"You have to start thinking about health as a feeling versus something that can be measured."

By Faith Brar
January 15, 2019
Photo: Mike Pont / WireImage / Getty Images

It's the time of year when many are thinking about how they can overhaul their workout and eating habits-and often it's with the intention of losing weight. While weight definitely matters when it comes to health, Iskra Lawrence wants you to know the true path to wellness may be to not try to lose weight at all, and simply focus on living the healthiest lifestyle possible.

Lawrence, the face of the #AerieReal campaign and an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), says that abandoning weight-loss as a goal-and refocusing on personally meaningful, healthy behaviors might be your best shot at true, sustainable physical and mental wellness. (Related: Iskra Lawrence On Why You Don't Need a Body-Positive Reason to Share a Bikini Pic)

She speaks from experience. "As someone who has personally struggled with body dysmorphia and disordered eating, when weight loss was the goal, I purely focused on numbers that had nothing to do with my holistic health and wellness," she tells Shape. "I wasn't using safe methods to reach those unrealistic weight goals and it was actually damaging to my body, overall wellness, and mental health-all because the number I thought I had to achieve became an addiction and obsession."

Most people think about dropping a couple pounds at some point in their life-whether that's to fit into your dream wedding dress, or to feel "bikini ready" for the summer. And while these thoughts seem innocent, Lawrence explains how harmful they can be in the long run. (Related: Why I Decided Not to Lose Weight for My Wedding)

"Without even realizing it, you're putting so much value and so much worth into the numbers on the scale or your measurements, and that is not what determines good health or happiness," she says.

So how do you make that mental switch and take the emphasis off of weight loss in favor of being healthier overall? "You have to start thinking about health as a feeling versus something that can be measured," Lawrence says. "That feeling of having energy, being positive, appreciating and valuing your body, is the goal and ambition you should be working towards." (Related: The Ultimate 40-Day Plan to Crush Any Goal, Featuring Jen Widerstrom)

"In my experience, if you are grateful for your body, you will automatically want to take care of it," she continues. "You won't want to abuse it with excessive exercise, restriction, binging, negative self-talk, or whatever your vice may be."

Lawrence explains that when you have a good relationship with your body, you experience a mind-body connection that innately pushes you to make healthier choices. "When you are in love with your body, you want to nourish it in a very balanced way," she says. "Your mind will start listening to your body's natural cues and signals. You'll know when you're full and you'll know when you need to eat more. You'll know when you need to get up and move around and when you need to rest and take a break."

But when we become weight-loss obsessed, Lawrence says we switch those natural cues off. "We ignore when we're hungry, calories become the enemy, and that can lead you down a vicious path," she says.

Maintaining that connection between her mind and body was challenging for Lawrence personally as well. "When I started modeling, I was so focused on the scale, so focused on looking a certain way, that I didn't even realize I had a mental health issue," she says. "I was working out so hard, to the point where I was dizzy and my eyesight would become blurry. I was obsessively writing down how many calories I was consuming, and my diet was so poor that I was constantly tired and would often fall asleep in the middle of the day. Despite that, mentally, I always felt like a failure because I could never reach the aesthetic or standard I'd set for myself or what I thought society expected of me." (Related: Why Body-Shaming Is Such a Big Deal-and What You Can Do to Stop It)

Blinded by obsession over changing her appearance, Lawrence was ignoring all the signals her body was giving her. "It was basically screaming that I was hurting myself, but I continued to ignore it until one day, something just clicked," she says.

"I stopped trying to alter what I looked like and accepted my body as it was," she says. "With that, I also gave up on dieting, restriction, and everything else that was damaging my body and self-esteem."

Now, we all know Lawrence for breaking down society's standards of beauty and encouraging people to strive for happiness, not perfection. The body-positive role model has appeared in countless Aerie campaigns with zero retouching and is always posting inspirational and motivational messages on the 'gram. (Find out why she wants you to stop calling her plus-size.)

Her story is a reminder that while it's totally normal and healthy to want to make changes to your lifestyle, it's important to check in with your body and not lose sight of the big picture. And at the end of the day, a number on the scale alone probably won't keep you motivated to stay healthy for the long haul. (Related: 6 Ways to Make Your Health Transformation Last)

"Make changes that matter to you for reasons that go beyond weight," she says. "That could mean having more energy, developing a better sleeping pattern, or having a better attitude toward food. The key factor is to make choices that make you feel good, and trust that you will be at a weight that is healthy for you." (Related: How You'll Know When You've Reached Your Goal Weight)

Today, Lawrence's goal is to focus on being the best she can be in all aspects of her life. "I'm constantly pushing myself to be the happiest, healthiest, strongest and most positive version of myself," she says. "I'm very competitive and can be super hard on myself when it comes to accomplishing my goals," she continues. "In those moments, I remind myself that I haven't failed and that it's okay. Challenges and setbacks are all a part of the journey, as long as you're moving forward."

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, NEDA's toll-free, confidential helpline (800-931-2237) is here to help: MondayThursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET and Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. NEDA's helpline volunteers offer support and basic information, locate treatment options in your area, or help you find answers to any questions you may have.