On any given Saturday this summer, Ariel Winter will gaze before a mirror engaging in a prepping ritual that is to many women all too familiar. She’ll blow dry her hair to smooth perfection; she’ll apply foundation 'til the pores don’t shine; she’ll apply some fake lashes so that her brown eyes really pop, and even add a little rouge in her cheeks and on her lips. Then she’ll kick on some heels — she likes them tall — and strut out the door. But if you think Winter is headed for a night out on the town you’d be wrong. This girl is headed to the beach. Wait, wha?
“I’m definitely a makeup at the beach person, and I don’t care if people think I look ridiculous — it’s my beach day!” Winter says with a light chuckle. “Whether I want to go natural or with makeup or in sweatpants, that’s up to me. People are so stressed out about how they’re going to look in their bathing suits that they forget to go to the beach because they want to go to the beach, which defeats the whole purpose. The beach should be a safe space.”
If you are rolling your eyes, thinking that I-really-don't-care-what-other-people-think is the new I-don't-like-being-famous, then you haven’t been paying attention to Winter’s ascent from child star to wise, genuine and bold 19-year-old body positivity champion. The Los Angeles native had to earn her thick skin after debuting on Modern Family as the Dunphy family’s youngest daughter, Alex, when she was just 11. That means, puberty and all of the awkward stages of teenagedom — the kind that are hard enough to endure without the world watching — happened before millions of eyes. And this being the age of social media, it also means that Winter had to learn to deflect the hoards of commenters who habitually criticized her body or shamed her for showing off her curves whether she was wearing a graduation dress or yes, bathing suits.
“I went through a lot of hate online, so I tried to change myself for a really long time. But people just kept hating on me no matter what I did,” says Winter. She speaks quickly and definitively, as though she’s well-versed in defending herself. "I decided that instead of pleasing these other people, I’ll just spend that time pleasing myself. Those people are going to be rude to me regardless of what I do, so I should just try and be happy with what I am.”
"I’ve learned to not care about that as much. I’m comfortable in a bathing suit, scars and all."
As hard as that lesson was, learning to accept herself has certainly had its upside. Through Winter’s very public growing pains and self-esteem struggles, she’s emerged as an outspoken champion for anyone overcoming body image issues. She’s managed to build her fanbase to include women of all ages (no small feat for a Gen Z TV star), thanks to her blunt honesty about her body as well as the way she stresses the difference between body acceptance and body positivity. Sometimes, the former is simply good enough: “It’s hard to be positive about your body all the time,” she says. “I know because I’m honest about my insecurities that people think I’m 100% positive about my body all the time, but I’m not. I get really uncomfortable, too. But I just remind myself that this is the body I was given. This is who I am.”
This principle is especially important when it comes to bathing suit shopping. Winter says that the process has always been particularly anxiety-inducing for her, a fact that was especially true until 2015, the year she underwent a breast reduction surgery to alleviate the physical strain and body-image issues she attributed to her then-size-32F chest.
“Before then, I didn’t feel like myself, and everyone was so focused on my cleavage, so when I got the breast reduction it helped me feel so much better about my body,” she says. “I used to have full-scale meltdowns in bathing suit shops because there was nothing I could find to wear. I always felt like crap about myself. It’s gotten a little better, but it’s still definitely hard. Like, my best friend, she’s super tall and skinny and she’ll wear the same bathing suit as me, but people will automatically look at me and call me out as a slut or write headlines about ‘Ariel Winter’s cleavage.’ Meanwhile they look at her like, ‘Oh she looks so cute!’ But I’ve learned to not care about that as much. I’m comfortable in a bathing suit, scars and all.”
That’s an important point for Winter, who believes that now more than ever, women need to embrace and appreciate their bodies. She has been vocal about her concerns about the new President and whether his tendency to reduce women to their looks will have a trickle down effect.
“Our leadership is really anti-women right now,” she says. “Thanks to Donald Trump, we’re being objectified and made to feel bad about ourselves, so I think it’s really important for women to stick together and do the opposite of that; to let their bodies be seen and be heard, and to empower each other; to remind each other that what they look like is not the only thing that’s important when it comes to who they are.”
Winter’s strength through her critics and personal struggles have propelled her into a successful career — all before the age of 21. The in-demand actress has to fit in those beach trips between several projects: This spring she starred alongside Burt Reynolds in Dog Years, where she plays the foul-mouthed truck driver taking Reynold’s character on a road trip. She is already fielding more film offers, in addition to voicing the title character on Disney’s princess series Sofia The First. And ABC’s Modern Family was just renewed for two more seasons, which means Winter will continue to portray Alex Dunphy well into adulthood. But first, she has a few notes for the show’s writers.
“I hope to see Alex evolve more as an adult. I love that she’s in college and that she still gets home to see her family, but I wish there would be more storylines about Alex developing her romantic relationship and and also just developing her relationships with other people in general. I’d want to see her branch out and have some fun and grow socially a little bit so the world can see that she’s not a kid anymore.”
It seems the world is still having some trouble seeing Winter as an adult, too. Though she’s been open with the public about her rocky relationship with her parents and her decision to become emancipated from them in 2015 — which legally makes her an adult — she’s still often criticized for wearing clothing or making decisions too risqué for her age. And when she revealed to Jimmy Kimmel earlier this month that she’s living with her 29-year-old boyfriend, actor Levi Meaden, the next-day coverage focused on their age difference, rather than her work. Still, like the online haters of her body, Winter is able to shake off these haters, too, a skill that’s astoundingly mature for a 19-year-old navigating life’s obstacles in front of a million-person audience.
“I’m happy, and whatever people want to say, they can say,” she says. “I don’t understand why someone would even comment on our situation at all. There are tons of people of all ages that live with their boyfriend. There are tons of people that live with their girlfriends, [and] tons of people that don’t live together and are super happy. But I’m super happy in the arrangement that we have. We love living together. It’s just great.”
Winter adds that Meaden is one of the reasons she’s so comfortable in her own skin; her voice softens noticeably when she says his name.
“I have to say he is the most incredible person I’ve ever met and that I’m so lucky to be with him,” she says, adding that the couple has been taking archery lessons, and for them an ideal day involves hanging out by their pool with their dogs or playing poker with friends. “He’s always complimenting me and making me feel special and beautiful. We went grocery shopping today, and I was in, like, a weird T-shirt that I kind of hate and my semi-pajama pants, and he still took the time to tell me that I look pretty. Even when I do feel bad about myself, he’s just there to support me and pick me back up when I’m feeling down.”
Meaden will often be accompanying the actress to the beach this summer. And she may be wearing makeup, or heels, or maybe she’ll change her mind and decided to go in flip-flops. Who knows? For Ariel Winter, taking back the beach is less about what you’re wearing to the beach and more about simply enjoying it.
But there are two things that are non-negotiable for her trip. “Snacks!” she says. “And sand toys. I am still a kid at heart.”
Watch our video interview with Ariel Winter below.