I grew up as an overweight kid, which led to a lot of bullying and teasing in school in Hong Kong. My parents used to tell me, “Don’t worry, it’s just baby fat,” and I thought I would grow out of it.
But at 13, my doctor told me I had to lose weight because I was at risk for type 2 diabetes and a bunch of other scary health problems. It hit me that this was a lifestyle issue, and it wasn’t going to go away on its own.
I was still a kid, so I didn’t understand how to get healthy; I just stopped eating. After nearly halving my weight, I was immediately scouted as a model. My plan to lose weight—however unhealthy and unsafe—had definitely worked.
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The next 15 years were a whirlwind of traveling, modeling, and addiction. I was consumed by the industry and obsessed with being thin. I didn’t even realize at the time how sick I was and how much I was suffering from anorexia and bulimia. I was addicted to cigarettes, narcotics, diet pills, diuretics, laxatives—anything that would keep me skinny.
I was desperate to conform to this standard of beauty that everyone I worked with was telling me was the “right” way to look, and I was destroying my body in the process. The worst part was that I still didn’t feel good about my body, and I was constantly anxious about how I looked.
I weighed 115 pounds and was convinced I was fat and would be fired from jobs for it. Everyone thought I was living a glamourous life—I was at the height of my career, but I was completely miserable.
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In 2016, after years of abusing my body and still being told I needed to lose weight, I had a complete meltdown. I knew I had to get away from modeling for a while, so I booked a flight from New York City to Thailand for what I thought would be a rejuvenating, 10-day vacation—but turned into the trip that changed my life.
I tried Muay Thai while I was there and fell in love instantly. I moved into a Thai fight camp to immerse myself in the sport, learn more, and train. I ended up living in Thailand for nine months.
I got fit and healthy and finally got the hang of basic things like eating three meals a day. I had honestly never done that—when I was young, I was always overeating, and then I started restricting. I never knew what it was like to listen to my body and respect it, and Muay Thai taught me that.
I learned that food is fuel and not a reward for starvation. I learned about strength, and I watched my body transform and gain weight. It was hard, but I felt so strong and so good and I realized that that’s what really matters.
I eventually came back to New York. I wanted to keep modeling, but I hoped that by showing the world a healthy, athletic body, I could help lead change in the industry.
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I lost a lot of clients, and I still sometimes struggle with my body image. But I’ve also gotten incredibly positive and inspiring feedback. I’m putting the images out there that I wish I had seen as a young girl and I feel like that’s helping to balance the images I put out there before that were contributing to this rigid beauty standard.
Throughout my life, I’ve been a size 0 and a size 14 and everything in between. I can honestly say that the biggest I’ve been as an adult—I’m now a size 8—is the happiest I’ve been, too. It’s not that I don’t have the insecurities anymore, but now I have the tools to handle them.
Training is a big one. The strength I’ve gained through that has transferred to all the other parts of my life. I know myself inside and out, and I’m proud of who I am. My weight has nothing to do with that. I feel like I’m comfortable with my insecurities now. They don’t control me; I control them.
Mia Kang is a model and Muay Thai fighter. For more inspiration from Mia, pick up a copy of the September issue of Women’s Health, on newsstands now.