Introducing EveryBody, a series by Yahoo Canada highlighting the people and organizations working to end weight stigma, promote size inclusivity and prove that everybody and every body has value.
Few people have had an impact in the fashion and beauty world quite like Iskra Lawrence.
The 29-year-old Brit has become one of the most powerful advocates for body diversity in media. From groundbreaking campaigns to her work as a mental health advocate, Lawrence is committed using her platform to inspire change in an industry that didn’t always serve her.
After winning a modelling competition when she was 13, Lawrence began to experience the dark side of the industry. The constant pressure and feedback from industry executives to lose weight caused her to over exercise and count calories to the point where she developed body dysmorphia and an eating disorder. At 16, Lawrence was told she was “too big” and dropped from her agency, only to find that plus size agencies considered her “too small” to sign.
Taking matters into her own hands, Lawrence hired photographers to create her own content, and etch out her own space in the fashion industry. After catching the attention of JAG models, Lawrence skyrocketed to public attention when she was signed as the first Role Model for Aerie, a lingerie and athleisure brand under the umbrella of American Eagle.
Lawrence’s natural curves and unedited photos cemented her role as the face and body of a new era of fashion; one that incorporated self-care, body positivity and body diversity into mainstream media.
“There’s something in our brain that says, ‘If we cannot see, we cannot be.’ I feel like an exception in a sense because even though people told me it couldn’t be done, I knew I had to break that mold and be the example that I needed when I was younger,” Lawrence told Yahoo Canada during a phone call from her home in New York City. “It’s hard when you’ve never seen anyone do it. You’re kind of going blindly and there’s no one that will tell you the steps that it takes to make it.”
Harnessing her passion for transparency and honesty, Lawrence went on to build a following of more than 4.5 million people on Instagram alone, attracting people from all ages like a moth to a flame. Unsatisfied with simply posting photos from her impressive modelling portfolio, she began speaking directly to her followers through lengthy captions that invited conversation. The cheerful, smiling, confident model went on to share her vulnerabilities, insecurities and struggles with mental health, breaking the barrier between the “influencer” and her “followers.”
Lawrence became an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and L’Oréal’s Princes Trust, taking her message around the world to advocate for mental health education. Despite being an online movement, Lawrence knows there is no long-term success without eating disorder prevention and intervention offline.
“There needs to be more [mental health] education in schools. That to me is where it all begins,” Lawrence said. “That’s where the comparisons begin. I have friends with young children and that’s where they’ve told me that kids as young as four have been saying, ‘I’m fat.’ We need to educate parents on how they speak about themselves, because that’s how children learn.”
A 2004 study revealed that approximately 65 per cent of five-year-old girls have a complex understanding of dieting, with many even admitting to having dieted themselves. While researchers pointed to media and peer influence as a potential resource for diet knowledge, the greatest impact on children’s ideas of dieting and weight came from mothers who openly expressed body dissatisfaction.
When talk turns back to the impact of the body positive on social media, despite being one of the most prominent figures in the conversation online, Lawrence is quick to point out that like all movements, it is not without its flaws.
“I think that most people are getting confused about having their bodies validated by the body positive or body acceptance community. Sometimes it can be taken to an extreme, but there are no barriers to entry. You don’t have to be a certain size or look a certain way,” Lawrence said, dismissing the myth that it’s a movement exclusively for larger bodies. "We all have our stories and journeys that we’re going on that doesn’t have to be validated by any sort of movement. You don’t have to share your journey publicly to be doing any sort of good.”
Slowly but surely, the once narrow definitions of beauty have widened. Thanks to women like Lawrence, Ashley Graham, Tess Holliday and Jameela Jamil, the values of body acceptance and diversity have crossed over from the digital world, to the pages of magazines and into the social consciousness of accepting young people.
Despite the progress, Lawrence is all too aware that for her generation and those older than her, the damage caused by years of diet culture runs deep. For one of her many web series, Lawrence set out with a camera and microphone on the streets of New York to gauge public opinions of their own bodies and hers as well.
“Younger people would say, ‘Everybody has a bikini body.’ And older, more mature people who maybe aren’t as active on social media or as voyeuristic would say, ‘Ugh I hate my body, I don’t have a bikini body,’” she said. “The older age group were very negative about their body image and that younger age groups were actually quite positive about it.”
Aside from continuing her work as an #Aerie Role Model, Lawrence recently collaborated on her own lipstick with L’Oréal and launched a new YouTube channel, “All In With Iskra.” In the new video series, the model offers viewers a glimpse into her personal life, sharing the tools she uses to feel and look her best, mind, body and soul.
Unlike her contemporaries, Lawrence isn’t afraid to show vulnerability, and admit that staying in a positive head space and remaining body confidence sometimes takes work.
“You have to keep figuring out what you need, and that’s a really important for your mind and body relationship,” she admitted. “I have to take time out. One thing I’ve found is that being overwhelmed by even just my phone going off all the time or it being a distraction from real life and real relationships, just being present is important. I’m really good at not letting it control my day, which might not always be the best for work, but the people in my life know that I will get back to them.”
Lawrence credits exercise and meditation as great stress relievers, but said what truly keeps her motivated is knowing the impact her work has on young people around the world.
“An important part of mental health to me is knowing that you have a purpose,” she explained. “I’ve spoken to so many different types of people and for many who struggle with depression and it’s kind of because they’ve lost the feeling that they have a purpose or that they’re here for a reason. It’s finding what reignites that passion and staying in a positive lane.”