Iskra Lawrence posing in her underwear with a cheeseburger in hand is pretty much standard when it comes to what her Instagram followers can expect. The model, a mainstay at fashion week who serves as one of the unretouched faces of underwear brand Aerie and famously fronted Self’s last-ever print issue, oozes honesty, confidence and often humor about her body and her self-love journey, which has earned her more than 4 million followers.
But what makes Lawrence unique as an advocate in the body positive movement is her acknowledgment of the work it takes to actually feel positive about one’s body. The 28-year-old U.K.-based model is open about her experience with body dysmorphia and eating disorders, and serves as an ambassador for the National Eating Disorder Association.
The theme of self-love that blankets her social media is soaked with honesty about the fact that she didn’t achieve it overnight, just as we can’t expect to find our own version of acceptance without putting in the effort. What we can do is look to those who have done it to lead us on the journey. Lawrence is one of those people.
We chatted with her ahead of her participation in the National Eating Disorder Association walk in New York City this weekend about her own path, the media’s disservice to young people struggling with their own bodies and more.
How would you describe your relationship with your body as it stands today?
A lot of people describe their bodies as artwork, but I would describe my relationship with my body as a piece of art. There are different strokes and textures, it’s unfinished, or maybe you think it’s finished but then you’re like, “Wait, let me add something here.” Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s sticky and aggressive. It’s a beautiful journey, one where I remember all the phases and what we’ve been through together. Today, I can look back and appreciate the journey ― why I went through it and what I’ve learned from it.
You have been open about your experience with body dysmorphia and an eating disorder. What has that journey to where you are today looked like?
For a long time I saw my body as an enemy. While I was struggling with my career and dropped from my agency because of my size, it just perpetuated my belief that there was something wrong with my body, which in turn led to me look in the mirror, measure myself over and over, trying to get the measurements I was told I needed to be. My hips just aren’t made to be that size, so it’s a really dangerous battle essentially trying to do the impossible and feeling like you’re failing.
To not achieve those goals was pretty frustrating, and you’re also exposed to dangerous articles about losing 10 pounds in a week or just drinking maple syrup like Beyoncé does. All those messages are confusing and obviously creates yo-yoing. It isn’t healthy.
How has modeling contributed to that feeling?
I became aware of my size and shape when I entered the modeling industry at 13. You’re just thrown in the deep end. You’re in the casting room looking around and just constantly comparing every single part of your body ― from your hair texture to your skin to your thigh gap ― whatever, to another girl. When your book is dismissed or you’re given a “no,” you take it personally and think, “Well, this part of me isn’t good enough, how do I change those things to reach this perfect ideal that you’re shown on magazine covers.” Those models have tiny waists, beautiful long hair, clear skin, all those things. When you’re in your deepest times, you’re like, “Well, that’s why I don’t have that.” You place blame on your body.
When did your feelings start to change?
After going through that phase in my life, I started plus-size modeling. I went to an agency in the U.K. and they told me I was too small. It was so confusing ― I’d just spent years trying to fit into one ideal and told I wasn’t good enough and now I was hearing the same thing again. I just decided, “What if I’m just the only model at this size?” And that kind of became my mission, to demonstrate that it could be done differently, and any woman at any size should be represented within the industry.
I became more confident because I was finding that instead of trying to change, being different and unique and myself was working for me.
It feels like we were able to follow that journey for you on Instagram.
I was around 21 when Instagram started. I started sharing my photos and talking about being a model trying to make it in the industry. I decided to post unretouched photos and the feedback I got was like, “Wow, I’ve never seen a model post unretouched photos before and talk about her insecurities.”
I really loved it. It felt really good to be able to be honest and share. It’s become quite therapeutic. I found there was this community I was connecting with, all these young women messaging me just motivated me to be more honest and real, and fight even more to be vocal about the lack of size representation or even pushing the discussion that there’s not one definition of beauty forward.
I wish something like that existed when I was growing up.
Sometimes I do get frustrated that there wasn’t Instagram when I was younger, when I was going through the struggles of body dysmorphia. It’s so valuable to be able to share what you’re going through at the hardest point.
Is that why you share both good and bad moments?
There are so many other people who are going through that right now, and it’s harder for them to relate to someone who is through recovery on the other side. Sometimes it feels like that is miles away, like they’ll never reach there. So I try to sometimes touch on that without triggering anyone.
I think some people in the public eye are so worried about how mental health and eating disorders are judged, and it’s scary to them to be open about it. I wish people talked about it more.
How do you think we can combat the pressure the body positive movement puts on people to love their bodies no matter what, leading some to feel guilty when they don’t?
We need more voices who are comfortable with talking about the fact that they’re not fully there yet. I can’t lie and pretend I think the way I used to think, because I really don’t. But I’ll have a negative day, or a day when I’m not 100 percent, and I often do share that. I just turned 28, so it’s been six, seven years, and I’ve gotten into such a strong place because I have the tools and I have practiced them over and over again.
What are some of those tools?
I do my mirror challenges, where I get in front of the mirror and say five things I appreciate about who I am, and five things I appreciate about my body. I also have a gratitude list, which for me is Number One. I go to it quite a lot and it’s interesting the times I have to pull it up. It doesn’t work for everyone instantaneously, but because I’ve done this a lot of times I have it to go to.
I think talking about it is the only way to create change, especially for young people who follow along so obsessively.
The dream is obviously to have that education in schools, which is something I’ve campaigned for. I’ve been in many schools, I did a tour with BBC where I went in and did a presentation for students. We talked about online bullying, eating disorders, Photoshop, showed them photos of celebrities before and after. The schools are the most impactful place to start that conversation and have them just be aware of the images and messages they’re consuming, and how they are subconsciously impacting them.
In what ways is the media and pop culture doing young people and people who struggle with body image a disservice?
The media glorifies this ideal of perfection that is held by one set of people to be honest at the moment who are seen as perfect. They are highly photoshopped, they have been created by surgeons and it’s completely not relatable and unrealistic and highly dangerous for young people to aspire to something that isn’t real.
The fact that it’s not real and that it’s been photoshopped or created by surgery proves there wasn’t happiness or confidence in their original self. What we should be doing is giving permission to people to be themselves and be confident and happy in who they are. We constantly idolize perfection and this finished product. I know it’s taking a toll because so many young girls talk to me about it, they don’t understand why they can’t look like that or be like that.
Even as an adult I find that even though if I know a person has had surgery or has been retouched, I’m still jealous of them and their fitting into the “standard of beauty.”
It really messes with your mind. I’m an advocate for your body, your choice ― you do you. But it’s the fact that the media seems to be idolizing and not celebrating other types of beauty. As a woman, if I look at every article that’s written about me it will have a descriptor about my appearance: About my size, about my sexiness or curves. A man doesn’t have that. We are constantly perpetuating the fact that the value of women is based on appearance and attractiveness ― and that attractiveness has been dictated by the media, by society, by pop culture. The whole thing is just this machine that keeps us trapped in this ideal.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bodied is a series in which we ask people to get real about their relationships with their bodies. As the body positivity movement challenges unrealistic beauty standards while insisting we love what we’ve got, we want to push the notion that self-acceptance is a process. Here, we’ll examine how people have grown to love and accept their bodies ― or not ― and the steps they took to get there.