As a girl growing up in the 1970s, first in Hazelwood and then Oakland, my love for fashion and style was endless. I lived and breathed it. I remember being 3 years old and tying my mother's scarves around my head, creating different styles. It was genetic; my mother had a great sense of style and loved expressing herself through fashion.
My dream was to become a fashion model.
However, by the time I was a teenager, I had grave doubts about whether there was a place for me -- a black girl -- in the industry. As I read my favorite magazines, I was acutely aware of the lack of black models in the fashion spreads.
Unfortunately, all these years later, the industry has changed very little in this regard. Now, in the run-up to New York Fashion Week, which begins Thursday, the model and entrepreneur Iman has suggested using social media to encourage a boycott of designers who do not employ black models in their shows. Supporting the idea is renowned model and activist Bethann Hardison.
I applaud this effort. As an advocate for diversity in fashion and the arts, I believe change starts at the top. People of color need to be represented where the decisions are being made.
For years, diversity in fashion has been a matter of controversy. A 2007 New York Times article said, "Although black women in the United States spend more than $20 billion on apparel each year... it was hard to discern an awareness of this fact on the part of designers showing in New York, where black faces were more absent from runways than they have been in years."
Nearly 30 years ago, I was swept with disappointment and hurt as Eileen Ford, founder of Ford Models and one of the most powerful figures in fashion, dashed my own dream. During an open call for models, she told me, "You're an attractive young woman, but your nose is too wide, jaw line too long and lips too full to become a model -- it is very challenging for blacks in the fashion industry."
Since that experience, it's been my mission to "broaden the standard of beauty" by cultivating a more inclusive and globally representative approach to fashion, beauty and culture. I do this through my work with Utopia Model Agency, which I co-founded in 1999 to represent models of color, and FashionAFRICANA, an annual Pittsburgh event celebrating the beauty and diversity of the African diaspora through design, dance and music. I want to paint a picture of what can be if the fashion industry embraces black beauty.
When I speak to groups about fashion and diversity, I ask: "Why is it still a stretch to reflect the racial demographics of a global society on the runway?" The answers always vary from racism to inequality to misunderstood notions about black beauty.
This isn't about taking creative freedom from anyone or interfering with the creative process. It's about fostering an industry that values equality, an industry where everyone has a voice. As someone who designs events, I understand the creative process and the importance of autonomy. I want to freely express my creativity. It's likely that most designers aren't intentionally excluding women of color, but the net result is the same. There is value in raising awareness about this issue.
In an environment where white women are the standard of beauty, my journey of self-love and awareness hasn't been easy. During my youth, the limited and narrow portrayals of black beauty in some of my favorite fashion magazines -- and in the media overall -- contributed to low self-esteem and self-destructive behaviors, including use of a skin-lightening cream.
There undoubtedly were other factors affecting my self-esteem, such as neighborhood kids teasing me about my prominent African features. My desire to become a fashion model had been chipped away by the time I was a teenager. Nonetheless, I always loved the natural beauty of black women and appreciated having the lifestyle magazine Essence as a resource.
Over time, I've grown to love and embrace my African features. The process included shaving my head more than a decade ago, a step I believed was necessary because I used my hair to mask insecurities I had about my face.
My husband and I are raising a biracial daughter, and I don't want her to go through what I did. I want to break the cycle, though she is facing a similar situation and landscape regarding identity formation. We couldn't find a brown doll for her at a local toy store! And when my husband inquired about it, the owner told him, "It's just economics." Which, of course, is ludicrous because there are plenty of people of all colors who shop in Pittsburgh.
Recently, through my work with the Utopia Project, an education outreach program, I had a wonderful opportunity to hear high school students' views and perceptions about what constitutes beauty. Once again, the need for a broader standard was so evident to me. That is why I believe in all the quality efforts to raise awareness of this very important issue. Ultimately, it is the industry's responsibility to understand that failure to reflect a global marketplace negatively affects young people and their identity.
There are advocates within the industry who promote diversity in fashion. Paris-based fashion photographer Mario Epanya presented a proposal to Conde Nast, the publisher of Vogue, to obtain a license to publish a Vogue Africa. His proposal was declined. But, as a trained makeup artist and amazing photographer, he was able to paint a picture of what could be -- if Vogue embraced black beauty -- by creating a series of mock Vogue Africa covers that went viral.
In December, I was excited to have the opportunity through FashionAFRICANA to work with Mr. Epanya and present, at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, his amazing photography celebrating black beauty. We saw firsthand that the nature of this work can have a positive impact on our youth.
My hope is that through the efforts by Iman, Ms. Hardison and Mr. Epanya, we can gather momentum through social media -- letting people know what is at stake and how these dynamics affect women and girls of color and our well-being as a nation. Through my blog at broadening-the-standard.com, I will continue to communicate on this issue and invite you to join me in this important conversation.
Regent Square resident Demeatria Boccella is the founder and artistic director of FashionAFRICANA, and she has worked on New York fashion shows, including African Mosaique, and photo shoots for Essence. She manages the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra and Bill Nunn Theatre Outreach Project.