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Perceptions of Pretty

Empowering, Disruptive, Influential: How 3 Black Models Paved Their Own Lanes

It’s 2018, and yet young girls are being suspended from school for wearing their natural hair, women are being discriminated against in the workplace for afro-textured hairstyles, mainstream beauty brands are still creating foundation shades that do not cater to deeper skin tones, and most runways still predominantly feature white models. If you attempt to recount the cyclical chain of disadvantages Black women have dealt with in the fashion and beauty industries since the beginning, the list is exhausting. For hundreds of years, built-in barriers of prejudice have created a limiting system for Black girls, who grow up believing in a standard of beauty that looks very different from what they are born with. These traditional beauty standards leave our hair textures, skin tones, curves, and Afrocentric features out of the conventional conversation. For years, the celebration of our beauty was blatantly disregarded.

These Eurocentric standards of beauty that were (and unfortunately still are) perpetually praised in our society trickle down into the minds of Black people everywhere, including me. But we continue to rise up. Black women are reclaiming what beauty means and setting their own standards. The way of thinking about beauty has recently been revolutionized, thanks to beauty brands like Fenty Beauty, which launched with 40 foundation shades with a multitude of skin tones in mind. Thanks to Solange Knowles, who created a movement with her iconic song “Don’t Touch My Hair” that became an ode to natural girls everywhere. Thanks to actresses, models, and influencers who’ve chosen to rewrite the rules. Black models, in particular, have the difficulty of working in an industry that lacks representation and has favored their white counterparts for so long. So how do you strut powerfully through the world of modeling without succumbing to stereotypical beauty standards? Three unapologetic Black models who have owned their uniqueness share how they’ve paved their own lanes.

Khoudia Diop
Hannah Sider 

Twenty-year-old Senegalese supermodel Khoudia Diop, also known as the @melaniin.goddess, stuns her 556,000 Instagram followers with her striking skin tone. Diop’s journey to fully loving the skin she’s in inspires the masses. She’s turned what was once her biggest insecurity into her gift. Now the face of many major beauty campaigns, Diop wants every woman who looks like her to embrace her true beauty.

How have your thoughts on the word “pretty” evolved over time?

I used to think that “pretty” meant perfection. I used to think that it meant being light-skinned and having small lips with silky hair because those are the standards of beauty I grew up with in my country. Now, when I hear the word “pretty,” I think of power, respect, happiness, strength, acceptance, struggle, fight, tears, and joy. I would define “beauty” as a woman who’s happy with being herself.

When you’re not feeling confident, what do you do to pick yourself back up?

In moments like that, I think about all of the times I was feeling down on myself, and I call on the women I can rely on in my life, like my mom, to express myself, which always helps. I love hearing about my roots and my culture. It helps me get centered.

Khoudia Diop

Was there ever something about yourself you struggled with loving that you embrace now?

My skin color. I remember the moment I started overthinking what I look like and how much I hated my skin. It was when one my best friends told me I looked like a ghost because I was so dark. That affected me for a while, especially when I moved to Paris and people were staring at me at school, which is part of what made me stop going to school there. On the streets, people would just stare at me, and at the time I had the wrong perception of why people were staring at me. I really struggled getting comfortable in my own skin. Over time, I really started to remind myself how beautiful, worthy, and unique I am.

Who are the women in your life who you really look up to?

I look up to my mom because she’s the only person in my family who did not bleach her skin color. Skin-bleaching products are popular in my country because the notion is lighter skin is beautiful. My mom is a woman who respects and loves herself and did not surrender to any beauty standards. Every day she always tells me, “Do not let anyone define who you are, because you don’t even know who you are yet. You’re still learning about yourself.”

What was the aha moment when you began to truly love the skin you’re in?

I was walking the streets of Italy with my sister, and absolutely no one looked like me. I looked at myself in the mirror and just felt so beautiful, unique, and happy about myself. I realized that this is my beauty and I have to embrace it. You always have to love yourself first before anyone else.

Khoudia Diop
Earring: Bonheur Jewelry; Denim Vest: Grey Jason Wu

What brands are doing a good job at diversity?

L’Oréal, MAC, Fenty Beauty, and Make Up For Ever are doing a good job at being diverse and inclusive. All of these brands have a foundation that actually matches me, but I’d still like everyone to have darker options. Some foundations still come out too red or too blue-based for my skin tone.

Oftentimes the industry and beauty companies fail to acknowledge the beauty of all skin tones. Did you ever feel overlooked?

To be honest, I still feel overlooked. Some brands stop selling their darkest foundation shades just because they aren’t selling. Growing up and seeing so many white beauty standards and not seeing makeup that matches my skin tone really affected my self-esteem and confidence. I never really felt represented by brands, and even when I did, it was only for a short amount of time. It’s unacceptable. I think brands need to be more inclusive and sell products with all women in mind. Dark-skinned models aren’t a trend. It’s very important for us to be represented and celebrated on all platforms.

What was your experience like with makeup when you were younger?

I always used to experiment with my sister’s makeup. My sister is a lot lighter than me, though. So, I’d always have to mix a little bit of her foundation with black mascara and black crayons. My skin tone is very complex, so my shade changes, and sometimes doing that would work for me in different lighting. So I’d put more crayons in the foundation to make it darker.

You seem like someone who has really embraced your natural beauty and features. Have you always felt this confident?

Growing up in a country that doesn’t celebrate my beauty was hard. I’m 20 years old, so my process of self-love is still going. I still have moments where I look at myself and I’m like, You’re beautiful, but you’re so dark. Getting to inspire and meet new people is so fulfilling. I’ve been afraid of meeting new people my whole life because I was always so ashamed of my skin color. I used to barely talk to people and was in my own bubble. Now in this modeling world, I get to meet new people every single day, and they love my skin color—it feels amazing.

How do you practice self-love on a daily basis?

I have very bad anxiety, so I practice deep breathing every morning and before going to bed. Every day I try to remind myself that there’s not one definition of beauty. I tell myself I don’t need anyone’s opinions. I just need air and that’s all.

Anita Marshall

Anita Marshall isn’t here to abide by societal rules of what it means to be a “plus-size” model—fitting into a stereotypical box of body standards is not her MO. Nowadays, Marshall models for high-fashion brands that haven’t always included diverse images of beauty, proving there’s nothing more inspiring than an empowered woman who loves herself first.

What do you do to practice self-love?

When I need a pick-me-up, I like to ask myself what is it that I’m really unhappy with. I have to remember to ask myself these questions in predicaments since I know the outcome is one of two things. Either I can find a solution to it or, in the worst scenario, have to live with the fact that it is beyond my control. The important lesson I take away from that is whatever it may be, it is not worth getting upset about in either situation. I continue to love myself and put Anita first.

Was there ever a feature that you struggled with loving that you embrace now?

I struggled with loving my stretch marks, but [they’ve helped my journey to becoming] a better, healthier me.

anita marshall

How do you stay encouraged working as a fashion model in an industry that historically doesn’t design clothes with your body type in mind?

I remember that every body is different. I am not the only one clothes are not “made” for. We are never the problem, and it is our job to hold the companies responsible. We have the opportunity to have honest opinions with these brands, and they want to hear our feedback. And I mean “our feedback” as in the customer because you are who they want to cater to. I love my job because I get to empower girls like me who maybe never thought they could see themselves as a beauty standard.

As a woman of color in the fashion industry, do you feel a sense of responsibility?

I feel a responsibility to uplift each other and hold each other accountable for our actions. I know I am my sister’s keeper.

What are your thoughts on the huge body-positivity moment happening on social media and in the industry?

I love that we are in a space where we are openly in love with ourselves. Love is in the air, and you cannot truly love if it does not start with yourself. Having the capacity to love yourself makes it easy for you to love the world around you.

Anita Marshall
Blouse: Eloquii; Earrings: Bonheur Jewelry 

What are some misconceptions you think people have about being a curvy model?

One of the misconceptions is that I am not curvy enough. People on social media think because I’m 5’11” and a size 12, I don’t particularly fit the bill as “plus-size” in their eyes. In reality, anything above a size 8 is considered “plus” in the modeling industry.

What was your upbringing like, and how has that shaped you into who you are today?

My upbringing was loving and honest. I was surrounded by a support system. I was molded into a fearless, loving woman. I’ve been conditioned to remember that I am a force, and I am fully equipped to handle whatever life has in store for me.

Have you always loved the body that you’re in? If not, what has that journey been like?

When I thought I didn’t love my body, I wasn’t truly happy within. I realized I could have my “ideal body” and still not be happy with myself. When you can comprehend what you don’t really love about yourself, you are closer to loving everything about you.

diandra forrest

Bronx, New York–born supermodel and albinism awareness activist Diandra Forrest is the epitome of striking beauty. In her 10 years of modeling—in fact, she was the first model with albinism to be signed to a major modeling agency—Forrest has been constantly outspoken about normalizing albinism. This passion for promoting representation in her field has been her fuel to keep going.

How did you grow to love your albinism and turn that into your superpower?

I was not always comfortable with having albinism. I didn’t like to explain what albinism was and why I look the way I do. When I grew up, I was very shy and wanted to blend in. With age, I started to realize this is me, who I am, and I’m always going to be this way. So I had to get comfortable with it. When I started to focus more on my inner beauty, my external beauty wasn’t such a thing. People focused on me and my personality. It’s more about who I am rather than what I look like.

What’s the biggest misconception you think people have about albinism?

I have strong African features, so it shocks people because I have such white skin. And now that I’m embracing my natural hair, it’s become even more of a shock factor. People are like, Wow, here’s this really pale girl with blonde afro-textured hair, a wide nose, and full lips. When I first started modeling, I’d go overseas to Paris a lot, and people could not believe that I was Black. They thought I looked too white to be 100% African-American.

What was your experience like working in the modeling world over the past 10 years?

When I first started modeling, staying in an agency was difficult. They’d always say, “We like her look, but she stands out too much.” They’d be fearful that my look would be a distraction from what the brands were trying to sell. This is why they wanted models that all looked the same, so they could focus solely on the clothes. This isn’t fair, because people are looking up to models and want to see women who look like them.

diandra forrest

How did you deal with the discouragement?

There were plenty of times when I thought I didn’t want to model anymore. People are constantly judging your looks down to your hair, size, and skin. There have been times when I’ve criticized myself, wondering if the next girl is prettier than me and questioned if this was truly something I wanted to do. I have a strong support system with my family who always push me to keep going. The reason I started modeling is because I wanted to see someone with albinism in the mainstream media. I want all little girls who look like me to know there are women with albinism they can look up to, who are representing and on the map.

You seem like someone who has really embraced your natural beauty and features. Have you always felt this confident?

Before being in the modeling industry, my mom would relax my hair because it was easier for her to manage. I relaxed my hair for a while throughout my career. When I first decided to go natural, I didn’t know how to manage my hair, and celebrity hairstylists didn’t even know how to manage my hair on set. I was natural, but I’d still go into shoots with my hair flat-ironed because I knew that there probably wouldn’t be anyone on set who knew how to do afro-textured hair. I did that for years, which was so damaging to my hair and ultimately made it fall out. When I got pregnant with my daughter, I made a decision to not straighten my hair anymore. I’m a Black girl, and I love my natural texture. And I want my daughter to embrace her natural texture and know that her hair is beautiful too.

What do you think the beauty and fashion industries can do better?

The industry is getting better when it comes to including more Black models. I’ve seen a few shows this season where they’ve used all Black models, which is amazing and has not happened many times before. I do think that the industry needs to be more inclusive and hope this isn't just for the moment.

Diandra Forrest
Blouse: Topshop; Blazer: Misbhv; Earrings: Closer by Wwake 

Was there ever a feature that you struggled with loving that you embrace now?

My eyes. I have nystagmus, which comes from having albinism. It’s a jittering eye movement that causes my eyes to shake. But it’s about being comfortable having albinism and the things that come with it. It’s something that most people with albinism have, and we can’t control it.

We’re always going to have moments when we need to lift ourselves up. What do you do in those moments?

I reflect on my roots and who I am. It’s important to know how to build yourself up. Finding your core self, knowing who you are, and recognizing your internal beauty will make you feel amazing. Your external beauty comes full circle when you’re internally beautiful.

Black Women: This is a tribute to you. Considering where we started and recognizing how far society has come over the years are glimmers of hope that change is here. I charge you all with the responsibility to unapologetically own your distinct beauty because it is a gift to the world.

Photographer: Hannah Sider
Stylist: Savannah White
Makeup Artist: Alana Wright
Hairsytlist: Clay Nelsen
Manicurist: Gracie J
Talent: Khoudia Diop, Anita Marshall, Diandra Forrest

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