger woman, Gregg started Premme in 2017 with her best friend and fellow plus-size fashion ambassador Nicollette Mason. The line begins with models starting at size 16, and goes up to size 30. Premme strives to show proper representations of its customers on its website and social media platforms, and so it features a majority of fat and body-positivity bloggers as models.
Today, the influencer’s reach extends way further than the average—she has a whopping 577,000 followers on Instagram and another 59,500 on Twitter. But as a plus-size woman of color, Gregg still struggles with acceptance. “When you have any intersecting identities, especially marginalized identities, it’s hard to know if I feel rejected or not included. I never know if it’s because of my race, or if it’s because of my size, but usually I’m assuming it’s because of both,” she explained. “I think there is that double barrier to entry in the fashion industry when you are both black and fat. Those are both kind of looked down upon.”
In the world of plus-size fashion, Gregg explained, there’s a "right and a wrong kind of fat": “There is this stigma where we should accept plus-size women as long as they look like Ashley Graham. I definitely have privileges within that community because I am an hourglass shape, because I have light skin and curly hair, which are things that are seen as acceptable to some. But it’s about being aware of those privileges and at the same time trying to lift other people up while fighting for all of us to be accepted and equal in the fashion industry.” Gregg wants to continue to push this conversation, striving to make sure that all of her customers and followers feel empowered and beautiful through her example. “As both a woman of color and a plus-size woman, I’ve been told throughout my life that we are not good enough, that we don’t deserve fashion, that we don’t care about fashion or if we do, they don’t care about us.” She noted several times throughout our interview the importance of proving those naysayers in fashion and everyday communities wrong. “Believe in yourself, no matter how many no’s you hear. If you know you have a good idea or a good product, something to add to the conversation, or something to add to the marketplace that doesn’t exist, trust your intuition and your gut, and keep going.” Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily. Follow Janae Price on Twitter. This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.