Iskra Lawrence is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress, in which we feature outstanding women throughout the year. Check out the series here!
Raise your hand if you've ever hated your body.
If this were a roomful of women, it's likely that every hand would be reaching for the sky. Whether you've been told you're too big, too small, or just not good enough the way you are, most women have felt badly in their bodies at some point in their lives. Negative self-talk is one of the many personal battles Iskra Lawrence has dedicated her life to helping women fight — and win.
You may already know about the body-positive model and self-care advocate Iskra Lawrence. She was everywhere during Aerie Real lingerie brand's boundary-breaking ad campaign, which featured unretouched photos of models and told women: "The real you is sexy." She tours the country to speak about body positivity and self-care, and she's a force for smashing preconceptions about health and size on Instagram. No matter where you first heard of Iskra, chances are, she was focused on one thing: body positivity, and helping girls and women avoid fighting the same body image battles she fought the majority of her life.
Lawrence, whose modeling resume features such recognizable brands as Macy's and Nordstrom's, first caught the modeling bug at the age of 13. With the support of her parents, Lawrence entered a modeling competition. Though she didn't end up winning (or even making the top three), her time in the competition ultimately led to greater things.
"I got scouted and from there, I signed with an agent and was doing test shoots and doing some more fashion shows," Lawrence explained. "Unfortunately, it became apparent very quickly that my body just wasn't the right size. I remember sitting at the agency at 13, 14, looking at the girls around me and thinking, 'I am not as skinny as these girls. My body is just never gonna look like this.'"
Indeed, were you to place Iskra in a line-up among the 'It Girls' of the modeling world nearly 10 years ago, you'd see a drastic difference in body shapes. Rather than rocking the waifish figure that many have come to associate with professional models, Iskra is thick and curvy. The difference made her time as a "straight size" (meaning, standard industry size) model such a challenge. Even though, as a teen, her body was still growing and changing, the people she worked with — when she managed to book any work at all — didn't hesitate to tell her that her body was all wrong.
"It got to a point when I was 15,16, where they just said, 'This isn't gonna work. You're too mature, you're too commercial, you're too feminine,' all these words that I couldn't comprehend what that meant at that age. I just knew that I didn't fit the typical model mold. And that there was something wrong with my body."
"I remember sitting at the agency at 13, 14, looking at the girls around me and thinking, 'I am not as skinny as these girls. My body is just never gonna look like this.'"
In an effort to shrink her hips, she took to adopting extreme diets and intense workout regimens, and continued this trend until she was 19. At that point, she heard about plus size modeling, and thought she was on her way to finally finding a place where she could fit in — that is, until she was quickly told that she was too small to be a plus size model. What she thought would be her salvation became yet another arena in which she was told her body was all wrong.
Body positivity — the practice and philosophy of loving your body regardless of size — was the magic answer for Iskra. Tired of always being told to change to fit someone else's standard of beauty, Lawrence made a decision to stop playing the game and instead, to focus on her own happiness.
"That's when everything changed.My life changed because my focus was not on trying to lose weight, trying to look a certain way, it was just trying to be the best version of myself," Lawrence recounted. "I gave up exercising to just burn calories and I started trying new exercises, yoga, pilates, boxing, fun things that I enjoyed."
"I just became healthier, happier, and therefore I was more confident," she added. "So I started booking more modeling jobs because I was happy, I was Iskra, I was different."
Rededicating herself to being the best Iskra she could be paid off in a big way. Today, Iskra has not only made a name for herself an Aerie Real Role Model, she's also an ambassador for the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) and the leader of Iskra's Army, a movement dedicated to fighting to make self-care and body positivity a staple in schools.
It's her unretouched ads, though, that show Lawrence in all glory, fat rolls and all, that have made, arguably, the biggest impact among her fans. Aerie was the first brand to ever take the photoshopping out of their lingerie ads, and it was a decision that made a huge impact on so many of the girls and women.
"I tour around the country and meet them, and they've basically said it was the first time they were able to shop at any store, go in there and see a girl that they could relate to," Iskra said. "Someone where they saw some cellulite, or they saw some stretch marks, they saw some rolls, and it made them think, 'Well, that's how I look in underwear and swimwear,' and it just made them feel better about themselves, and that's why it's such a special movement."
Iskra has dedicated her life to being a positive force of nature, but despite all the people she's helped along her journey, she still gets more than her fair share of social media hate. A glance at her Instagram comments section will reveal the kind of bile women are unfortunately used to dealing with online, all over something like an Instagram photo of Iskra's smiling face and bikini-clad body, as if a woman being happy with her body is a sin worthy of public ridicule.
"I like to say that social media is a weapon of mass destruction that we carry around with ourselves 24/7 because it's scary, it's a very intimate thing, you're putting yourself out there," Lawrence said.
Lawrence made headlines for her cheeky response to a hater last year. When she was body policed by a commenter online who called her a "fat cow," Lawrence responded with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek: moments after reading the comment, she had a friend shoot a video of her eating potato chips in slow motion, flipping off the camera.
"I felt empowered by that," Lawrence recounted. "I took back control from the hater and I made something positive from something negative. I really think that comedy is a great way to empower yourself from something that was meant to bring you down."
A big component of what Lawrence does is redefining what healthy looks like, which is a goal she made huge strides towards achieving when she booked Self magazine's January cover. Thanks in part to the visibility of advocates like Iskra and the many women who are using their platforms to spread the good word, body positivity has reached mainstream popularity in recent years. Just last year, Sports Illustrated featured plus size model Ashley Graham on one of the covers of its annual swimsuit issue, and more brands than ever are putting out plus size lines.
"It shouldn't be a shock to see plus size models on the cover of magazines. It shouldn't be a shock to have an editorial that's all black women."
"The modeling industry is definitely changing," Lawrence said. "It's still got a long way to go. I mean, it shouldn't be a shock to see plus size models on the cover of magazines. It shouldn't be a shock to have an editorial that's all black women. [The goal is] the day where we're just flicking through the magazine and we're seeing a diverse range of incredible women and also trying to celebrate those women for more than just their appearance or if they're the closest to perfect or whatever that the goals are right now."
Lawrence also doesn't hesitate to address the elephant in the room - her stunning good looks. Iskra is what many would consider conventionally attractive and has a physique many of her 3.2 million Instagram followers would deem #BodyGoals, but her self-love journey wasn't an easy one — in fact, no one's ever is. Lawrence is open when discussing that, despite the privileges she does have, she still felt pressured to look a certain way, "by the media, by society, by the modeling industry."
"We all struggle individually," Iskra explained. "Eating disorders don't look like one type, if that makes sense. When you think eating disorder, you think, 'Teenage girl, super skinny, that's what an eating disorder looks like,' but they don't discriminate — they can happen to anyone at any age, any gender, any sexual orientation, and they look different. There's binge-eating, there's bulimia. You don't know what someone's been through, and you can't judge just from the way they look like what their issues are and what their insecurities are."
Her advice to those who facing body issues?
"To that person out there who's struggling you might feel lost, you might feel not good enough, the first thing I have to tell you is: stop comparing yourself to anybody today," Lawrence said. "Stop comparing yourself to the expectations you might see and this is about you. What's amazing is, think about it, there is no other you in the whole world, so if you can cultivate that and be you, you're gonna have something that no one else has in the world that no one else can give."