Believe in Yourself—Live the Life of Your Dreams

Manuela Alvarez Hernandez

Being born and raised in Colombia by my grandparents was honestly an experience I would never change. My mother worked so hard to sustain our family that she moved to the United States looking for better opportunities when I was really young. She was looking to achieve the American Dream. A few years after my mom’s move, she became a U.S. resident and was able to bring me over to live a better life with her when I was just about to start fifth grade.

Manuela.pngAlthough the U.S. has many more job opportunities to offer, it was never easy for my mom as a single mother to take care of herself and her daughter, as well as her parents back in Colombia. Together, we had to overcome many barriers, but no matter how tough times got my mom never gave up on her dreams. Her perseverance and her strength have definitely inspired me to be the woman I am today.

When I moved to the United States, I did not speak English, but I had great teachers who helped me learn this new language while I focused on getting good grades and doing my best. As a child, not being able to communicate with others is very tough. I felt a lot of discrimination and was a victim of bullies that took advantage of my inability to speak English.

By middle school and high school I was dealing with social and emotional issues, I was shy, self-conscious, and struggled with anxiety, perfectionism, body issues, and extreme concerns with identity. No matter what school or town I lived in, I was always a victim of bullying. An experience that made me doubt myself and affected me very negatively. I had a hard time defending myself, and I did not feel safe or welcome at school, which always made me feel like I was never good enough. Despite those uncertainties, with hard work and dedication I found myself succeeding at school and everything to which I set my heart.

I graduated high school with honors and got into a top college. I received some scholarships, but although I had just achieved what I thought was my American Dream, I never felt like I was at the right place. As a little girl, I always dreamed of being a model, and although I was ready to start my college education, I knew I had to follow my heart and try to chase my little girl dream.

Chasing a dream is never an easy thing. There are many obstacles and barriers that life brings you, making you work hard to earn those dreams. After transferring schools twice, I decided that it was time to move to Miami and start looking at agencies and how to get started in the modeling industry, while still focusing on my studies. No matter how many times I’ve been knocked down, I have always been able to get back up.

The more agencies I went to, the more rejection I faced. As a Latina, I was healthy, going to every agency embracing my curves, which at the time I didn’t know was unacceptable in the industry. During this process that took about 8 months, being rejected from every modeling agency in Miami I started to feel again like I would never be good enough, particularly for the modeling industry. I went through a very tough year of unhealthy weight loss, that only brought unhappiness, depression, hungriness, and anger into my life.

When I finally brought my measurements down to the industry’s standards, I was signed by a modeling agency. Sadly, even after meeting the standard measurements, the agency kept pressuring me to lose more weight, focusing on my hips. After trying every diet, laxative, and supplement for weight loss, I felt lost. What was I doing? I began asking myself if chasing this dream was worth the physical and emotional damage.

After taking some time to reflect, I realized that I should never hurt myself to make others happy. Not only had I lost an unhealthy amount of weight, but I had lost myself, I had lost the Latina in me. I changed course and took a healthier path. In my road to recovery, I began to welcome more foods into my diet and made changes in my exercise routine. Most important, I started to gain back control over my life.

Almost 6 months have passed, and I am happy to say that I am 20 pounds healthier, more confident, and definitely not meeting the industry standards. Just when I was ready to give up on my dream, Sports Illustrated hosted their first-ever open casting call for Swim Week in South Beach through video submission on Instagram. After flipping through the magazine, I saw myself in the other "middle-sized" models like Danielle Herrington and Camille Kostek. I knew it was not time for me to give up on my dream. I believed in myself, and I bravely took the leap and entered the casting submitting a video through Instagram. After being selected from over 7,500 submissions and more than 3,000 incredible women at the open call in Miami, I got to meet with the Sports Illustrated team. Out of thousands of beautiful women, I was chosen to be part of the Sports Illustrated Final 16 and walk the iconic Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Show. During Swim Week I also booked my first-ever runway shows with Monday Swimwear and iShine365. A dream that once seemed impossible, became possible. What makes it even better is being able to work with brands that celebrate diversity and are changing the industry by aiding in the movement of body positivity. [UPDATE: In January 2019, Sports Illustrated announced Manuala will appear in the Sports Illustratred Swimsuit issue to be released in May.]

It’s amazing how much your life can change when you believe in yourself. Modeling is for ME—it helps me stand out, as I choose to be happy and love my Latina curves. I now tell myself that it is okay to not fit in—it is okay to be different.

An important factor in this process is that I am able to live out my dreams while still focusing on my studies and graduating from college. Education will always be the cornerstone of your future and the foundation of any pursuit.

In the end, no one can do you better than you, which is why I am part of the movement of body positivity and self-acceptance. This is a message I want to share with everyone. I want to use the amazing Sports Illustrated Swimsuit platform I have been given to inspire and empower young girls and other women out there that are afraid to believe in themselves and take the chance that will change their lives forever.

As Oprah says, “The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”

Manuela Alvarez Hernandez (@wellllaaa) is a graduate of Florida International University, and she will appear in the 2019 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue that will be released in May. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.