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In the seven years I've been a journalist, I'd estimate that I've interviewed at least 500 people – but few with a similar career trajectory have been as candid and unfailingly polite as model, mental health activist and body confidence influencer, Iskra Lawrence.
When we speak via Zoom – after ironing out some slight technical difficulties that initially had me thinking she was dialling in whilst 'on a safari', rather than struggling to open her Safari browser – the conversation quickly turned to her journey with fitness, body image and the postpartum experience. She welcomed a baby boy, whose name she and husband Philip Payne have deliberately kept private, last April during the early, anxiety-inducing stages of the pandemic.
Iskra's role as an ambassador for the functional workout method, P Volve, which can be done at home and uses unique resistance-based equipment, came about shortly after giving birth to her son, she explains. Understandably her body (and how she felt about it) had changed during pregnancy and post-birth, as did her approach to fitness.
"I felt like I'd lost touch with my body, in the sense that I just didn't know how to navigate being pregnant," Iskra says. "I gave birth here at home [in Austin, Texas] and the postpartum journey can be very overwhelming. There are so many mixed messages and there's a lot [emphasis] on the societal expectation of 'snapping back'. For me, I was just looking for a rediscover fitness and myself."
Iskra says that now, when it comes to working out, she adopts P Volve's ethos of working with your body, not against it (the brand are currently working on a programme tailored on exercising around your menstrual cycle too).
The mother-of-one adds that she quickly realised her old style of working out clashed with the newly acquired aches and pains of parenthood, "I tried doing my old HIIT classes and it just didn't feel right. Your back aches more and you're using different parts of your body that you weren't previously, even just picking up a baby. I wanted a holistic way of caring for myself that wasn't focussed on weight loss or quick results. I just needed to feel safe."
When it comes to her current fitness goals, Iskra admits that they've changed since giving birth– and that that's something she's learnt to be okay with. At the moment, she's keen to get her core strength up and has been exploring breath work. "I had a baby, everything's changed, certain parts of my body have expanded or they're softer, or they've stretched out," she says, sharing candidly that she worried old thoughts of body dysmorphia could be triggered by her pregnancy.
"You have this completely new body and that might be triggering, but there's something really beautiful about it too, because you can literally think 'Thank you body for giving me the gift of my child'," Iskra reflects, when asked what helps her to tackle any postpartum body confidence issues.
"Using affirmations like that really helps me through moments of self-doubt, or moments of 'Oh my goodness, my body doesn't look the way it used to, or move the way it used to'," she adds. "There's mixed messaging out there about getting your 'pre-pregnancy body back'... but, like, it won't come back. Because you've grown so much. It's new and that can be scary to figure out, but it's more beautiful than ever."
That's not the only thing the influencer says she wishes she'd known before giving birth either, citing postpartum hair loss ("It came out in clumps and I immediately panicked, but it literally happens to everyone about three or four months after you give birth") and how much a challenge breastfeeding can be as examples.
"My mum breastfed me until I was nearly four and I thought it'd be the most natural thing," Iskra says, before revealing that she struggled with her milk supply (something she also posted about online, in the hopes of helping and connecting to others going through a similar experience).
While she doesn't shy away from discussing some deeply personal aspects of her life, it's not always the easiest thing to do; Iskra has 4.7 million followers on Instagram and has long been a figurehead within the self-love and body acceptance community, so I was curious to know if speaking about these topics, and others such as mental health in relation to body image, and a love of working out, can be tough to navigate when it comes to the world of social media?
The 30-year-old admits it can be and that she's had moments of overthinking posts, and is conscious of not wanting to come across as promoting weight loss while being an ambassador for an exercise brand.
"I have a way too much going on in my head before I post," Iskra confesses, saying that sometimes it can take her a whole day to settle on a caption. "I try to understand the responsibility I have, but I also don't want people to get misconstrued and think that by being body confident, and by talking about positive body image, it means that you don't want to ever build your fitness."
She gives the example of her friend, Kenzie Brenna, another big name within the self-love sphere. "She's in a plus-sized body and she said 'I want to lose weight, my joints hurt and I want to talk about it', and it was heartbreaking because that was very, very brave of her to do while being in that space. I knew that she'd get backlash for that. But, she did it and said 'This is me, this is what I need and I'm going to stand in my truth and share this'."
During her time online, Iskra, who first began to garner serious attention on social media five years ago, after posting a video of herself eating crisps in her underwear as a middle finger to body shaming trolls, says one of her biggest lessons is coming to understand that you just can't please everyone.
"My biggest message has always been, if you love yourself, you're going to want to look after your body," she says frankly. "For some, maybe that's just being someone who sits and meditates and doesn't necessarily move, and if that's what makes you happy, great! That's your choice to live in that body and I support you."
For her personally, the desire to sprint, run, jump and hike, and remain energetic for her son, is the right choice. "That requires me to keep up a certain kind of fitness regime or lifestyle. But does it mean I'm a slave to it? Does it mean that it consumes my daily thoughts? Absolutely not," Iskra shares, reflecting on how far she's come since her earlier days of modelling which saw her grapple with disordered eating and working out solely with the intention of burning calories.
"It's ironic, because the slimmer you are, the more people assume that your health is better," she observes. "Exercising before would see me pounding the treadmill in my building's basic gym, it was punishment." Learning to find enjoyment in working out took time.
Now, it's all about following her intuition and striking a healthy balance, Iskra says. "I had a class booked in yesterday, but I knew my period was coming. So instead, I took a nap – because that's what my body needed on that day."
She adds that giving ourselves – and each other – 'grace' would make social media, and life in general, far happier. "I think we're in a bit of a time with social media where people are angry, we've all been through a lot this last year and people can be quick to say negative things. So, now more than ever, we need to just find peace in letting someone be and just do their thing."
And with those words of wisdom, our call draws to an end. After saying our goodbyes, I head straight to my gym's website and book myself in for a stretching class – something that previously I'd have not bothered with, marking it as 'not a proper workout' in my head. My conversation with Iskra was a much needed reminder that exercise is also a form of self-care, it doesn't need to see you burn X amount of calories or smash a new personal best to be worthwhile. It's a life lesson, along with 'giving grace', that we could all benefit from.
Beat is the UK's leading charity dedicated to helping people with eating disorders. If you or someone you know is struggling and want to seek help, call their helpline on 0808 801 0677 or visit their website for more details.
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