My adolescent eyes were entranced by the stunning covers of magazines. I flipped through glossy pages of high-fashion publications in search of inspiration. As a young black girl growing up in Portland, Oregon, I was reminded of my differences early on. I was always the only one in the room—in a way, it was like I was the exception. I quickly discovered that my distinct kinks and curls paired with my melanin-rich skin tone were the minority in town.
Because of this realization, I yearned to see images of women who looked like me in the media. At that time, the standard of beauty in the media idolized everything I wasn't: stick-thin and light skinned, with straight, silky hair. The fear of standing out too much among my friends compelled me to straighten my naturally curly hair so I could look like everyone else. Like so many other women of color, the glaring lack of representation deeply affected my self-esteem.
Thankfully, the media landscape is changing for the better. More than ever before, diversity is pushed to the forefront, and women of color are spearheading major ad campaigns, beauty companies, the runways, and more. These powerful women in the media include Aysha Sow and Micaéla Verrelien, who are digital content creators spreading the message of inclusivity that women need. They've both been featured in major campaigns and inspire their thousands of followers with true beauty that radiates in everything they share.
However, they both realize that although progress has been made with regard to representation, we cannot stop here.
They created the WOC Project, a campaign featuring an array of stunning images that highlight diverse influencers in the media. The brown girls pictured are making waves in the industry and represent more than just pretty faces—they advocate for change. Beyond the striking visuals of digital influencers in Afrocentric hairstyles, bold makeup, and colorful clothing, what makes this project special is the meaning behind it: telling mainstream brands not to cast black influencers to simply fill a quota, but to be true advocates of representation.
Below, take in the infinite beauty of these images—the epitome of black girl magic—but more importantly, listen to what their creators have to say.
You mention "the beauty and fashion space where brand campaigns celebrate diversity to check a box more than to truly tap into the power of WOC." Have you had personal experiences in the industry where you've felt tokenized by brands?
Micaéla Verrelien: There have been many times that I've been one or two women of color in the room. A perfect example of when I knew I was at an event to fill a quota was when I realized that I wasn't receiving the same treatment as another influencer who was not of color. We both were invited to the same event, we both have a similar following, and we both live in New York. She was given an Uber code, and I was not. Many of the other influencers in the room were given an Uber code as well. This sounds like something small, but when a company makes your life easier by making sure you're well accommodated, it not only shows that they respect your time but that they value your presence.
Your campaign highlights women who have been the minority in brand campaigns. What do you think it'll take for brands to move past this and foster true representation in the industry?
MV: I think what brands can do to foster true representation is hire influencers and models for talent and not simply to fill a quota. Do research before simply hiring women who have the same look that will give them clicks. Taking a risk with more of a diverse group of women can result in a different outcome for a campaign, but that doesn't mean the results will be terrible, and I think that many companies are scared to take the risk of the unknown. As a woman of color, I know we'll always have to work twice as hard, which is not a problem, because many of us enter the influencer world with that acknowledgment.
However, the feeling of filling a quota is not something that'll make anyone feel good.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions of WOC who are influencers, and why?
MV: One of the biggest misconceptions of women of color is that we either don't support one another or we are hard to work with. That is why this project was so important to us. Not only did we want to show a vast audience of people that women of color can work together and create something amazing, but we also wanted to give the influencers a small push that they can do the same thing as well.
Do you believe there's an unspoken sisterhood between black creative influencers? How do you deal with the competition?
Aysha Sow: I absolutely believe there's an unspoken sisterhood between black creative influencers. Any time I see another black creative influencer win or achieve a goal of theirs, I applaud them and cheer for them even if I don't know them. To me, it's a victory for all because I know the struggle that we go through as black creatives to get the smallest acknowledgment in this industry. When it comes to competition, like Cardi B just said, "I'm my own competition. I'm competing with myself." There's no need for me to compete with others, because if anything, we should always try to elevate and rediscover a better version of ourselves.
And the last thing we need to do is compete with each other when it's already hard enough for us as black creatives to get noticed in such a white-dominated field.
What brands are you rooting for because they're doing it right when it comes to diversity and inclusivity?
AS: Fenty Beauty, Nars, and Make Up For Ever are definitely some of my favorite beauty brands that definitely show that diversity and representation matter. They make sure everyone is included in their shade ranges, and they use models (dark, curvy, brown, Asian, etc.) for their campaigns that are different than your typical norm.
What's your advice to aspiring WOC creatives who are trying to build a platform and get noticed by major brands?
AS: Put in the work, never just expect a handout, and always stay true to yourself. That's key in an industry like this one. If you try to build a platform by being everybody but yourself, you'll only hurt yourself in the long run. It will be exhausting, and you won't benefit from it at all. People are drawn to authenticity. When you show them your true self, people will gravitate toward that, and this goes for brands as well. Being your true self also shows through the content you end up creating.
Brands gravitate toward creatives who they feel are relatable to their message.
What's been your biggest challenge as a creative, and how have you overcome it?
AS: How to reinvent myself and stay consistent in an industry that's so saturated has been my biggest challenge. When you're a creative, reinventing yourself is something you'll have to do sooner or later, and multiple times in your career. You'll face creative blocks or moments in your career where things are just not going as they used to, and that's when you have to reinvent yourself. Come up with a better and newer version of you, but still the true you. Staying consistent is probably the biggest challenge for any creative out there, especially today with so many people wanting to become influencers/bloggers/content creators/photographers/models/MUAs (list goes on).
It's so hard nowadays because as soon as you don't upload or create something, you get this fear that people might forget about you or your craft, or your platform might suffer from it due to lack of consistency (especially with this new Instagram algorithm that is haunting creatives). This has been a huge struggle for many creatives because it causes some to create just to stay consistent, which leads to the creative part of the process to suffer. Are we now only uploading to stay consistent for the likes/gains, or are we uploading because we created something amazing and want to share it with the world?
Here's hoping that more women of color in the media use their platform to spark change like the WOC Project. Representation is a constant need, and this is just the beginning.