This essay was written by Mia Kang and originally appeared on InStyle.com.
In early 2016, I looked like I was “living the dream.” I was a successful, on-the-rise model in Manhattan. I was traveling the world for photo shoots. I was on billboards for GUESS and even appeared in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue. I went to glamorous parties and brushed shoulders with rappers, actors, and supermodels.
But, in reality, I was riddled with insecurities and suffering from anxiety that stemmed from the critiques I was receiving. People were asking me to do things like starve myself or go on crazy, 10-day liquid-only diets before shoots. I was scared my body was never good enough, thin enough. It got to a point where I was living off of Marlboro Lights, black coffee, and alcohol. When I did need to eat something, I would binge on junk food, then run from workout class to workout class desperately trying to burn off anything that had touched my lips.
This was nothing new—I started modeling at age 13, when a lot of girls already struggle with body image issues. I got used to hearing people critique my body on an almost daily basis. I thought I’d developed a thick skin. When the comments would make me feel like I was hideous and unworthy, I would tell myself that this was just the way the industry worked. I thought it was normal. Now, at 28, I realize it wasn't—and that it did some serious damage.
Despite my success last year, people were still telling me I would never truly make it unless my hips were under 35 inches. There was absolutely no leniency with that; it was “just the way it worked.” It became all that I could think about. That pressure kept building and building inside me. Then, one day I snapped. I broke down. My anxiety took over. After 15 years of this, I sunk into a deep depression, hardly leaving my apartment unless I had to. It felt like I’d lost the ability to physically continue with my life. I knew I was asking the impossible of myself when my body resisted losing any more weight and my mind resisted dealing with it all.
I needed to step away. So I asked for a 10-day vacation to go to my family’s home in Thailand. And that’s where everything changed.
I found a local Muay Thai gym right next to my house. (Muay Thai is a martial art and Thailand’s national sport). To be honest, at first I was still stuck in the mindset of just trying to lose the weight I was told that I needed to. Training every day turned into twice a day—and then something felt different. For the first time, I was being judged on my performance instead of my appearance.
I found humility in this martial art, where egos were left at the door. These people didn’t care if I was a model or a doctor or an escaped convict—all they wanted was for me to show as much commitment to the sport as they did. My coaches were encouraging me to grow stronger instead of critiquing the way my body looked while I fought.
Muay Thai became so much more than just a way to lose weight. It was my escape, and it made me feel strong. I started falling in love with the sport and with the person it was helping me become.
It also taught me about nutrition. It taught me to respect my body if I wanted to perform, which meant consuming real nutrients. It wasn’t easy to take the first bites, to learn to eat meals I never would have dreamt of eating on my model diet. But eventually, I learned that food is not a reward for exercise or starvation; it is fuel for my body.
It sounds unbelievable to say my life turned around in 10 days, and it didn’t. Those initial days of vacation turned into nine months of training and living in a Thai training camp, during which I took a step back from modeling and totally devoted my time, heart, and energy to Muay Thai.
I started to gain weight in muscle. I put on over 30 lbs, which was so hard to understand at first after spending what felt like a lifetime trying to be “skinny.” I lost things that I was told were the definition of beauty—like a thigh gap, protruding collarbones, and visible hip bones. Instead, when I looked in the mirror, I started to see things like six-pack abs, a curvy ass, thick thighs—things I had been conditioned to think of as “undesirable.” But numbers on a scale or tape measure started to seem insignificant. I was proud of my new muscular build. For the first time, I was truly happy just being me. I loved learning something I was passionate about without feeling judged. Muay Thai made me feel physically and mentally stronger every single day.
When I got back to New York, I kept it up. Muay Thai is not only a part of my everyday lifestyle now but also of who I am as a person. I have never loved myself more. Sure, there are jobs I don’t get because I don't have the 35-inch hips, but this is a risk that I want to take in order to try and make a difference in the industry and in my self-esteem.
I still struggle, and probably will for the rest of my life, with body image. But my sport taught me how to be happy and love myself. It helped me access internal strength I never knew I had, which empowered me to come back and take a stand in my own way once I was ready to return to modeling.
Now, I refuse to have beauty dictated to me. For too long, I was that insecure woman flipping through the pages of a magazine, wondering why I didn’t look like the models I saw—and I actually was one of the women in the magazine.
Muay Thai helped me see that beauty is about confidence, happiness, and strength. It helped me see that what is really important is the woman you are, not the woman you look like. Now, I want to do everything I can to encourage women going through something like I did to love themselves and their bodies. I want to see strong, confident, healthy women as the role models on billboards and in magazines. Because that is beautiful to me.
BONUS: See all of Mia's gorgeous photos from SI Swimsuit 2017.