Sabina Karlsson, Set Free

Sabina Karlsson, Set Free

Her real talk on body image, motherhood, and modeling

*this post is brought to you by sustainable swimwear brands Tropic of C, Ocin, Shapes in the Sand, and Scampi



I had a very normal upbringing in Sweden. My mom is from Gambia, and my dad is Swedish, so I've always had a mix of cultures, like we always went to Africa to over Christmas and holidays to visit my family. My mom felt it was important for her to keep the traditions and cultures [alive] and for me to really have a part in her heritage and where she's from.


My dad had a streetwear store, he sold skateboards—the first and only one that was in my city at the time, so that was very popular. I worked in the store, obviously got tons of skateboards and skatewear clothing. So, I feel like fashion has always been a thing, but [I’ve] never really [felt] pressured to wear certain things. One day I would be like a skateboard girl, and the next day I would wear a buttoned-down shirt, I would always mix my style. Now, it's more A-line and black, and just Swedish and New York style.


SWIMSUIT (left and cover) Shapes in the Sand



I was discovered when I was four. In my hometown, me and my dad were going to this hair salon, and they needed a model—that was my first job, as a four year old. And then from there on it just kept going, I got more things and then I got an agency in Stockholm.


I was part of 'Scandinavia’s Next Top Model', the TV show, I was 16 going on to 17 that was the first time I was told my body wasn't good enough— that I was too big. It was a very big shift for me mentally and career wise because I had to focus on working out, losing weight, and changing my diet. Having an African mom, food has always been the thing in our family, and I love food. So, it was really a big change for me to go from not thinking about what I eat, and then having to go and workout every morning before breakfast, before school—because I was still in high school—that was a big change for me. My body wasn't really ready for it because I hit puberty kind of late, so my body was like, "Okay, let's make you into a woman," but then I was like, “Nope, I'm going to lose weight.” It felt like it was an ongoing battle with me and my body.


SWIMSUIT (left) Tropic of C

EARRINGS (left) Mahnal
SWIMSUIT (right) Shapes in the Sand



At the time, I was looking at Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows, so I was aware of how most models looked, and I knew that I was always a little bit bigger. I wasn't as skinny as the models that I saw in the ads. But, if you want to go to Milan, you have to lose weight. I had the decision to say no as well, no one pushed me to do it, I just knew that I would do really well as a model, and I wanted to give it a real try. I jumped on the train, did the whole diet, worked out with so many personal trainers, spent so much money, and a lot of tears, and a lot of hours on the bike.


I was struggling a lot, trying all different diets, I would lose weight, gain weight, look at a cake, gain more weight. It felt like sometimes I could just stare at a cake or whatever, and I would actually gain weight because it was such a big struggle between me and my body. If you workout every day before breakfast, and think about food and about what you're eating for at least three years, it gets really intense and you get very tired. So, I was done, and also my agency at the time in New York, they said that they couldn't represent me anymore because I wasn't skinny enough. I thought my career was over, but I knew that I would be able to model if someone just accepted the way my body looked. I knew that I would still work because I knew how to model.

SWIMSUIT Tropic of C



Then, my agency in New York introduced me to their curve division, and I got introduced to my current booker, Gary. He was the first one in many years who said that I was perfect. Like, how can this be perfect? Because in my head, you had to be like as skinny as possible to be beautiful. So it was such a relief to hear that I was perfect, and I had the perfect measurements. But it wasn't like, “Ohh, I'm beautiful, I'm great, let's just rock my new body.” Because at that time, I had gained weight, and went from being very skinny to a size 12 to 14. It was hard to accept that I wasn't a size 6 anymore. It took some time for me to find confidence, and actually love my body again. It definitely helped just being around other curvy women, like my colleagues, and also seeing how they were appreciating their bodies, and embracing it. Cellulite, curves, rolls, abs, because curvy women have abs as well. So, it was a long journey but it was so worth it. And, I'm never going to go on a diet, unless it’ like, I'm going to run a marathon and I need to have lots of protein. It's so nice when you have and find the balance between your body and your mind. I never feel guilty having a burger. Ice cream, I have that everyday pretty much because I'm a huge ice cream fan. It's just such a relief to be at peace with your body.


I wish that someone told me that it's going to be very intense in the beginning, but it's gonna get better, and that's normal. First of all, everyone speaks about how when you have the baby you're going to be on cloud nine, and it's going to be so much love, love, love , love, love…. Of course, it was a lot of love because we didn't know it was a him, so that was really nice, and then just meeting him. But it was a big shock. I was very, very sleep deprived, I was very anxious to keep this baby alive, even like going to sleep at night I didn't know how to relax and fall asleep. How could I leave him, let him survive on his own in his little bassinet? It was very emotional, so I feel that's an important topic to talk about to other parents and moms, and not just talk about how romantic it can be, because it's not always.




My body healed really quick, and I had the chance to have a natural birth, so I feel like that might have helped me as well. Natural meaning vaginal, but also no meds. But, it was such a big change. And, having to worry about someone on a whole new level. I felt like it got better by the time he was around four months, and now whenever I see a bassinet stroller, I'm like, “Oh my god, poor you guys. Thank God I'm not there anymore.” (laughs) I mean it was... of course, you sometimes miss that time when they were small, but not all the emotions, no.


A big surprise is how you survive with the lack of sleep. I don't know if modeling has helped me because always being a bit jet-lagged and traveling, sleeping a little bit, and then going straight from the airport to set. I feel like that has helped me a lot, to like prepare myself because it's really crazy how little sleep you can have but still survive. I guess it's the love of course, towards your kid, that makes you keep going.

SWIMSUIT Tropic of C



Becoming a mom, looking back on how I used to be all over the world, traveling back and forth, and working all the time, I was like wow, how was I even able to do it? I got really proud of myself and how hard I’ve worked. But then, being a mom now and still doing it, in a new way, makes me really proud too. My work is really important for me, and that's why I went back and worked with a good client of mine after six weeks post-partum. It's important for me to show [my son] how important it is to find your passion and what you believe in, because I want him to believe, to have the confidence, in believing in himself. I feel like I'm more selective now when I do work because having a younger child, you just want to spend as much time with them as possible, and I'm still nursing, so I haven't, for example, been traveling as much as I used to.





I haven't been as good at looking after myself since having a baby. I enjoy staying home with my son and my husband a lot. Going to work is kind of my alone time where I can like talk to other adults about stuff other than diapers, and enjoy a coffee in the chair and think about myself. Other than that, I try to get a facial every now and then, a massage, try to talk to my friends back in Sweden. I feel like as a parent it's easy to forget about yourself and your needs and not just [the] need of like a massage or stuff like that, but also [keeping] the urge of like exploring new things. I feel like exploring new things is like the thing when you live in New York.


I'm actually doing a doula training in May. I'm very fascinated with everything [to do] with birth and pregnancy. So, I'm doing a doula workshop to become a certified doula in New York. So, that is like me prioritizing my needs and like, my needs of growing as a person. I'm so excited.


*this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Creative Director: Ciaraleaf Meaney

Photographer: Heather Hazzan

Stylist: Laura Jones

Make Up: Angela Davis Deacon @Defacto using Flesh Beauty

Hair: Jordan M

Photo Assistant : Nick Savioli

Photo Assistant: Sydney Pensky

Production Assistant: Justin Parker

Words told to: Laura Jones

Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon

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