Nikki Reed on Selfie Culture and How She Got Over 'Twilight’ Body Insecurities

·Deputy Editor
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Nikki Reed. (Photo: Getty Images)

This interview is part of Yahoo Health’s Body-Peace Profiles series, in which we talk with our favorite celebrities about embracing body positivity and healthy habits.

Nikki Reed may only be 27, but she’s already an entertainment industry veteran. As a young teen, she was an actress and screenwriter for Thirteen in 2003, and has gone on to play roles that include the part of Rosalie Hale in the Twilight series and, most recently, Betsy Ross in the Fox series Sleepy Hollow.

But while fame and celebrity have always surrounded Reed, she has taken special care never to never it become her main focus in life — putting first instead her desire to explore and develop herself. She’s a self-described animal rights activist (and even has a mega-chic vegan bag line called Freedom of Animals) and finds true peace — and confidence — when she’s able to spend time with animals.

Yahoo Health spoke with Reed about how helping animals is her form of meditation, the influence her two brothers have had on her outlook on life, and the role of social media in how young girls view their bodies today. Read on for our conversation.

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(Photo: Getty Images)

YAHOO HEALTH: It’s no secret that you love animals, and spending time with animals. Is that your form of self-care?

NIKKI REED: It kind of is. Any time I spend with animals is self-care for me. I volunteer at a lot of local shelters; people will always joke, “Nikki will always find a shelter.” It’s kind of like my meditation. I’ll take care of the dogs, play with them, love on them, post photos of them on my Instagram. One shelter — they were like, “Oh, we have increased foot traffic 70 percent since you’ve started here!” And they had no idea for the longest time what I did for a living, or what my husband (Ian Somerhalder) did. So it’s kind of cool — you become part of that community, you walk in with your sweatpants, and play with animals that need love. It’s totally my meditation.

And then another big method of self-care for me is being outdoors. I have a very outdoorsy family — my brother has a company called Surf Yoga Beer that has retreats and adventures, and teaches you how to surf and do yoga. They have this vegan chef who goes to all these amazing places.

What is it about spending time with animals that’s meditative for you?

It’s a language that doesn’t need words. I find there’s such an ability to connect that’s based on feeling. And I think that we as a culture are now so fast-paced — what can I read, what can I see, what can I scroll through on my Facebook page? — and I think there’s something really peaceful about the connection that we have with animals that doesn’t require words.

And I’ll be honest with you: Especially when I go to the shelters, it takes a certain level of conditioning because you know you can’t save them all. And I have such a soft spot for the older dogs in the shelters, because I find it so unfair that they’ve been dealt that hand. The older dogs — who are 12, 13, 14, and maybe their owner just passed away from old age — why do they have to be on the shelter floor? It literally just wrecks me. If I had one dream, it would be to start a rescue for just senior animals that have little to no chance of adoption, even if it’s just living out the last two years of their life in our living room.

Also — it’s catching on more now, with people realizing how therapeutic animals are for children and people with disabilities — but animals are therapeutic for everybody. I’m coming out here and brushing my horse’s mane, or talking to her, or playing with her nostrils, just little things like that. It teaches you to be in tune with your own body and with your own surroundings, and the power of touch. We don’t touch each other very much anymore — we live in a world where you can be dating someone before you even meet them because of Snapchat! There’s real power in hugging people or an animal.

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Nikki with her German shepherd, Enzo. (Photo: Instagram/iamnikkireed)

So, you’ve been in the entertainment business for a long time — your career technically started when you were a teenager, writing and acting in the film Thirteen. How did being in the public eye at such a young age affect your formative years — particularly your perceptions of yourself and your abilities?

There’s definitely two sides to that. I was in the public eye at such a young age, but I made a conscious decision for many years, actually, to keep myself very removed from being in the public. So for example, after Thirteen, I actually went back to regular high school, and then I ended up graduating two years early and I got my GED. And then not long after that, when I was shooting the Twilight films, I made a conscious decision between films: Instead of staying in town and capitalizing on the momentum and all that, I put my life, my desire to explore and go on adventures, and to develop myself, all before my actual career. I guess in a sense, if you’re looking at it from the career standpoint, I should’ve made sure I was at every event, but from a human standpoint, I’ve always really admired my brother’s path.

My older brother and I are only a year and a few months apart; we grew up almost like twins. By 20 years old, he was living in other countries, studying abroad, teaching English as a second language, studying art in Florence — and he showed me that I can have both. Maybe my career can take longer to take off, or I can always be that indie actress who always studies her a** off. And yes, hopefully, I’ll always have work, but I have to close my eyes and go with what my heart wants. I have to do what feels good to my soul, and that’s why I’m always in school. I’m enrolled in a different college course online all the time, because I’d rather spend my time studying and doing homework for a class that won’t necessarily take me anywhere because it’s not for a degree, but I do it because I want to acquire knowledge.

It sounds like your brother has had a big influence on you, in terms of how you approach life. Can you tell me more about that?

Well actually, I have two brothers: Nathan is just a year and a few months older, and then Joey is the baby brother — he’s 16.

Nathan and I — I think we both look up to each other. You kind of keep the other person in check, because that’s what siblings do — especially ones as close as we are. It’s so important in this business to surround yourself with family, because what I’ve found in this business is that it can breed a lot of qualities that can only be undone through family and through struggle. I’m talking about the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows that come with success. Until you have gone through a number of years in a career where you know what it’s like to be important, then not important, then important again, and then not — those ups and downs are so humbling and invaluable. Without them, you’re only surrounded by “yes” people. When you don’t have people around you who show you consequences, like a brother would, it’s impossible to grow.

So yes, my older brother has definitely influenced me. But my little brother is also teaching me what it’s like to actually be an individual at an age where it’s so hard. Joey runs five to 13 miles a day. Sometimes, we’ll go to dinner and I’ll say, “Hey meet me at 6:30 at this cafe in Venice,” and he’ll show up dripping with sweat because he just ran 12 miles to get there! It’s so cool to watch him figure out who he is, and it’s giving me this whole new sense of inspiration. It doesn’t matter how close or far apart in age you are; you can still feel inspired.

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(Photo: Getty Images)

We all have those moments of negative self-talk. What advice have you given yourself for getting out of a negative thinking spiral?

If I could talk to my younger self, I would’ve told myself to be gentler to myself. Because there comes a time when everything you thought mattered, in terms of physicality or standards — all of that stuff becomes so irrelevant and unimportant. And you start realizing what you’re actually meant to do on this Earth.

And then it also matters a lot where you place yourself, and what you expose yourself to. It definitely affects how you feel. Kids are so inundated with all of this crazy media stuff, where they’re being told what they’re supposed to look like — and that’s just a miserable, miserable way to live, to only think about that. How about thinking about what makes you feel good? Or how strong you can be? I would much rather know that I could climb to the top of a mountain because I’m healthy and strong, than making sure I only had a certain percentage body fat and weighing myself every day.

You hear about women having these revelations once they have babies: “I realize what my body was made for, and I have a whole new respect for my body.” And that’s so amazing. I feel like I had that revelation when I stopped caring — and it’s not that I don’t care about what I look like. I think, to some extent, it’s healthy and wonderful to care about that. But when that becomes more important than your health, than how you treat yourself and your body, that’s when there’s a problem.

But it’s about finding other ways to feel beautiful. From the time I was a child, my dad always said, “An educated woman is the most beautiful woman.” That’s why at 27-plus years old, I care so much about going to school still, even though it’s not going toward a degree. It’s so important to me to feel like I’m constantly learning and growing. That makes me feel beautiful and sexy.

It’s all about finding other ways to feel beautiful, otherwise you’re just chasing something forever. I experienced this a lot when I played Rosalie in Twilight. If you’re not familiar, this role was supposed to be characterized as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” That’s how the part was written. And when you’re cast to play that character with that description, there’s an inevitable amount of external and internal criticism. Suddenly, you’re wondering if you’re able to play that, and you’re listening to the rest of the world say, “That’s not who I would describe as the most beautiful woman!” I had to find myself — and I was only 19 when I first starred in those movies — and I remember thinking to myself, I need to write my own story about what that meant to be the most beautiful woman in the world. And I finally realized: There’s no pressure on me, because that woman doesn’t exist. She just doesn’t exist. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And all of a sudden, there was no more pressure to meet those standards.

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Nikki playing Rosalie Hale in Twilight. (Photo: Twilight/Summit Entertainment)

I grew up slightly rebellious by nature, and I think I’ve always been like that as a kid. I questioned everything and combated everything. And then as I got older, that turned into natural teenage rebellion. But when I changed into an adult, it’s transformed into a softer version, where it’s no longer about finding myself, but finding comfort in staying true to my morals and values and also experimenting with, “Who do you want to be?” — where it’s not a form of rebellion, but growth and knowledge.

When you grow up in a business like this, everyone’s watching you go through all these things that everyone goes through. So these kids are finding out who they are and what they want to be, and for some reason, we want to shame children for going through that in this business. We want to use them as examples for why they’re not the ideal role model. We set them up to fail, and discourage growth. And I find that to be really detrimental at times, because kids get so afraid of being criticized — they’re more concerned with looking and feeling their best on the outside, in a way that might be superficial.

It doesn’t mean that every girl has to be confident if they’re still learning — there’s no judgment! Everyone should be given the time and space to figure it out. I wrote a piece for Elle, where I have a column, and it was literally about figuring out what gives you that little tingle in your stomach — where you’re, like, “Oh, this is what I want to spend all my days doing.” And you’ll actually find that most of the time, young people, I feel, are actually happier when they’re not on social media. They’re more relaxed and calm when they’re not dealing with the pressures that come with seeing how many likes their picture got, which is basically now part of this “normal” day-to-day routine we have now handed kids.

Social media has also changed our perception of body image, of what’s real. We’ve been idolizing models forever — the Kate Mosses, the Twiggys — and then of course we use children in the fashion industry to model what real women’s bodies are supposed to be. We have such a distorted perception of what’s real, and that’s even more so now that we have the ability to basically Photoshop from our phones. Not only is this affecting the girls who are seeing those altered photos on social media, but it’s also affecting the girl who’s posting the photo. She now feels like the real version of herself isn’t good enough, because the one that people like is the filtered one she put out there on social media.

So now, it’s not the other girls who are looking at the images of other people and feeling bad, but it’s the girl herself who no longer feels good. And I think there’s a much greater conversation that needs to be had at some point, between us and these giant platforms. Because even though they do a lot of good, we have to figure out a way to regulate [them].

That’s a big thing to tackle. Do you have any ideas for how to do that?

Maybe it’s a bunch of celebrities coming out and saying they’re not going to take selfies anymore, or maybe it’s using their social media platforms to talk about their surroundings or what’s educational, or to show off their artistic tendencies.

I’ve thought about in the past, too, doing some sort of book that was literally just photos in the raw, so people could feel encouraged to actually show themselves, their real selves, to the world. Or not even to the world, it could just be to themselves. But it would inspire you to take a moment to appreciate what’s real, and find the thing on your body that you think is your greatest flaw, that you hate the most, and actually find a reason for why it’s your best asset.

When I was a kid, I hated this mole that’s by my lip. I hated it so much. But now, as an adult, it’s one of the things that kind of creates that uniqueness. People see it — they know that mole.

And it doesn’t even have to be physical. I used to be really hard on myself, because I liked to be alone a lot and I wasn’t a social butterfly. I only had, like, three friends, while my brother always had 1,000 friends. But I realized, as I got older, that’s a really cool thing — I’d rather spend my time writing, spending time reflecting, or hanging out with my three friends, than hang around people who aren’t necessarily contributing to the conversation.

But finding that one thing about yourself is a good exercise to do. The mind is powerful. Every day, tell yourself something that you love about yourself: Turn the most insecure thing about yourself into something you love, until you find a real connection with that thing.

OK, last question! As part of Yahoo Health’s Body-Peace Resolution, we want to know: What’s your definition of having “body peace”?

Body peace can’t exist without mind peace. It’s all-encompassing. So, I would say “body peace” is an all-encompassing feeling of being content with where you are in that moment.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Body-Peace Resolution is Yahoo Health’s January initiative to motivate you to pursue wellness goals that are not vanity-driven, but that strive for more meaningful outcomes. We’re talking strength, mental fitness, self-acceptance — true and total body peace. Our big hope: This month of resolutions will inspire a body-peace revolution. Want to join us? Start by sharing your own body-positive moments on social media using the hashtag #bodypeaceresolution

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