AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Mia Kang has graced the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and modeled around the world. But growing up, her home life was often chaotic. Her mother struggled with alcoholism, and her siblings were away at boarding school. She says she had a hard time feeling safe.
MIA KANG: I was lacking a source of happiness, and I think I really replaced that with food.
CHANG: By the time she was 13, she had grown accustomed to being the overweight kid - bullied, fat-shamed, invisible to boys unless they wanted to ridicule her. And then one day, she decided she was going to be thin.
KANG: I just wanted to stop standing out and stop drawing negative attention. And I just wanted to feel accepted. And it - I look back and I feel sad that I felt that way.
CHANG: Kang started a regimen that consisted of systematically denying herself food. And as she lost weight, her life transformed. She became the cool kid, got a boyfriend and landed a modeling contract. But with that came years of anorexia and bulimia. It was a grueling cycle that would last more than a decade until she found muay thai in her late 20s. And through martial arts training, she regained her sense of self. She describes that journey in her new memoir, "Knockout." She told us that as a kid, she really didn't understand what she was doing to her body.
KANG: I had no idea about nutrition. I had no idea about growth and puberty and what my body needs and what it doesn't need. I think I literally just stopped eating. I saw the numbers on the scale go down, and I thought, OK, this is how you do it. As I developed anorexia, I really thought I was just on a crash diet. I thought that one day, I could stop when I reached my goal weight, and then I could be happy and live life as usual. And I think all of us can kind of relate to that in some way, where we think that whether you lose the 10 pounds or get the promotion or get the boyfriend or get something - and then you'll be happy.
KANG: And you know, I didn't realize the, you know, havoc that I was wreaking on my body. And I didn't realize the disordered thoughts and the body dysmorphia that I was developing that would continue on well into my adult life.
CHANG: Well, and then on top of all that, you did get sort of immediate validation, at least at the surface level. And then the modeling industry only encouraged you to take your eating disorders to the next level. And honestly, Mia, when I was reading this section of the book, it was exhausting to read what you put your body through. Did you feel like you could stop at any point if you chose to?
KANG: I think initially, I really, truly believed that I would stop once I reached a certain weight or a certain size. And the next thing I knew, I realized I was trapped in this cycle that I couldn't escape from. And it's this horrible place where you're torturing your body with all these things just to shrivel down to as small as you possibly can. And then, you know, you'll binge, or you'll eat, but then you'll gain loads of weight because you don't have a metabolism anymore. And then you feel guilty. And then it's - you go back to the starving and the torturing. It's just - you feel like...
KANG: ...Oh, my goodness, I can't get out of this. And that period of my life where I really, truly felt like, this is it; I'm going to have to live the rest of my life just constantly chasing this perfect weight and chasing beauty - and that was my motivation to put this book out.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, I want to go back to the time in your life where you were still deep into punishing your body, trying to be as small as possible as a model. And then you got to a turning point. There was this particularly grueling modeling run. You decide to make your way to Thailand for a vacation, and that is when you discovered muay thai. Tell me, what was it about muay thai that rescued you, you think?
KANG: I think the first initial appeal for me was that I'd stepped into this place, and they couldn't care less about what I look like. I think, being a model, you're treated so preciously. You're like a doll. When I stepped into this place and I put on these gloves and I tried this new sport, it was all about knowledge and skill. And I think that that's what really drew me in - is I felt like I was developing myself as a person, and I was discovering who I was without my looks.
CHANG: Yeah. And then on top of that, I mean, there is so much discipline in the training, in your workouts, also in how you eat to keep in shape for the sport. And I was wondering when I was reading about your training regimen, did the control that you needed to have in boxing feel familiar at some level? - because you had already learned how to control your body in many other ways early on.
KANG: Eating disorders are always about something deeper.
KANG: There's always something much deeper going on. And it's a very individual thing.
KANG: And for me, it was very much about control. And that discipline I think I definitely transferred over into muay thai. But I wasn't working towards a particular goal. I was just learning more about myself. I was learning more about my body. And, like, you know, you get punched in the face, and you really learn a lot about yourself, you know? You...
CHANG: (Laughter) I can imagine. I've never been punched in the face, but I can imagine. It's a learning experience (laughter).
KANG: Yeah. It just kind of opened the doors of this really great journey that I got to find out about myself and develop myself as a person and not really think about or care what I looked like.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, was it hard, though, at some level to watch your body get more muscular, to watch your body get bigger?
KANG: Yeah. I did have days where I questioned everything, and I was upset with how I looked. And it really took time. But I'd show up every session, and I would look in the mirrors. And I just remember one day where, you know, I didn't have my thigh gap anymore. I'd gained weight. And I just felt so strong and capable. And, you know, I felt like, I do muay thai. I really respect my body for that. And you know what? For the first time in 27 years, I'm looking in the mirror, and I like what I see.
CHANG: I mean, ultimately, your story - it's a story about how a woman has grown to love herself. And not loving yourself was, in many ways, the central driving force behind your eating disorders. Do you feel today that you love yourself enough, or do you see that there's still a lot of work to be done?
KANG: I think there's always work to be done. One thing I do think, though, is I can say that I love and I respect myself. I don't think I could have said that before. But there will always be work for me to do. I think eating disorders are particularly nasty. I think that, personally, I have also come to terms with maybe I'm going to live with an eating-disordered brain for the rest of my life. Maybe I won't. Maybe I will. But I understand that there will always be work to be done. But I think that's a beautiful thing, no? I think that's - that doesn't need to be a grueling process. I think learning to love yourself can be an extremely amazing and rewarding process for sure.
CHANG: Mia Kang's new book is called "Knockout."
Thank you so much for sharing this time with us. I really appreciate it.
KANG: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
CHANG: If you or someone you know needs help with an eating disorder, text NEDA to 741741.
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