by Abi Ishola
If I told my 13-year-old self that one day I would launch a photo project and campaign that celebrates the diverse beauty of Black women, that young woman wouldn’t believe it. During my adolescence, beauty was a sensitive topic for me. The stain that colorism often leaves on many young Black girls had taken a toll on my self-esteem by then.
I remember looking in the mirror and recognizing my beauty, but not having the courage to fully embrace it because of society’s narrow standards. However, the more I invest into Beyond Classically Beautiful, a beauty project I launched after years of learning self-acceptance, the more I fully understand that our pain is indeed our power, our teacher, and our liberator.
Having the ability to push through hardship and pain is the reason I love and admire Black women. We are dynamic, strong, and resilient. Time and again we rise above all the jabs that mainstream media throws our way, and the idea that our place within society is at the bottom. All of this we’ve done by using our pain to propel us beyond the boundaries that are set before us. Our trials continue to manifest into our greatest triumphs.
“The Power Behind Our Pain” inadvertently became the concept for this installment of Beyond Classically Beautiful. The models in the series come from diverse backgrounds, yet they share one thing: They’ve mastered the idea of using their past struggles to enhance their lives and inspire others—through their participation in this project and in their life’s work. For example, take Pamela Nanton. She’s the founder of PLY Apparel, a high-end line of plus-sized clothing. As a ten-year breast cancer survivor, she’s made it a point to use her brand and designs to raise proceeds for breast cancer awareness.
Kela Walker, a TV reporter and fashion blogger, recognizes the difficulties women of color face as we are bombarded with images in the media that don’t reflect us. Through her fashion blog she inspires women to look their best and embrace themselves as they are.
For this series I teamed up with the same amazing crew: Kunle Ayodeji handled the amazing photography, Yetty Bames beautified our models to perfection, and Duane Ferguson worked his magic behind the video camera to capture a behind-the-scenes look at our photo shoot.
We have also introduced a new Beyond Classically Beautiful T-shirt, as well as two others with the message, "Be Classic."(You can visit our Etsy shop to purchase one. The earnings are used to produce the Beyond Classically Beautiful photo stories.)
“Be Classic” is the message nestled within Beyond Classically Beautiful. It is my hope that this message will encourage women of color to continue to use their light to redefine what it means to be a classic beauty.
Read the full photo story, featuring our awesome models, below. And check out our behind the scenes video. We encourage you to leave comments and feedback on the Beyond Classically Beautiful movement and feel free to share your own personal stories.
You can be part of the Beyond Classically Beautiful Movement by following us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
“I think I consider myself as “flawsome.” I have flaws and they’re awesome and they are what make me, me.”
Pamela“Having breast cancer made me question my beauty after I lost my hair. I was a model for many years and a designer all my life. I did not feel pretty and was very sad and depressed. I knew that God had a plan for me. I knew I was special enough to handle it. I knew I was going through my new normal.”
“I remember a night when I was very young, I prayed to look differently. I wanted my skin lighter. I was sure my hair could do cooler things. Why was I so skinny? Would I ever grow breasts? I came to my senses and realized that there wasn’t much I could do about my appearance. I could grow up wanting something else and hating myself or I could choose to grow up and love what life and my body did for me.”
“Growing up, I was always the biggest girl in the class, so I blossomed a lot earlier than all of the other girls. I was always the last girl in line when we were in size order and my boobs were a little bigger than most. When I was younger, they teased me about it. They called me big foot and doofy. But as I got older I realized that I got blessed a lot sooner than most. I was insecure about it but now I feel a lot more secure about my body and I love the way I’m shaped. I’m a little curvy, but I’m okay with that. Overall, I’m happier. I know I’m beautiful and I tell myself that more often now than I did before because I define my beauty.”
“As a young woman I wasn’t quite fond of my look. I was surrounded by white girls who had long hair and boys in middle school who supported that aesthetic. That was the standard of beauty because they were the most sought after and I was not. But how could that be? I thought my mum was beautiful. She had the skin of gold, rich in darkness and cheekbones to match. I thought my sister was so fly in her tomboyish way. It wasn’t until college that I started to question and understand that the Western standard of beauty was so one-dimensional.
I’ve realized that my beauty comes from my confidence, in knowing that I am me—the Nigerian girl who came to America at the age of 11. My beauty is exemplary of my African heritage. In my culture, features such as a gap-tooth, high cheekbones, and a heavy body type are the ideal features for a beautiful woman, a strong woman, and a unique woman. So I had to revert to standards that I grew up knowing in order to make sense of the Western world I was living in. I had to understand that even though I was living in a Western society, I’m still a daughter of an African heritage that praised my beauty and welcomed my features with open arms.”
“When I was younger I hated my hair. I remember being teased for always having braids. I was one of the only kids who had natural hair while all the other girls had perms. I decided I was going to get a perm to fit in. It was horrible. All I remember was the burning and running to the sink to rinse my head. I wanted to change myself for other people and I hated that feeling. From a young age I learned that I have to love what I see in the mirror. Even if it is not what I constantly see around me, that is okay. It is okay to be different.”
“Now I feel like I’m beautiful but for a very long time, as far back as I can remember, I never felt beautiful. Everywhere around me people kept telling me I wasn’t, including my family—especially them. It was a struggle for a very long time. Plus I have a lisp. Add that to not feeling beautiful and being told that I wasn’t beautiful, it was a very hard thing to deal with. When I look in the mirror now, I see a Black woman who has learned to love and accept herself after years of believing that she wasn’t good enough, because she did not fall within society’s definition of beauty. I wake up and think now that my self-esteem issues are out the way, all I have to do is conquer the world.”
“I think as women, especially Black women, we can relate to having a moment or moments in our lives when we don’t appreciate our beauty as much as we really should. Being bombarded with images and sentiments from various media sources that are constantly telling us we aren’t good enough, that we’re somehow inherently unattractive (which is such a huge lie) doesn't help. There was a time in my teens where I felt essentially invisible to the guys that I liked, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that many of them had bought into the Eurocentric beauty standard, which I did not fit. To be fair, I think it also had a lot to do with where I grew up as well. I was blessed to have parents that taught me that Black was beautiful all my life, and it was very important to them that my brothers and I understood that message. So I got over that short period in my teens by getting constant reassurance from my parents about my beauty, by remembering their words about the importance of loving myself as a Black woman. They always encouraged me to see the beauty in who I was.”
Mercedes and Geneva: A Sister Story
Mercedes: “I’ve always wanted her boobs.”
Geneva: “I think I’ve always wanted her red hair.”
Mercedes: “But mostly we try to support each other. We know people come differently and we just try to compliment each other.”
Geneva: “For the most part we’ve been very supportive and very in tune with each other and helping each other overcome our insecurities, but never rivalry.”
Mercedes: “Just love.”
Watch the behind-the-scenes footage of the photo shoot below.
Photos: Kunle Ayodeji / Beyond Classically Beautiful
Abi Ishola is a multimedia journalist who began her career as a writer for major magazines and websites, such as Teen Vogue and Heart & Soul. Her writing has since been featured on The Huffington Post, Essence.com, and Ebony.com. Today she's an award winning television producer who has traveled as far as West Africa to cover news stories. Most recently, the Fashion Institute of Technology alum returned to her roots when she began covering fashion for her noted style blog, ScriptsandSightings.com. Most recently she launched Beyond Classically Beautiful, a campaign that celebrates the diverse beauty of black women.