Interview by Ralph Edelstein
Jessica Gyasi is a model, TEDx speaker, writer and coach, who fights for diversity and equality in the modelling world and for more self-esteem amongst young women. She does this through her platform Model for Models, with personal coaching and workshops for young women and models. She graduated as a social welfare worker and is currently making a documentary about prejudices and diversity in fashion.
Why is diversity in the fashion and modelling world such a hot topic?
Image form a powerful tool through which people are consciously and subconsciously influenced. This also effects young girls who aspire to become a model, to be represented in magazines and television. We are becoming more aware of the fact that this is a blind spot, ignorance or plain racism. The result remains the same: a significant part of the population is underrepresented. Just like my own story, the stories and needs of others are rising to the surface.
The modelling industry is among the very few industries in the world in which you explicitly state what kind of skin colour or external characteristics someone needs to have in order to get the job. The problem is that many bookers and brands don’t really elaborate on the reason why they do or don’t want a model of colour and that causes problems.
Why is that?
From habit, people often choose people that are similar to themselves, in love, in job hires, and thus in castings as well. That’s why diversity is important both in front of the camera as behind it. It’s the editors, designers, casting directors, and photographers that create the story. Often, they create these stories from their own fascination or frame of reference. So, if the creators are alike, editorials, shows and campaigns are highly likely to be alike.
As a model, you’re a product that has to sell other products. So, if a brand says: ‘we want 12 models, and one of them should be black, because this will work best for our brand’, then that is an honest answer, and I can live with that. But when they can’t or don’t want to elaborate on their choice – out of fear of being accused of racism, this causes insecurity amongst models. Despite the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done, I am happy with the positive changes so far. The changing in the modelling landscape will help create a more inclusive image.
Why is it that so many young women have a low self-esteem?
I think because of a lack of education. You learn all kinds of skills at home and at school to help make you self-reliant. But we forget the basics: that your right to exist is sufficient in itself. The fact that you live makes you important and relevant! This concept is seen as very vague in the Western world. We don’t have time for that. But if we pay more attention to the development of our intuition, our inner voice, this results in a lot more self-confidence. It has to do with questions such as how does this make me feel? What does this mean to me? How do I value this? My goal is bridging the gap between how women see themselves and how they really are. Paying more attention to who you really are is the best way to close that gap.
How did you overcome your low self-image?
That was a tough journey. I had to accept that I had negative thoughts about myself. I discovered this during a casting in Paris, where I was brutally rejected and treated unfairly. It made me cry and I immediately wondered why it affected me so much. Did his words hurt me so much? Was it his tone? What I realized is that I believed that man. He confirmed an idea that I already had about myself. That realization was the starting point of my healing process. Through therapy, meditation and journaling (to name a few), I have completely managed to pivot my self-image.
Isn’t that incredibly difficult? You have to convince yourself of the total opposite of what you believe…
Yes, exactly! At first you have to try and fool yourself. For example, I used to think my nose was much too wide and black. When I stood in front of the mirror and I saw that big nose, I started telling myself – against what I believed at the time – that I liked my nose. I said it every time I looked in the mirror. And believe me, this works! It’s sounds crazy, but it really works. At first, I stood there and thought ‘what are you talking about?’, but self-affirmation is one of the most powerful tools out there. I now find my nose beautiful! To make it work, you really have to put your heart in to it. You have to believe it as much as you believe the negative thoughts in your mind.
You shared your journey with the world?
Yes, because I wanted to show the other side of the trade as well. Balancing the glamour, by showing the facts. And the comments are priceless. Both models and non-models, men and women, they recognized themselves in my story and the difficulties they run into in life. I think that is beautiful. For my thesis I studied a group of thirty girls and many of them said that they often felt too ashamed to share personal experiences and find it difficult to turn their vulnerabilities into strengths. My story gave them strength to do the same. As a result, I have become even more aware of my position as a role model. I’m also a bit older now. Now, at the age of 32, I share things that I would never have dared to say when I was 15 years old. That is one of the pleasant things of aging.
How do you translate your experiences in your work?
Model for Models organizes workshops in which we help women gain a better, more realistic self-image. During the workshop we confront women with their existing thinking patterns and hand them practical tools to help gain mental and emotional stability. We bring women from the catwalk to selfcare, and teach them how to handle life as if it is their own fashion show.
Which taboos do you break through in your work?
The taboo on speaking your honest thoughts and feelings. In the Netherlands, we are ashamed of sharing vulnerability. With Models for Models I show that you do not always have to be the perfect version of yourself. I strive for honesty and transparency and try to make people and brands – the creators of the fashion image – aware of their fixed thinking patterns.
Want to know more about Yoni? Read our story.