Vanessa Williams, 28, Tyka Edness, 28, and Shahnel Woodley, 29, are three women on a mission--to empower and uplift women on Bermuda's shores and beyond. There is no denying that the three friends are beautiful, but they make it clear that aesthetics is not what makes them tick.
These dark-skinned beauties are out to break the mould and most importantly the mindset of females who believe superficial is better. Recently, they released a photo campaign, shot by Kondwani Williams, which has taken social media by storm. In this in depth interview, they share with Carla Zuill what prompted them to create the campaign and the impact they want it to have on all women of colour, regardless of their skin tone
TIB: What is the motivation behind the visual campaign?
SW: In all honesty, I wanted to see our faces on a campaign together. What we stand for, the way that we support one another, the obstacles that we have overcome, and our successes needed to be celebrated and observed. Whether our photos were going to go viral or not didn’t matter to me, because the purpose of the shoot and what it stands for was truly for self gratification.
Three black women, often referred to as 'pretty for a BLACK girl' finally had had enough. We decided we wanted to shoot together because we had all been through the stereotypical 'too black is wack' and it was time to stand proud and assert that we also were worthy of being the faces of authentic black beauty.
TE: I was motivated by our numbing material-driven culture and wanted to provoke some real thought. I had observed human interaction and became privy to the notion of ‘celebrating the celebrity.’ I just watched the celebration of someone drinking their morning coffee or someone in the gym.
I was astounded at the countless hours spent glorifying these trivial acts. I continue to converse with the man who loves the Photoshopped woman and woman who hates herself but smiles in her selfie. It’s like watching a motion picture; characters playing celebrities at the expense of losing themselves.
I looked at my truth and realised that I was both buttressed and motivated by two dynamic women who did exceptional things daily. They don’t have a million followers and a nightly news special but they exist with a cause. And sure, we may never get world-wide recognition but that doesn't make this movement any less awesome.
Do you feel that Black women still hold on to the 'light skin is better' mindset?
SW: I find that subconsciously, slavery still plays an integral part of how women identify beauty. If you’re 'too dark', you’re out in the fields picking cotton. If you’re a bit lighter, you’re in the house being labeled as 'the help'. For too long, that was the mindset of the vast majority.
I find that only now, in recent years that black women are embracing their natural hair, and melanin skin. We are in the era of twist outs and shea butter. We have dropped the relaxers and flat irons and are embracing the kinks. While I do believe that there is a still some ways to go in accepting that all black is beautiful, I think that we are evolving and realizing that being black isn’t a curse, it’s a gift.
TE: I’m assured that the black woman’s subscription to the 'lighter is better' governance is not always a conscientious one. We depend on media. We compile, organise and file the truths which become a part of our fabric. When you plug 'beautiful woman' into the search engine of your choice, you are presented with Norwegian, Scandinavian, Swedish, Romanian, Italian and Icelandic subtabs only.
You continue to scroll and scroll until you find a break in the monotony of the fair skin, size 4 trend. Alas! You see the token; the inclusion; the one seemingly African woman listed 77th on the list. And a woman such as myself isn’t particularly surprised with the finding, however she becomes incessantly interested in changing the standard.
VW: I don't believe there are so many black women who hold onto the 'light skin is better' mindset, as it is society that attempts to do so. You can't help but notice that a light-skinned woman would get featured on the cover of a magazine, music video or a commercial before a dark-skinned woman. For the most part, we as black women understand the inner and outer beauty that we possess... It is society that seems to have difficulty realising it.
TIB: What was the significance of rope around your breasts?
SW: Rope was often used negatively by our former captors. During slavery it was used for lynching, and tying up the black man to torture them. Our fore fathers and mothers were bound together in the bottom of boats by ropes and shackles. In an artistic twist, the rope around our breasts was used to show a sisterhood of strength. We used black rope against our black skin, twisted and braided together to become stronger. It showed that we could transform decades of pain and struggle into something artistic and beautiful.
TE: I didn’t want the distraction of ‘brands’ ‘labels’ ‘jewels’ or clothing at all really. That rope was not only 'anti-trend' but it represented the binding of a sisterhood. It was an emblem of the durability and strength of such a species. We were maternal beings of African descent undiluted and proudly donning a common thread; that was the rope.
TIB: What was your perception of your skin tone growing up?
SW: My mother always praised my complexion. She spoke of how smooth and brown I was. I’d moisturise my skin and look at myself in the mirror; a brown skinned little girl with blonde hair on my arms and legs. It was only until summer would arrive and people ran from the sunshine like it was the plague. They would say: 'Gosh girl you’re black..oh, you’ve had enough sun...get out of the sun before you get too dark.' These words were never uttered from my mother, but it seemed as if getting darker was somehow a bad thing. Without intention, summer season would arrive and I’d find myself not wanting to get too BLACK.
TE: Well I knew that the mother on the peanut butter advertisement didn’t look like my mother. Bed time stories and fairy tales never ever illustrated that the girl with the dark skin could fall in love, or more importantly, be loved. She couldn't be adored or respected when she didn’t even exist; when they didn’t acknowledge her. This, of course, was compounded by being encouraged to run from the sun as if pigmentation had a threshold; that the world could only take so much of it.
Although my mother and father worked tirelessly to impart on me that my kind of beauty was real beauty, the external world reminded me daily that my skin and build was not beautiful, because it had been portrayed to me as a defect. Now that might not be important for someone who doesn't understand the precursors of self-acceptance but seeing myself in the world around me was certainly important to me at that time.
TIB: When you hear the word beautiful, what comes to mind?
VW: It's not so much the outer appearance that resonates with me, it's more so the strength that a woman possesses; her ability to withstand life's hardships. The way a woman can carry the world on her shoulders and never allow her crown to slip, is a beautiful thing to me.
SW: Prior to my awakening as a black woman, I would have given you the description of my mother. She’s a light-skinned woman with a petite frame. Her eyes change from blue, to green, to gray depending on her mood or her clothing (now this is in no way to discredit or offend anyone that doesn’t look like me). When I hear the word beautiful now, I think of authenticity. From the darkest of skin to the lightest of skin, I believe that if you walk in confidence and authenticity, then who am I to say who is beautiful?
True beauty, in my opinion, is a reflection of one’s soul. For a person who has never experienced sight, how would they explain beauty? Ultimately, beauty is characterised by the way we treat ourselves and others.
TE: I’d like to make mention that beautiful is androgynous in my mind. It is of the darkest hues to the lightest and can be used to explain male gender even. But as it relates to a woman being beautiful…she knows that her physicality comes second to her spirituality. She has a craft. She sweats. She is never less confident when another beautiful woman walks in the room. She practices and perfects her standard. She attracts a beautiful universe.
TIB: Who did you do this campaign for? What has been the feedback thus far?
SW: I did this campaign for myself. It may sound selfish, but sometimes you need to see yourself in a specific light to truly accept and announce your greatness. Of course I hope it inspires everyone both locally and internationally, but I wanted to do a shoot that had my face, my body, my curves, and my story associated with it. I wanted to be a part of a photo shoot with women who I believe share similar characteristics as me. The feedback has been mind blowing. There have been so many women who feel the same way as we do. We posted several pictures on Instagram and Facebook and the comments have been very supportive.
VW: This campaign was for ALL black women. Women in general fail to realise their beauty due to social media and the image that society chooses to dictate is 'beautiful'… but we aimed to connect more so with our dark-skinned women. 'African' seems to be the trend right now, but our focus is to surpass this being a trend and it becoming our reality...Black women are beautiful beings, and that deserves recognition each and every day.
We've received an astonishing amount of feedback; mostly from women thanking us for acknowledging some of the experiences we endured, growing up.
TE: This campaign is for those who subscribe to the 'lighter is better' governance just as much as it is presented to the women and men like myself who are far removed from the 'pretty for a dark girl' subscription. The dark thick girl who ran from the sun and purged her insides should feel this just as much as the boy who supports self-hate disguised as confidence should. This campaign is about understanding this time and feeling unfettered to love yourself. Women and men equally have stopped me to express their excitement in looking at the images. I think they knew without being told that they were more than photos.
TIB: Why did you choose to do it now? Was there any significance?
TE: In 2017, we are in sociocultural mayhem. We are compelled and obsessed with portraying our best selves and not our higher selves. Now, it is all about strategy when taking a picture; the angle that makes us appear more ‘lit’ and more ‘fit’.
It is about saving two months' pay and scheduling that appointment with your surgeon to achieve the dimensions of the celebrity who rarely contributes to your existence. We have somehow deduced that fitting inside the trend will enrich us. But what Shahnel, Vanessa and I have done is celebrate exactly what we are not. We are not trendy; we are timeless.
SW: Sometimes you wake up with the idea to do something and you just have to go for it. We know that life is precious and quite unpredictable. When the idea turned into an opportunity, we set a date to shoot and the rest was history. (or herstory…haha) I believe the significance of the shoot is truly a representation of the time. You have hashtags that are trending, for example #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlsRock. Our time is now….we are embracing the thick hair, the big lips and hips. We are finally showing comfort in who we are versus conforming into who we are not.
VW: For me, there was no specific reason for the time frame of the shoot. However, the overall significance of it was to simply direct ones' attention to the ideology that dark-skinned women aren't as appealing as light-skinned women. Our purpose was to shed light on the usage of words when complimenting a woman of a darker complexion, along with the effects those words may have on our young queens today.
TIB: Your initial reactions when you saw the pictures?
SW: I was blown away. The photo shoot captured the vibe we were going for; unity, strength, sisterhood, and triumph. We have been friends for many many years, so we know one another’s story.
For those who do not know us intimately, the pictures may just translate as 'Pretty Black Girls'. (Which isn’t a bad thing) However, when I look at the pictures, I see the girl who worked tirelessly and studied by candlelight down in the heart of Jamaica to ensure that she graduated top of her class and received her Degrees with honors. I see the girl who lived “back-ah-town” who fought her way into having her own business, “V Shape Fitness” and doing quite well for herself.
I see the girl who was thrown into the heart of Oakland who woke up to bullet casings outside of her window, who ran to school each morning and still graduated with the highest GPA in her college. For me, I see what we have overcome. I see statuesque Queens, who didn’t let their circumstances, depict their identities. So again, I was blown away, not just by the beauty, but to see us all still standing; in strength and as sisters.
Why did you choose Kondwani Williams?
SW: HAVE YOU SEEN HIS WORK!? He is amazing. I’d seen his work from one of Tyka’s previous shoots she’d done with him. He has amazing energy, very professional, and has a natural gift at what he does. When Tyka recommended him as our photographer we were all on board right away. I think the energy spoke for itself. When you get a feeling that someone is right for the job, that’s when the magic happens.
TE: In my leisure I am all about working with people who are spiritually rich. We chose Kondwani not just because of his artistry and talent, but because he lives our campaign in his personal life. He respects women and has a standard of his own. He ensured that his lady was a queen.
TIB: What message do you want women to receive from this campaign?
SW: I want ALL women to realize that they are beautiful. You don’t have to be a celebrity. You don’t have to be shaped a specific way. (Put that waist trainer down babygirl.) You don’t have to have everything in your life in order. You can still be figuring things out in life. This campaign is about accepting your God given attributes. It’s about looking at your sisters and saying, “I’ve got your back through thick and thin.” This photo shoot represents a journey of acceptance. Accepting that your skin is beautiful, accepting that life won’t always be easy, accepting that love always starts with self, accepting growth, and accepting that all the hell you’ve gone through thus far is molding you into the awesome woman that you are.
I want women to look at this campaign and realise, it didn’t have to be Shahnel, Tyka and Vanessa’s faces, and that it could still be them. (Make sure you book Kondwani @bnkimages) I want women to know that we all struggle the same. It’s about finding the beauty in yourself and getting up to conquer each day one step at a time.
VW: The message I would like ALL women to receive is that, no matter our skin tone, we are all ONE. It's time that we as women come together to uplift and encourage one another. Individually we are all powerful, but imagine how much more powerful we may become if we unite. I believe for all women, one of our main purposes in life is to raise our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and sisters as Queens. Free yourselves of this frame of mind that ultimately divides us and instead celebrate our unique qualities that makes each of us beautiful.
TE: I want women to fall back in love with a woman being unapologetically strong and undoubtedly intellectual. I want us to feel empowered to work on self and to know that the work is enough. I want healthy to be sexy. Forget about emulating Barbie! Remember that if she were a human being, the dimensions of her body would prevent her from menstruating or walking upright.
TIB: Will this be ongoing?
TE: The beautiful thing about this particular movement is that Shahnel, Vanessa and I have been embodying women empowerment together since we were in primary school. The three of us in a room has always been a spectacle; the purest of vibes. The dance background, the melanin, the humor, the confidence and transparency has always been our connection. So yes, it will be ongoing. I’m not sure how it will be captured next but I’m excited to work on it.