Instagram Influencer and Model Katya Karlova on Body Dysmorphia and Learning to Love Yourself

By Sophia-Joelle Oswald

According to Mayo Clinic, body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health condition that causes the person affected to carry endless thoughts about what they believe to be flaws in their appearance. These “flaws” tend to be small or non-existent to others, but in their own minds they are constantly feeling defeated, embarrassed, anxious, or even unlovable for those same things.  

Body dysmorphia is different from person to person, but it tends to suck up so much life out of those affected. Some people avoid social events and spend hours in front of the mirror focusing on what they don’t like about themselves. Others may spend tons of money on products designed to cover these perceived flaws, sometimes even seeking surgery. 

Body dysmorphia doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race, age, or other factors. Sadly enough, it has been found in children as young as 5 and in adults as old as 80. Studies find that BDD impacts between 7% and 2.3% of the general population. 

Social media can often encourage the cycle of comparison, making people view themselves through a negative lens. A survey from FHE Health found that 88% of women and 65% of men compare themselves to images they see in the media. 51% of women say their body compares unfavorably with these images.

Instagram influencer Katya Karlova started modeling as a way to process and deal with her own body image issues. She has had the opposite experience to those in the survey mentioned above, and has found Instagram helpful in her self-love journey.

Katya is a curvy lingerie and swimwear model who also touts a strong professional resume and currently works as an executive. She loves traveling, cooking, and supporting those in her life, along with strangers online. Katya has been featured in Maxim, LA Weekly, and Forbes

As an advocate for prioritizing mental health, Katya has spent a lot of time contemplating its connection with body positivity. She believes when we feel confident and sexy and comfortable in our skin, we’re happier. Countless others have found this to be true, including our very own founder, Kelcie McKenney, who gained a new perspective on her body through a boudior shoot in 2020.  

We spoke with Katya to hear some valuable insight on her journey and how others can work towards a future in which they love themselves deeply.

Tell us about yourself!

My name is Katya. I started my modeling journey, I guess it was just kind of like last year, sort of at the encouragement of some people close to me. 

I struggled with body dysmorphia for a long time, and it’s kind of interesting… It’s one of these things where it’s kind of intermixed with body positivity, in a way, but it’s kind of more complex than that. For me, I would have these traits like super Type A and perfectionism, you know, because you can’t control how you feel about your body so you try to control everything else. So for me it was like, I’m gonna push myself in my career, I’m gonna push myself to do this, I’m gonna push myself to do that, and then for me also struggling with anxiety a lot because of it, but you sort of just try to numb yourself with other things. I had kind of gotten to a point where, I do have a professional career, I’m an executive, I have a team that I manage, and I had always built a career out of helping people find professional success and being a female leader, in some male dominated industries, but, I never took the time to actually do that for myself. Which I think is common. I think women, we kind of try to care of everyone else instead of ourselves.

When COVID happened, it actually gave me time to be sort of introspective, to actually go into therapy, try to figure out what is the root cause of some of the mental health things that I’ve dealt with in my life, and a big cause of it was just how I felt about my body and how uncomfortable I felt about it. I think we’re conditioned as women to,—being an executive, and then now modeling—it’s like, “be professional cover up.” You have to do all of these things that are expected of you. I just think you get to a point where your just like, fuck it. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to play this game anymore where there’s all these expectations put on me by other people. I’m over it. 

That’s kind of a little bit of my journey in a nutshell. 

For me, it’s just having the vulnerability and the courage to just take up space. To just be like, I’m here, and I deserve to be here.

Do you feel that becoming a model and Instagram influencer has affected how you view yourself and your body?

That’s kind of an interesting thing. For me, it’s actually helped me heal in some ways because it is not the validation of having followers or anything like that. For me, it’s just having the vulnerability and the courage to just take up space. To just be like, I’m here, and I deserve to be here. I exist, and I can wear these brands, and I can do this.

I’m sure there are women out there who are incredibly thin, and people are always accusing them of having eating disorders, and they might not. Can we just stop criticizing women’s bodies? Can this just not be a thing that we do anymore? Especially things like, “The new body trend is this…” there’s not a trend! That’s insane. People are getting butt implants and they’re getting them taken out. Then they’re taking diabetes weight loss drugs, like what? Just these things to keep up with body trends. To me, this is insane. We can’t live like this.

How did you become comfortable in your skin?

For me it definitely was a lot of therapy. I mean, I think that’s kind of step one. But I think therapy only works if you work with it, like you can go see a therapist several times a week, for years and not make any progress. You kind of have to do the work, and it’s baby steps, and that’s the thing. There’s isn’t this one big moment of transformation, it’s little steps to get there.

I think for me, going to photoshoots and putting on a bikini that I felt uncomfortable in at first and then putting on lingerie doing a boudoir shoot, which I would like to encourage women to do because it’s not about being sexy for someone else. It’s just about you feeling sexy, and taking back some of that power. I own my sexuality. It’s mine. For me posing in lingerie is like something I never thought I would do. Ever, ever, ever, ever. If you asked me like five years ago, I would have been like, there’s no way because I just know I’d be like I’d rather die.

It’s like baby steps in that direction. Like I signed up for a boudoir shoot and then I got the photos back and I was like wow. Okay. I like the way that I look like in these, and I look different than I thought. I actually liked the way that I looked, you know. Sometimes it takes something like that to see yourself through other people’s eyes. Body dysmorphia like morphs your view of yourself and reality right and like you just live in those thoughts of what you think it is. Sometimes it takes going to a photoshoot and having these pictures and coming back and looking at them and being like, “Oh, wow. Okay. That’s not what I thought I looked like.”

How do you use social media to help other people overcome their body image struggles?

One of the biggest things for me is actually just having a presence out there because there’s not a lot of—or at least I don’t know any—female executives who are also like, “Hey, I’m gonna be a lingerie model. I’m gonna put that on social media.” Because you’d be criticized, and probably people who will criticize you will be men. For women there’s progress we’ve made, but sometimes I think there’s still this like, Madonna/whore complex thing, right? One or the other, like, you’re either this professional woman who’s doing this or you’re… it’s like wanting to put women into boxes. I think for me, you can be both, you can have both.  

You absolutely have the right to be both, and I think that especially in a time when sometimes our rights are limited in so many things, for me it’s just about existing, like putting my pictures out there, going on photoshoots, sharing those shoots, and just encouraging people to do the same. I’ve even had friends who’ve reached out since I started this who have been like, I booked a boudoir shoot, and it’s the most comfortable I felt in my skin ever. You know, and that’s kind of what makes me feel good is when people see it, and they’re like, “Okay, I can do that, too.” That’s what I want. That’s what I would hope people would take away from it, you know, “this is something that I have the right to do.” 

You don’t need permission. My leadership style in general at work, what’s helped me be successful in my career is, in general, just being kind of disagreeable is what I call it, because as women, I think we’re conditioned to be pretty agreeable, or be labeled one thing or another. I think in a way, it’s just like an act of defiance. Like, I don’t need permission to do this. It’s really none of anyone’s business.

We recently published an article about the importance of diversifying your feed and, you know, following influencers of all shapes and sizes, do you agree that that’s a beneficial thing to do? 

Yeah, definitely. I think that you should. This is what I mean by sometimes it just takes like curvier people just existing and taking up space on Instagram, because otherwise it would just be, you know, this perceived view of what society tells us is like, perfect, which is being super stick thin, like having abs and overly plastic surgerised, and that’s not good for anyone to think that that’s what you have to look like. People can look different ways, and I think that’s what body positivity is. It’s accepting it, but what it really means is like, that it’s people’s choice how they want to look, and it’s not for us, for anyone to criticize that one way or another, like get plastic surgery, don’t get plastic surgery, like, if you look this way, or don’t look this way, but it’s not really anyone’s business to criticize on how someone chooses to find happiness in their body. It’s just none of anyone’s business. 

I think follow people of different sizes. I have some people that I follow that are kind of more that conventional view, and then I follow a lot of people who are more on the curvier side. I’m on the curvier side, and that, for me, is more interesting. Even if you fit into one category, I think diversify your feed, because reality is diverse, and social media should reflect that.

What’s your advice for those who struggle with loving themselves in the skin that they’re in?

I think my biggest advice is to take baby steps outside of that, because sometimes we don’t love the skin that we’re in, because of what we’ve been conditioned to believe, right? Yes, sometimes that’s not, and most of the time, that’s not reality. That’s kind of the interesting thing. A lot of the time our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, and this is something that I learned in therapy, which was DBT therapy, which is particularly helpful for me, is recognizing that our thoughts and feelings are not reality. They’re just thoughts and feelings. I think that when we start to take steps outside of that, to realize that the way that we think about our bodies might not be like the true reflection of what is, then we have a chance of getting to a better place.

I think it comes with taking little baby steps outside of our comfort zone. Because you can sort of go back and overanalyze why you feel the way that you do, and that’s helpful, like having that deeper understanding. I know, for me, growing up in the 2000s, right, it was like heroin chic. Everyone was like a size double zero, and then on top of that, I’m Eastern European. So like the land of supermodels like anything above a sizetwo is plus size. So you’re sort of conditioned to believe certain things, and I figured that out, but knowing that didn’t make a difference. It’s helpful to know, but it doesn’t help make the change that you need to see in your life. 

I think that the body positivity aspect helps you in different parts of your life. I’ve noticed, I’m more confident at work because of it. I’m more confident pushing back, because I feel more confident in general, and that’s kind of an outcome I didn’t expect of starting this.

I have a friend who doesn’t feel comfortable in her body, and she won’t take a picture. She’s like, I don’t want to take any pictures. I don’t want any pictures of me. Then we’ll take one and she’ll be like, I hate this, and then we’ll look at it and she’ll be like, “Oh, I look really pretty,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I know! I know. It’s in your head.” The stories that we tell ourselves in our head are typically much worse than what is real.

Reality is diverse, and social media should reflect that.

Is there anything that you would like to add?

I think the biggest thing is being vulnerable. It’s hard. Yes, it is. It’s hard for everyone, whether you’re being emotionally vulnerable, or, you know, just doing something outside of your comfort zone, but I think that through doing it, it can be so rewarding. Only just now in popular culture or like leadership philosophy, we’re starting to see and talk about the value of being vulnerable, of leaders being vulnerable in the workplace. I think that’s a big part of what this is, to me. The more people feel comfortable, and the more women in particular feel comfortable just taking up space, that will change the dialogue. I think that’ll change the conversation, but that’s the hardest step to take. We just, in general, maybe don’t want to take up space because it feels vulnerable to put yourself out there to criticism. Yeah, and you will get criticism, and yes, some people will be shitty, that’s life. But I think that it’s worth it to try to be vulnerable, not for anyone else, but for yourself. That’s the biggest thing for me. I realized this was one of the biggest missing puzzle pieces in my life. I couldn’t quite figure out why I struggled with mental health the way that I did until I understood this. I didn’t realize this was so much of the underlying issue. I think that it could be that for a lot of people. 

I think especially for women who want to achieve. Maybe they’re successful in their careers, and they’re go-getters. Sometimes that’s awesome, but it could be masking. For me it was masking deeper underlying issues. The workaholism was a way to numb something I couldn’t come to peace with. 

Sophie Oswald (she/her) is a writer and creator currently living in Kansas City. She got her degree in mass media with an emphasis in film and video from Washburn University. She also has minors in art, history, and women’s studies. When Sophie isn’t writing or volunteering her time to social justice, she can be found hanging out with her pets. 

Photos courtesy of Katya Karlova.

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