We are shaped by our experiences and our perceptions. Our views of the world are defined by what we see and what we hear and the media has always played a role in that. Throughout history, the media and arguably, our immediate environment, has controlled our self-image, and in the age of technology, we are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact of what our eyes and ears consume.
The evolution towards inclusivity has been rapid and pronounced, especially fueled by the advent of social media. We now all have the ultimate control; the ability to create our content and filter the media we consume. As a result we have found communities and our voices. I, as a dark skinned woman, no longer feel like my beauty isn’t socially acceptable as I have created my own community in which I feel empowered and if a brand doesn’t cater to me, they lose me as a customer. This is relatively easy for me to do. I’m now on the other side and I see media for what it is. But for so many others, this isn’t the most apparent and as the consumers of media are becoming younger and younger, we must stress the importance of diversity in media representation.
In order to tell my story I must start in my childhood. I’m not sure where my issues with my body came from but they certainly didn’t come from the magazines we so often demonize. I didn’t read magazines. Growing up as a dark skin black girl in inner city London, the glitzy world of fashion was completely unknown to me and as the daughter of immigrants I was surrounded by primarily African and African American media.
These media outlets told me that in order to be beautiful and successful, one must be light skinned, with long, curly hair and have an hourglass shape (think Kim K). As a result I grew up deeply unhappy with my skin tone, my body shape, and my hair texture. Even after all that, I consider myself lucky. My access to media was limited to the TV and after that was turned off the immediate mental attack was complete. However, the feelings generated by what I had just seen and heard lingered on.
Unfortunately, in this day and age of instant gratification and technology, media has become even more pervasive in our lives. Young, fragile minds are even more accessible. From our waking breath to our last thoughts at night, thanks to mobile technology and our “smart phones,” we constantly consume media and the effects are deadly. I’m from the UK and in 2016, the Children’s Society reported that 34% of girls aged 10-15 in the UK were unhappy with their overall appearance, a 3% increase in just five years.
In a culture where Instagram has replaced magazines, people are being constantly bombarded by images of “perfect” bodies in the palm of their hands. As corporations tap into influencer marketing, harnessing the power of social media, truly diverse representation is ever so important. In order for people to feel included, we must be careful not to replace one beauty standard with another and work towards demolishing beauty standards altogether.
Increasing visibility and normalizing the variation in our humankind is one way of doing this; all races, all ages, all abilities, and all sizes. Additionally, content creators must always recognize and be aware of the more pervasive but yet subtle nuanced issues of skin tone, body shape, hair texture … as a black woman, these have been far more damaging than any Vogue cover ever has, especially in commercial high-street advertising.
I believe true diversity occurs when brand completely and honestly shows all types of people regardless of size, race, gender, or ability. It really must be relatable and accessible. We will no longer be sold dreams and aspirations but we will learn to love and appreciate who we are individually and celebrate the differences amongst us.
As we celebrate the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week with NEDA, let’s keep having these discussions with advertisers, content creators and us, the consumers of media so that we move towards a world where our feelings of self-worth are no longer dictated by the standards of someone else.
Philomena Kwao is a model, writer, and humanitarian. She starred in the documentary film Straight/Curve: Redefining Body Image.