Kelly Hughes made history with her inclusion in the 2022 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit as the first to model with a visible C-section scar. Now, she's reflecting on how the images seen across the world have not only empowered readers, but also herself.
"To be honest, I had no idea how much this would impact people. But my photo went viral all over the world. This is something I probably wouldn't have done before, but I also didn't see myself in the same way I see myself now," Hughes told Fox News digital. "I think it's beautiful that a magazine like Sports Illustrated is showing a woman with a C-section and saying, 'She's beautiful.' Now, I realize how important that photo is to me because I had no idea how underrepresented this was."
The model explained that she has long been insecure about the scar and even planned to avoid having a cesarean birth so that she wouldn't have to deal with having the mark on her abdomen.
"I had never shown my scar before. And I have been really open with how I struggled with insecurities around my scar. I originally didn't want a C-section because the bounce back was going to be much harder being that I'm a model," she said, noting that there's already a lot to worry about when it comes to embracing a postpartum body. "Society just puts so much pressure on you to 'bounce back.' I wasn't a size 2 anymore. I wasn't doing too much modeling in a bikini in the first place. So it was scary at first to show my biggest insecurity in a magazine like Sports Illustrated. I wasn't sure how I was going to be received."
Before the images even appeared in print, the experience of shooting for the publication made a powerful difference in Hughes's perspective of her own body and perceived flaws.
"As soon as I arrived, the editor [MJ Day] just made me feel so confident and beautiful. She turned my insecurity into the most beautiful thing in the world. She just made me feel so much better about my scar. I felt so much more confident about myself. I just looked at my scar in the mirror and I realized I shouldn't have to feel so insecure about this anymore," Hughes said. "And when it was time to shoot, everyone reacted the same way. They made me feel so empowered and inspired. I imagine how many beautiful women they've seen, and now I get to be part of that representation. The experience was a healing one for me. It just really helped me to overcome my insecurities."
Hughes was among a couple of other women sharing parts of their motherhood journeys in the magazine, as Katrina Scott was six-and-a-half months pregnant when she was photographed and Hunter McGrady was six months postpartum. Getting to see mothers celebrated in this way would have changed Hughes's own experience as a new mom in 2018.
"I have seen the fashion industry evolve in the last year and a half. But that shift hadn't happened when I gave birth in November 2018. I did feel that pushback when I tried going back to work. I didn't look the same as I did before. I certainly didn't have the confidence," she explained. "I was very insecure. And I don't think I was fully embraced quite yet. As a mom, you don't always have time to go to the gym. Sometimes you don't have time at all. And eating became whatever was in the house or whatever I could grab quickly, so I could get back to my son. My diet had changed. My routine had changed. The demands of my life had changed."
She continued, "You know in the fashion industry, nobody wants to show cellulite. Nobody wants to show scars. But these things are normal, and they should be normalized. And when you see my photo, you just see pure joy. I was so insecure about my scar, but it also represents the most beautiful moment of my life because my son was born. So I should feel joy."
Despite how empowered she felt herself, Hughes couldn't have anticipated the freedom that other moms have felt since SI Swim revealed her photos in May.
"I've received so many messages from women telling me they've felt so insecure going to the beach that they buy a bigger bikini or just choose to wear a one-piece to avoid the scrutiny. They go out of their way to not show the scar because they’re insecure about it. They're worried about what people may say or think," she said. "Now, I'm getting messages from women telling me how empowered they feel, and how confident they feel to wear that bikini again after having a baby."
Hughes also assured readers that the photo "represents so much more than a C-section scar" as it sheds light on the powerful stories behind any scar that may appear on someone's body.
"I hope that when people see my photo, they'll feel encouraged to embrace themselves and give themselves grace. I look at my scar now, and I'm proud of what I went through," she said. "I embrace it. I'm still here. And that's exactly what my photo shows. I just hope it can encourage others to feel the same."
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.