From left to right, Ajak Deng, Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek.
Naomi Campbell, an icon, has graced 66 Vogue covers worldwide, first appearing in the late 1980s. Her catwalk is world renowned and can be watched in awe for hours on end. But despite her tremendous success, and being widely recognized as the best and most beautiful in her field, she has had to overcome many hurdles to get here, as have many other models of color.
Only 16.7% of models walking in New York Fashion Week last year were of color, and in 2013 there was an estimated 9% of Asian models in the industry as a whole, despite Asian people making up half of the world’s population. Naomi Campbell has been very vocal about the racism and the discrimination she has faced during her beginnings in the industry and up to now. This discrimination coming from casting calls and fashion designers alike. In 2013, Naomi and fellow black supermodel Iman wrote an open letter to the governing bodies of fashion weeks across the globe based on the lack of diversity they witnessed in previous shows. They also joined an advocacy group called ‘Diversity Coalition.’
When speaking on this issue Naomi expressed her sadness at still seeing this lack of diversity in the 21st century”:
“Heartbreaking. Your body and beauty, it doesn’t matter what colour you are. If you’ve got the right talent, you should be there having the opportunity to do the job.”
Other models who have not only had an influence on the fashion industry but also inspired women and girls to love their skin color and features; even when it seems through the media that beauty must only come with white skin and Eurocentric features, are Alek Wek and Ajak Deng.
Alek Wek is a South Sudanese model who began her career when she was 18 in 1995. She has been widely hailed for her influence on challenging the perception of beauty in the fashion industry. She is from the Dinka ethnic group in South Sudan but fled to Britain in 1991 to escape the civil war in Sudan, therefore, her success and influence are particularly remarkable. When Alek first entered the industry she had no knowledge of black supermodel icons such as Iman and Grace Jones, so did not think modelling could be in her future. At this time black models were only deemed viable if they had a light complexion and relaxed hair, two things Alek Wek lacked.
Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, who has always seen her skin as a restriction to success, spoke of how Alek influenced her:
“A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was… My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome… when I saw Alek, I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated.”
Ajak Deng, also a Sudanese refugee who settled in Australia, left the modeling industry last year. She has been outspoken about the racist abuse she has received in the fashion industry and how difficult it has been for her to become one of Australia’s most successful international models, despite these hardships. Many were upset to see her retire from modeling at such a young age, especially as she expressed how exhausted she was with the racist industry. She has modeled for, to name a few, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Valentino and Marc Jacobs.
The skin lightening industry is worth billions of dollars, throughout Africa, Asia, South America and the Carribbean (for example, over 75% of women use some sort of skin bleaching cream in Nigeria), companies profiting off of insecurities and the concept that the lighter your skin is, the more successful you will be; even though these creams can be incredibly dangerous. Ironically, the tanning industry is booming in Europe and more, and more women are looking to get lip fillers. Although much of the racist harassment Ajak Deng and many other black women have received surrounded the size of their lips, Kylie Jenner, a white woman, has made fuller lips suddenly desirable and has been noted for creating the rise in women getting lip augmentations.
We must destroy the oppressive westernized beauty standards which promote colorism and white supremacy and are so prevalent today; especially with the rise of social media and glamorization of black features, but not black people.
Check out ‘Unfair And Lovely’ on Facebook and Instagram. Celebrating dark skinned people of color and destroying western beauty ideals. Their name comes from the popular skin lightening cream ‘Fair And Lovely’, particularly popular in India.