If you don’t already know Yumi Nu’s name, it’s time to get acquainted. The Asian-American plus-size model is one to watch, as she joins the likes of Ashley Graham, Paloma Elsesser and Jill Kortleve at the forefront of a new dawn of inclusivity in the fashion industry. Currently on the cover of American Vogue’s September issue, she’s also appeared in British Vogue and was the first plus-size Asian-American woman ever to be featured in Sports Illustrated. As such, the 24-year-old is fast becoming one of the industry’s most recognised—and talked about—faces. Vogue speaks to the rising model about the importance of representation, the curve industry, and why she isn’t caring about being a “size X” for summer.
Where did your modelling journey begin?
My mom was in the industry when I was younger and I first became a model as a baby, but I didn’t last very long because I cried a lot! I came back to it when I was 12. Originally it was just something to do—we were living in Maryland and I felt like an outsider. At the time, the curve industry was very, very small—my brain was not formed but I was told I was a “junior plus-size model”, so I resigned. The industry wasn’t where it is today, but it was incredibly frustrating. Until this huge wave of diverse casting in the past few years, even my mid-size model friends haven’t worked—it’s like if you’re not in either of these polarising categories [size zero or plus-size], then you’re not there.
There are definitely people who are misrepresented or underrepresented still. But I also think that mid-size people really deserve representation. And I think that’s the category I started out under. I want to fight for all people to be represented, because I know that not seeing your body type can make you feel really isolated.
How does it feel to be featured in magazines like Vogue and Sports Illustrated?
It’s pretty crazy. I’m at this way healthier place in my life and I’m able to champion the things that once hindered me. Being the first Asian curve model on the cover of Vogue! There are so many places in history that I’m being welcome into and celebrated. The universe is giving me opportunities, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I now embody a confident woman who loves herself. There is a lot of pain and shame around our bodies for a lot of women, and the society we grew up in has inflicted a lot of that. So for me to step into these roles at the age I am feels like such a beautiful, healing thing.
Why do you think it’s important to see diversity and representation across everything from race to body shape in the beauty and fashion spheres?
For the longest time we had this overrepresentation of one standard of beauty. Growing up in a non-colourful area, you feel like you’re an outsider and there’s nothing you can do to physically fit in with these people. On top of that, you go to the mall to go shopping and all you can see is the exact same blueprint about what size you should be, how your body should look and how your face and hair should look. It’s hard for young people to feel like they belong, that they’re worthy and beautiful.
Obviously as a human race, it would be awesome if we were stronger to know in ourselves that we are good enough on our own, but we’re human and we are affected by the media and what we see and take in on a daily basis. On a psychological level, seeing someone that looks like you in advertisements on billboards and magazines—the media that you consume—here is a sense of belonging and connection. It helps with our sense of confidence in the world, because we think that if that person is accepted and celebrated, then I must be okay too. Of course, we work on ourselves day to day to get that feeling internally, but the external forces also dramatically affect us—they dramatically affect me still.
What would you say to women worrying about their “summer body” right now?
Every summer it’s inevitable. We can’t avoid coming across the seasonal language, it’s been around forever. [It’s about] deconstructing how society has put all these rules on us, like that we always need to look good, but especially in the summertime—that no one’s rolls can be hanging out. I think understanding societal constructs and pressures and how it’s affected us as a society is helpful. As women… all it takes is something we read and we’re under its spell again. What’s helped me is being aware that I’m falling into that trap—the illusion isn’t real. For generations we lived unconsciously in these traps and we were not aware of how, psychologically, it affected us and made our bodies unwell. Physically feeling the stress in our bodies when we think about summer coming up is not good, so catch yourself in the cycle and have these conversations on social media. Our generation has been given such a gift, because our mothers and grandmothers didn’t have that awareness of how body shaming affects us on a physical and mental level. How free we could really feel if we chose not to give that ideal all the power.
Do you have mantras you turn to when you’re feeling less than confident?
I do, I have this thing called “worthy work” that really resets me on those days. It’s me practising and meditating on the belief that, no matter what anyone says about me—good or bad—nothing can affect my worth. Because at the end of the day, we wouldn’t really care about most things if it wasn’t about someone else’s opinion of us. A lot of the time we can take the spiral of questions down to: Why do I care about this? Why do I care about being a size X for summer? Why does this bother me on social media? It’s always about other people. If we really sit down and think, “Well if this person thought that I was amazing, would it change anything about me?”, or, “If this person thinks I’m terrible, would it change anything about me?” No. When we are confident that our worth is locked and we’re living a very authentic, truthful life… it’s not external. That really helped me become a lot healthier, because I was the biggest people pleaser.
What is self-care to you?
I think it’s changed a lot over the years but my self-care routine right now involves going on walks. I used to dread exercise, especially because it’s attached to all this trigger weight loss stuff, but now it’s a gratitude thing for me. I’m grateful to be able to move my legs and arms and take deep breaths without any pain, and to just appreciate the mobility in my body and give it a treat, like you would a dog! I think of my body as an external being that I’m taking care of, and it’s really helped me appreciate going outside, seeing the sun and being human. Being mindful in that has been a big part of self-care. Also, you know, the occasional bath with some bath salts and candles—and it’s good to get off social media a lot. Just trying to connect with myself more and be present is the biggest thing I can do to take care of myself.