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Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt talks forgiveness and body image with Iskra Lawrence

The model decided to take ownership of her struggle and use her experience of feeling “less than” to help others who might be in a similar place.
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In her new book "The Gift of Forgiveness," author Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt compiles the inspiring stories of men and women who have been able to let go of their hurt and find true forgiveness. In this excerpt, Schwarzenegger writes about how model Iskra Lawrence made amends with herself after years of struggling with eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

The journey to find self-love wasn’t an easy one for Iskra Lawrence. Bombarded by ideals of beauty throughout her childhood — from movies to billboards — she absorbed a distorted image of how she should look and act in order to one day grace the pages of glamour magazines. At thirteen, she entered the world of modeling by way of an Elle sponsored competition for young supermodels. As she navigated the dizzying world of agencies and photo shoots, she was given a hard lesson in the math of modeling: “Your hips should be thirty-four inches, your waist should be twenty-four inches, you need to be at least five-nine, with clear skin and smooth, healthy hair and straight white teeth.” She also recalls being given a rating on a scale of one to ten by the modeling agencies. Iskra took this number to heart. She says she “saw it as competing against myself and this ideal.” Whatever the agencies told her she needed to have, she wanted it.

Iskra recalls going to any length necessary in order to achieve what these agencies were searching for. As a teenager, she turned to magazines to guide her in her pursuit of perfection. She tried all the fad diets touted by celebrities. Little by little, she internalized the unnatural ideals that were asked of her. “You get addicted to that feeling of measuring yourself, seeing the results, because you’re essentially starving yourself, restricting yourself, or exercising to the point of exhaustion. And you just wanted to see more results; you wanted to get closer to that goal.” As she immersed herself in the modeling world, her perspective became completely distorted. As she says, “This desire to be slim and to attain this perfected beauty ideal consumed me — consumed my thoughts, my passions, my drives.” Each morning, she looked in the mirror and hated what she saw. “I would hold parts of my body that had the most fat on them — I would grab them and want them to disappear. I’d Google operations that would make my calves smaller.” Iskra was being smothered by self-loathing: “Layers and layers of hatred and disgust for your own body, wishing you could just cut chunks off your body just to get smaller.”

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Finally, her self-loathing reached a breaking point. She realized that by continuing this destructive behavior, she was disrespecting the body that God had created and “that isn’t meant to be perfect.” It was at this point that she discovered plus-size modeling. Ironically, after visiting an agency specifically catering to plus-size models, Iskra was told that she was too small. She was left wondering if she would ever be able to fit anyone’s ideals of true beauty. She was forced to reexamine her relationship to the modeling world — forced to ask herself whether “all this effort, all this time, all this sacrifice, all this pain and hate and hurt has really been for nothing. I’m just losing this battle and not living my life and not being happy — every single day just investing time into this fruitless mission to try to change this body into something it can’t be and it’s not meant to be.” She questioned why the modeling agency drove people to hate themselves, rather than highlighting the unique beauty within. Iskra was determined to prove that there are a variety of ways “to model, to have a body, to feel beautiful and portray different types of beauty in this world.” This quickly became her mission: “I switched from changing myself and my body to trying to change the industry.”

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Iskra shifted her ambition away from impossible standards and toward becoming the best version of herself — but it wasn’t easy. “In my head, I thought, ‘I will never be on the cover of Vogue or in these editorials and be the face of a beautiful fragrance campaign.’ I had to rethink all of my dreams and goals, and realize that actually maybe I can just be the model that I want to see.” She realized that perhaps she had gone through all the body image struggle for a reason; perhaps God had a calling for her that was much bigger than she ever knew. She decided to take ownership of her struggle and use her experience of feeling “less than” to help others who might be in a similar place.

"The Gift of Forgiveness," by Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt

Iskra began by talking to her friends, openly and honestly, sharing her journey and letting them know that they were not alone. Then she expanded the conversation through social media channels, reaching a far wider audience than she’d ever dreamed of reaching before. She spoke candidly about her eating disorder, her insecurities, and her challenges with body dysmorphia. By baring her insecurities online to people all over the world, Iskra began her journey of healing and forgiveness.

At first, Iskra felt a need to forgive her body for the pain it had caused her. But she soon realized that she really needed to forgive herself for “allowing that power to overtake my life and to have this control.” She had to forgive herself for letting her eating disorder and body dysmorphia consume so much of her life. She had to become aware that, while those struggles were a part of her story, they did not define her. This first step was the hardest — “forgiving myself, because part of me sees other people who didn’t waste that time.” She had to confront the fact that she had allowed herself to fall victim to unhealthy standards and that she had tortured her body to suit the tastes of others. “I had to forgive myself. I was young. I was essentially mentally ill, with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia, and was struggling with the whole thing by myself in secret. So that definitely was a huge part of forgiveness.”

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From THE GIFT OF FORGIVENESS by Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt, published by Pamela Dorman Books Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt.