Mia Kang still remembers her first moment of total self-acceptance...
One morning in 2016, Mia got out of bed in Koh Samui, an island off of Thailand’s southern coast. Just a few months back, she had been working in New York as a successful model, booking gigs with Guess and Sports Illustrated. But today, photo shoots were the last thing on Mia’s mind. Instead, she was living and training at a Muay Thai gym where no one knew nor cared about her “glamorous” career.
At Yodyut Muay Thai, she’d completely dedicated herself to the sport and had felt herself grow mentally, emotionally, and physically, too. As her skills had sharpened, her body transformed from its previously starved state to a powerhouse fighter with a lethal strength, earning her the nickname “Killa Kang.” On her way to breakfast that day, Mia saw herself in the bathroom mirror and a strikingly unfamiliar feeling washed over her: For the first time ever in 27 years, she was completely happy with the woman staring back.
“I’ve been modeling since I was 13 years old,” explains Mia. “And I had been living—and still live—under the pressure of this industry for my whole life.”
As it does for too many young girls, the pressure started early. In elementary and middle school, Mia was bullied for her weight. As a pre-teen, doctors warned her that she was at risk for diabetes. With no understanding of how to get healthier, Mia simply stopped eating. Soon, she’d cut her bodyweight nearly in half. One might think this drastic change would create concern her health; instead her transformation was met with nothing but praise and positive feedback.
"I couldn’t understand; I knew I was the same person.”
Mia was approached by a modeling scout and immediately started working. At 14, she booked her first major campaign with LEVIS. “The same boys who bullied me in class every single day were asking me out, because suddenly, I was this model on billboards. I couldn’t understand; I knew I was the same person,” she remembers.
Over the course of 13 years of modeling, the pressure never relented. “Being critiqued on my physique and living with incredible insecurities just became normal,” Mia says. “I was always hyper-aware of what [I thought] I needed to change—whether it be my thighs, my ears, my arms, it was always something.” Clients constantly wanted her appearance tweaked and weren’t afraid to say so. Many expected her body to look the same way at 27 as it did at 17. Without any other option—or so she thought at the time—Mia simply listened and internalized the critiques: “If someone tells you to lose two centimeters off your as you just do it. It’s your livelihood,” she says.
But enough pressure will force anything—or anyone—to snap. For Mia, her breaking point came in early 2016: “My insecurities started to consume me. I had extreme anxiety and depression. I didn’t want to socialize. Socializing meant eating and drinking and I couldn’t handle that. I just stayed in my apartment, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee.” One night, she found herself crying and she knew something had to change. She asked her agency for a 10-day vacation to Thailand.
Little did Mia realize, 10 days would turn into a life-changing 10 months. Driving from her house in Thailand, she noticed a Muay Thai gym, which trained mostly young boys. Something about it drew her closer. Mia started training at the gym once a day, then twice a day, then packed up her stuff and moved right in.
“I completely fell in love with it. It was the opposite of my world,” she says. “I mean I was getting hit everyday in face.” Previously, she has only looked at exercise as punishment for eating. Now it became a way to tap into her strength—and as it turned out, Mia’s well ran deep.
"As simple as it sounds, I learned to eat three meals a day. I had never done that in my whole life.”
“I watched my body get a metabolism and gain weight. As simple as it sounds, I learned to eat three meals a day. I had never done that in my whole life.” She says the transformation was both difficult and beautiful. “I loved watching myself change. I felt like I had control.” She still remembers that day in the mirror and how the feeling of complete self-acceptance almost came as a shock.
Surrounded by fighters, no one cared about what her body looked like--all that mattered was her power, her strength, her skill. As her body developed, Mia felt her brain rewiring too. Over the course of the 10 months, she occasionally had to travel back to previously booked shoots. At first, she was nervous about how people would react to her physical changes—but soon she felt that worry disappear. This is who she was. They could take it or leave it. Nobody was going to pressure her to change.
Today, Mia is back in New York, although she travels back to Thailand regularly. She’s spent her last two Christmases and birthdays with her fighting family at the gym. Last year, Killa Kang debuted in her first professional fight, which she won in the third round by technical knockout (or “TKO” for those in the know). “Muay Thai is now fundamentally a part of me,” says Mia. “I couldn’t be who I am without my fighting.” Eager to share her empowerment with others, Mia has started an all-female boxing club called Killa Girl Gang and hopes to turn this into a full-scale gym this year.
“Muay Thai is now fundamentally a part of me."
Mia remains a model in high-demand, but her perspective has shifted. “Now no one can touch my confidence. I've spent my whole life earning it and no one can take that away from me.”