Earlier this year, a friend of mine who works in the fashion industry told me that I had a commercial look, and asked me to model a turtleneck for a segment on a local NYC fashion news network. A few months later I was invited back to model, but this time it was for a major national morning show. I was thrilled. I never thought that someone like me—with dark skin and thick thighs—could ever "model." I counted down the days.
I arrived on set as instructed: makeup free and with my hair straight—not curly. The makeup artist on set shot me a look of annoyance. She had no color in her makeup set to match me and used foundation way lighter than my complexion, which made my skin look ashy. She swiped a bright pink lipstick on my full lips, to make me "pop," she said. I didn't feel like I was poppin' at all. I felt like I was being made up to look like a clown.
I knew that my one painful, personal experience modeling couldn't be an isolated one.
So I spoke with eight black models about their experiences in the industry, the microaggressions they've experienced, the ways in which they have been made to feel less-than. I asked each model to speak specifically to that body part or feature that once made them feel insecure but is now their biggest motivator.
Khoudia Diop, 19, The Colored Girl
I grew up in Senegal, where more than 50 percent of the women bleach their skin, and skin bleaching is a huge deal. I grew up seeing my cousins and my aunts using it. My cousin pressured me and they wanted me to use skin bleaching products but my sister said you're not using it because a lot of them experience the damages [from it].
I wanted to use it at a point, not going to lie, and I felt really ashamed of being dark, but my sister would always show me pictures of dark skin models, there weren't a lot, but she would show me pictures of dark skin models and say "this is not a bad thing and your skin is not a thing you have to change. It's unique and beautiful and you have to learn to know things you like about yourself and celebrate them.
Mominatu Boog, 21, G Models PR
I am very dark but I am very soft and feminine and I don't really feel like there is a lot of that in the dark skin market. Stop trying to make us out to seem like we are these animals.
I feel like in the industry when it comes to dark skinned women they always make us out to be these aggressors and these angry people when we're not. I don't have to shave my head to be a model. I don't have to look like I am going to bark at you to be a model. I like flowers. I like perfume. I like sweet stuff.
Gia Oteto, 22, Omit
I have pretty big lips so I feel like that's where people's eyes go to. It makes me feel like that's the only thing people see from me is my lips. It's always been uncomfortable.
[When] shooting they see the lips and say let's do a pop of green and it gets uncomfortable, sometimes because not every dark girl with big lips can rock a lime green. A lot of places I used to work would say to me "let's do yellow eye shadow and like a lime green on her lips because they're so beautiful." I feel like they don't notice that we can rock that color sometimes but we can also rock a nude and look amazing. And I look like a duck sometimes. I can't wear this bright pink lipstick for every shoot.
Tatiana Elizabeth, 22, MSA models
I remember one time getting my full face of makeup done and I look in the mirror and it's a completely wrong shade and I am like, What the heck, you're a makeup artist I don't understand how you don't understand how to do all types of skin tones not just one. I have had multiple experiences where I am like this is not how I am supposed to look. Sometimes they'll use lighter shades or darker shades. I think [some makeup artists] just don't understand how to do it, so they try to compromise and try to mix and match and make things instead of just having the correct shades because they're available, but they just don't have them.
At this point, I don't even say anything anymore, I'll just go into the bathroom and fix it myself. I'll come out and they'll say "OMG you look amazing" and I am like "yeah because I did it myself." It is annoying that I have to go through that and at first I was scared to make those adjustments but at the end of the day I am my own brand and I don't want to put work out there, whether it's with a client or for myself, because it's me, my image—it's not the makeup artist it's not anyone, it's me so I need to make sure that it's on point.
Grace Mahary, 27, IMG Models
It means the world to me to be able to embrace my culture and my traditions because for so long I was embarrassed about it and I wanted to assimilate. Now I see trends in beauty and fashion that are similar to or have origins from my tradition and my culture in Eritrea.
[But] I think cultural appropriation is a really relevant topic right now. I feel like every idea or every creation comes from some type of copying or image you have seen already so I think it's about intention and how genuine you are coming off and what you're trying to say or present with your message. I am Eritrean, I am Canadian and I am a woman—[that's my message].
Kamie Crawford, 24, JAG Models
I once had a job where the client was so nice, the shoot was long and the rate wasn't amazing, but I wanted to do it regardless. I got there and the hairstylist was Australian. She went in to do my hair and she kept referring to my hair as an afro and my hair was straight this day. She was like "OMG this afro!" and I was like, what the hell are you talking about and she kept referring to my edges as afro bits. In a negative way.
[She said] "Omg your afro bits I just can't get them." It was taking so long to do my hair, the client asked what's going on, we are not on schedule, and she said her afro bits are too difficult for me to do them, I am trying to get them straight. Basically she was blaming it on me and making it seem like my hair and I were the problem but it wasn't me. My hair was straight but she just didn't know how to do it. Of course, it's offensive but I can't cuss her out and do my job at the same time. These microaggressions add up being a woman of color and others models who aren't of women of color don't have to face it.
Ashley Chew, 25, retired
Even though I am lighter toned with green eyes, I understand that privilege, but with me its been a battle of my hair. Is it on trend? They'll ask me to straighten it or they'll say we already have a girl that looks like you even though there is 10 other blondes in the room.
My issue is because I am fair toned I shouldn't be the darkest thing in the room, if I look around and see that I am the darkest person in the room with ethnic hair then there is a problem. Even in the black hair care casting white directors will ask for a black girl then I show up and they're like, "No, we want a black girl," and that's happened plenty of times. It's almost like being too light for the black castings and being too dark for regular casting.
Diandra Forrest, 27, Krush Model Management
People are curious about why I look the way I do. I have very full lips and I remember going to Paris and every casting director that I met was like "did you get your lips done?" And I am like what why did everyone think I got my lips done? Well, they didn't know I am black girl. I have a strong nose and I remember people suggesting that if I were to get my nose done I would get more work and I was just baffled.
I love my nose and I don't want to lose that part of me. To each its own, if you want to change the way you look to fit into society more or if it's something you want to do to make yourself feel better then fine but I don't think you should suggest to people what they should do because you don't completely agree with their look. There shouldn't just be one standard type of model. Beauty is diverse.