“I’ve spent most of my life under the pressure of trying to be the industry’s standard of beauty,” Kang, 28, tells PEOPLE. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to conform and trying to fit into various boxes. I grew up overweight and bullied and I hated myself. I’ve also been extremely anorexic and size 0 and I hated myself. I’ve always been too Asian or too Caucasian or too tall or too short or too skinny or too curvy. I’ve spent my entire life being uncomfortable in the skin that I’m in.”
It wasn’t until Kang began practicing Muay Thai that she began seeing her body in a whole new light.
“By throwing myself into this sport, I learned to love my body and respect my body,” says the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue 2017 Rookie of the Year. “I learned how to nourish it and to treat it with respect.”
As her body started to transform through martial arts, Kang embraced the changes.
“I got a lot bigger, I gained muscled, I have definition, I have abs,” she says. “I can do things with my body that I never thought I could do in terms of athleticism and fitness. As I developed and progressed in the sport, everything that has happened to my body, I’ve embraced it and welcomed it. The self-love and appreciation that I learned from Muay Thai coupled with booking Sports Illustrated gave me confidence.”
Kang began practicing Muay Thai four years ago, but started to really get into it within the last year.
“My parents have a place in Thailand so I’ve been exposed to it, and last year I drove past this local Thai boxing gym and I just stopped in one day,” she says. “It turns out I wasn’t bad, so what was supposed to be a 10-day vacation turned out to be a nine-month trip living in a Thai boxing camp with the fighters.”
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Not only did Kang find an appreciation for the physical aspect of the sport, but for the mental and emotional components as well.
“Standing in front of an opponent in a ring, you have to have 100 percent self-confidence, you can’t have 99 percent,” she says. “If you have 99 percent confidence you’re going to lose that fight. It’s been this incredible journey that I went on of believing in myself and my ability and having self-confidence.”
While fighting has built up her self-esteem, it’s also kept her more grounded.
“It was exactly what I needed being in the industry that I’m in,” says Kang. “I have a very narcissistic job. A lot of my day is thinking about how I look. It was the perfect complement to that, where nobody gives a crap if I’m a model or about what I look like.”
Kang loves the sport so much, she has decided to compete in her first professional fight in May, which Sports Illustrated will document for an upcoming digital documentary.
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“All I want to do is step into that ring and challenge myself, and I want to learn from it and I want to grow as a person,” says Kang. “I’m really excited — but I’m not going to lie, of course I’m nervous. It’s a professional fight, so there’s no headgear, there’s no shin pads, no elbow pads. I am fully aware of what could potentially happen in the ring and the worst-case scenarios. I accept that, but I believe in myself and my ability.”
“More than anything physically, it’s really been an incredible journey with myself and it’s a fight against myself,” she continues. “If I can get into a ring and stand in front of that opponent and have 100 percent self-confidence and belief in myself, I think I’ve already won.”