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It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Iskra Lawrence has long been associated with the body-positive movement as she became an outspoken advocate of self-love and body acceptance before those conversations entered the mainstream. Now, the 31-year-old model explains how she made efforts to differentiate her messaging after learning more about the origins of body positivity and how it "wasn't a movement created for someone like me."
"At the beginning, I felt like I was literally just sharing my personal thoughts and personal journey, and I didn't really understand that I was feeding into some kind of movement," she says of her approach to body positivity. "I didn't know what I was doing. I wasn't aware, and that did get me in some trouble at the beginning of my journey, in a sense that I didn't understand who created that movement and who that was for."
The body-positive movement stems from the fat rights and fat liberation movements of the 1960s, which aimed to address fat-shaming and discrimination. As Lawrence came to learn, the movement was intended for "marginalized bodies," which she as a cis white woman didn't fit into.
"I owed a lot of people who felt like I took up space an apology," she says.
Still, Lawrence wanted to use her voice and her platform to speak out about the ways in which she was made to feel that she wasn't good enough because of the way her body looked. She also knew that she wasn't alone.
"I've just been in this fashion industry for so many years and seen some of the most, in my opinion, beautiful women I've ever seen highly unhappy, highly insecure. And that just made me realize that this is such a relative issue," Lawrence explains. "Everyone is going through something and it's impossible for anyone to feel just fully, fully, fully in love with themselves, every single second of every single minute, every single day. This is something that I know I've gone through and I feel like 99% of other people go through so let me just talk about how I feel about this."
At the time, Lawrence was already plagued by the beauty standards that she had been exposed to since she was a little girl, recalling that the Disney Princesses she would watch and the Barbies that she played with made her believe that "long hair, long limbs and having an abled body" were what made a woman beautiful. She later became a professional swimmer and shortly after a model — both industries that placed a heavy emphasis on her figure.
"By the time I was 15 and publicly body-shamed at a fashion show because I couldn't fit into the sample clothing and dropped by an agency because my hips were too big, I was consumed by who I was versus who I needed to be to fulfill the ambition that I had to be in the fashion industry," she says. "It was this really toxic, comparative environment where you're being judged on your look and size every day and that's how you book jobs. So literally your whole worth and value system is therefore based on your appearance."
While the pressure led Lawrence to disordered eating and unhealthy habits to go to extremes to change the shape and appearance of her figure, it was in her eating disorder recovery that she learned the tools for body acceptance. In that, she discovered the ways in which she was hurting herself by viewing her body through the filtered lens of professional photographs and campaigns that had been heavily retouched. She also considered the impact that her perfected image would have on her community.
"Retouching and Photoshop was kind of this perfected illusion that absolutely anyone and everyone can be impacted by and might not even be cognizant of. So that was an area I dove into and just thought, I don't think people realize that every image they're consuming has been retouched. Literally everything," she says. "I felt like, no one's really speaking about this or they don't feel like they can challenge it or do much. So that's something I feel like I can have an impact in and I definitely focused on that as a policy kind of change in working with brands."
Lawrence made a conscious effort to stop using the hashtag #bodypositive and instead focused on her own movement that would allow people to learn to love their bodies, no matter how they look. While it started as a personal journey exclusive to the images that she was posting to her Instagram feed, Lawrence quickly grew a community around the hashtag #everyBODYisbeautiful and even landed a longstanding partnership with Aerie as the face of the Aerie Real campaign in 2015, with the agreement that the brand's images would remain un-retouched.
Although it worked out, Lawrence explains that she had to be willing to alienate herself in order to push the industry to become one she could be proud to be a part of.
"I could've potentially ruined my career by being outspoken and making that decision. But I'd already given so much of myself to the industry, trying to change it and also trying to change myself and going through recovery, I was like, 'If this doesn't work, I'm happy to step away from this industry,' because it hadn't helped me or supported me or been accepting of me back then," she says. "As soon as you are living in that un-retouched world, you can't go back. That was definitely a really scary decision."
In the years that followed, she has continued to challenge fatphobia and the beauty standards that both society and social media uphold. She even started another viral hashtag #celluLIT to encourage women to embrace features like cellulite that are often considered flaws.
While Lawrence remains at the forefront of body acceptance, she acknowledges the role that her privilege has played in granting her that authority.
"I can see how my kind of virality when I came out and I was talking about body image could have felt hurtful to other people who were speaking on similar things and sharing their experience that because they were in a more marginalized body or they were part of a more marginalized group of people they might not have been heard and seen or accepted and adopted as quickly as I was," she explains.
As vulnerable conversations about body image continue to evolve, specifically on social media, Lawrence is set on continuing to create space for others.
"I still think everyone is deserving of finding that moment where they can just show up in a real way for them," she says. "We really just have to let everyone kind of go through that and find that balance. It's like, how can I show up in a way that feels most authentic to me."
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