In 1976, Somalia’s Iman was the first African model and Supermodel in the USA to grace the cover of Vogue. Since Iman, each decade, the powerful American Fashion Industry has presented an African model that symbolizes African beauty, majority of whom are East Africans. For example, in the ’80s it was Somalia’s Waris Dirie, the ’90s was Southern Sudan’s Alek Wek and recently it has been Ethiopia’s Liya Kebede and Nigeria’s Oluchi Onweagba, the first West African model to occupy this position.
At the crux of the industry’s definition of African beauty is the following formula: “Exotic” and deep tragic tales coupled with fresh innocence and/or “exotic” features = The African Fashion Model. However, in an increasingly ethnically diverse national and global fashion market, it is critical the industry changes this formula as the title of “exoticness” compounds the complex issues faced by the African Model, is offensive and detrimental to her and the industry itself; and contrary to its stereotypes, the African Model is actually a national and global economic force to be reckoned with.
Caught in the middle of a fiery battle is the “it” African model who has to justify who the face of Africa is. Is the face of Africa Iman? Is it Alek? The American Fashion Industry believes it is both, but not other varieties. For example, an African model with chocolate
skin, a full face and lips; and big brown eyes is probably not “African” enough for the industry versus one with a chiseled face, dark eyes, pouty lips and high cheek bones. As such, the industry projects the polarities of Iman and Alek to the world creating a bitterly contested debate among whites, blacks and Africans alike.
Indeed, when Iman emerged in the mid-late 70s, she created controversy as whites and most black Americans dismissed her as a “white woman dipped in chocolate.” Nevertheless, her controversy paled in comparison to Alek’s in the late 90s. Alek’s extreme features of jet-black skin, flat nose, round, puffy cheeks, deep set eyes and a shaved head evoked strong emotions from most. Whites called her unattractive and most Africans and Black Americans said and still say her look is offensive, a mockery to Africa and “plain ugly.” Worse, Alek’s fresh innocence allowed the industry to perpetuate caricatures and negative images of Africans as wild animals; as she was seen on fashion runways and photos in “exotic” makeup, bird feathers and leopard prints.
Independent of being caught in the crossfire of who the real face of Africa is, the African Model is also caught in the dichotomy of two body images.
While this is changing, the African Model for decades has and is still viewed as an ugly duckling. The rationale is that she is “too tall” and “too skinny” for a woman. Africa and particularly African men generally view an attractive woman to be one that is shorter and plumper. In fact, some cultures within Africa sent and still send their shorter and plumper women to fattening rooms to get plumper prior to marriage; for large breasts and round hips allow the shorter plumper woman to be the bearer of children, making her extremely attractive to her husband. Thus, the physique of the African model is NOT African beauty.
In stark contrast, America views the physique of the African Model as attractive. Thus, in an almost Cinderella like story, once “discovered”, most African models go from being the ugly duckling to being the most beautiful girl/woman in the world. “I was extremely skinny and tall at age 17,”says the 6ft 2in Oluchi. “It was not funny at all. I remember [being called] all kinds of names, Lepa, Opelenge and Pako [names used to taunt the “too tall” and too skinny girls in Lagos, Nigeria].” She adds, “I was a little insecure in comparison to my age mates who were shorter and curvier.” Luckily, she won South Africa’s “Face of Africa” model talent search, became a global phenomenon and put “too skinny” and “too tall” on Africa’s beauty map.
The Cinderella story would have a happy ending if America’s fashion industry is not plagued with the long-standing fight against anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
This can and does create some damaging self-esteem issues for the African model caught in the struggle of two body images; for she is too thin amongst her own yet, sometimes, is told she is not thin enough for America’s fashion industry. “Even today, I still face a lot of challenges when I go back home [Nigeria],” says New York based 6ft 1in model Agbani Darego who in 2001 was the first African woman to win a Ms. World title in fifty-one years. “People, my grandmother [and] journalist still say, ‘oh you are too thin you should add weight.'” she adds, “I’m like, ‘really? I may be too thin but just let me be. You know I won this way and I am happy this way’.”
Added to the aforementioned issues, the African Model, especially those with tragic stories, are usually thrust into non-negotiated political roles that are generally heroic but dangerous; as they challenge the status quo. Examples of African model activists include Waris Dirie on Female Genital Mutilation and Alek on the genocide in Southern Sudan.
The type of model assignments the African Model accepts is also an issue. NY based Malian model, Hawa Diawara, who is Muslim puts it succinctly, “it is against my religion to wear see-through lingerie or swimwear.”
Indeed, in America’s Fashion Industry, sex sells. However, African culture is steeped in religious conservative beliefs ranging from the Traditional African Religions to Islam and Christianity. So, for example, being selected by a client such as Victoria’s Secret to promote its campaigns might be an economically lucrative deal for the African model, but it can also create a major moral dilemma.