The Importance of Representation

Artwork by Angela Pilgrim (via  blackcontemporaryart )

Artwork by Angela Pilgrim (via blackcontemporaryart)

I fell in love with fashion at the age of twelve. Before then, my main interest had been books and I took all my style cues from the popular soccer kids that I was so desperate to be best friends with. Discovering fashion wasn’t just about discovering a whole new world, but discovering a whole new part of myself. Day upon day I perused my sister’s fashion magazines, endlessly talked about trends with my best friend, and tried in whatever way possible to emulate the people I now looked up to. My love affair with fashion is what helped me survive the brutalities of early pubescence and crafted me into the person I am today.

When I fell in love with fashion, I knew of four black models. Naomi Campbell, Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn and Joan Smalls. I didn’t know of any black fashion writers, designers or magazine editors. At the time, the lack of representation in the industry wasn’t something on my radar. I was just happy to see one or two black models in the latest issue of Teen Vogue.

These days, my relationship with representation is very different. I think there were two things that really changed the game for me. One was realizing that in the mass of influencers that I followed and admired, very few of them were black women. I knew that there were more black bloggers, but I wasn’t seeing them on must-follow lists.  I’m going to be honest, I’m not exactly one for trolling through my Instagram ‘Explore’ page, so I depend on magazines, blogs and other Instagram accounts to discover new people. Unfortunately, a lot of my sources were dominated by whiteness. After realizing that there was a severe lack of black women on my feed, I made it my mission to rectify the situation. And it wasn’t a challenge at all. When I started looking in the right places, the options for inspiration were endless.

The second thing that happened was that I read Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. It doesn’t need to be said but reading any Audre Lorde is life-changing, and reading Zami was like an epiphany. Up until that point, I had never read a book in which I felt seen. It wasn’t just about relating to Audre--I felt a deep connection with her and her words. I saw parts of myself in her and I felt that those parts were understood. I’d never experienced that feeling before.

The combination of reading the book and following more black women on the Internet made me feel like I was a part of a community. I hadn’t realized how displaced I felt within the whole fashion/influencer community, until I found a place where I felt like I belonged.

Last week, blogger Valerie Eguavoen of On A Curve, called out fashion brand Revolve for the lack of women of color, specifically black women, in their influencer groups. In calling out the brand, Valerie shed light on a conversation that black women have been having for years. Across industries, black women are undervalued, especially in the fashion industry which likes appropriating black culture but isn’t as open to actually supporting black women. And although diversity in fashion has been championed in recent years, the attempts have felt weak. Valerie’s callout of Revolve demonstrated that. Responses to her claims clearly showed how little people value black women, with many responding that maybe the reason that there weren’t any black bloggers that were popular enough to get influencer status. That idea is completely ridiculous and further undermines the work that black women do to gain even half of the amount of success that their white counterparts experience.

Seeing black women working in fashion, whether it’s as writers, influencers, photographers, etc. is inspirational. It’s an affirmation of where hard work can take you. It’s also an encouragement--if I was being completely honest, there are many times I’ve questioned if I would be able to have a career in the fashion industry because of the prevalence (and preference) of whiteness. But when I see writers and editors like Marjon Carlos or Chioma Nnadi, or bloggers like Yaminah Mayo, I see women who pushed past those ideas to get what they wanted. Women who have used the spaces they inhabit to fuel discussions around blackness.

For me, seeing black women working in fashion--successfully, visibly--makes me feel like my dreams and goals are possible. Black women have shaped culture for centuries and their stories are rich and valuable. They've done so well in crafting out spaces for themselves, but it's time for them to be given space on the mainstage. It's time for their voices to be magnified. 

If you looking for more black influencers and bloggers, Valerie started an Instagram page, @youbelongnow that spotlights black influencers and bloggers from all areas of the ‘net. I’ve followed quite a few people already!