“My body was telling me to go back to basics.”
Leona Lewis, singer-songwriter, 32
I entered the music industry with thick, curly blond hair. But when I signed my first record deal at age 20, I couldn’t help but notice that I was surrounded by images of straight hair: on TV, in movies and in real life. Gradually I started wearing my hair straight, too, especially on photo shoots, where a lot of stylists didn’t know what to do with curly hair. And because I was new to that world, I went along with it. Plus I also felt different when my hair was straightened: I felt polished. And so I continued to straighten it for years.
Then about a year and a half ago, I started to have a lot of different symptoms: I was feeling very sick and had chronic fatigue, and these really bad pains in my neck and throat. I didn’t know what was going on. It was a pretty hard time, and after a bunch of tests, I found out I had an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s disease, which affects mostly women. When I was first diagnosed, I was absolutely devastated; I felt very scared and alone until I began to research and understand how others were living with the disease. When my symptoms were the most severe, I could hear my body telling me that I needed to slow down. I also started to feel tired during performances. I began taking medication but also turned to the Ayurveda healing system (my mom is a master herbalist) to help heal my body naturally. I just got to a point where I wanted to start over – physically and emotionally. I began to shift my entire beauty routine. I ate well and stopped straightening my hair. Having an autoimmune disease really made me take a long, hard look at how I can reduce the toxins I come into contact with daily. I started using natural skin care and hair products (this inspired me to create a safe beauty brand for women, which I’m working on now), but I still had hesitations about wearing my hair curly at first. I had kind of forgotten what it looked like – or what to do with it. I spent some time finding ways to style it differently, ways that felt really polished to me. Sometimes I like to tie it back in a super clean low bun. It was a rediscovery for me that curly hair is actually so versatile. If someone said, “I want to blow-dry your hair straight,” I would be like, “No way!” I’d look like an alien. It just wouldn’t be me.
Recently my best friend told me that her daughter (my goddaughter), who also has curly hair, had started wanting straight hair. That upset me and made me think of how insecure I used to feel. She is so beautiful, but she doesn’t see that. I didn’t see the beauty in my natural state either, but now I do.
“I began to shift my entire beauty routine. I ate well and stopped straightening my hair.”
iwas born in Senegal in 1996. My mom moved to the US when I was two years old, so I was raised by my aunt back home. In Senegal more than 25% of dark-skinned girls bleach their skin.
I never tried it, but I’m not going to lie: I wanted to be lighter. There were times I wouldn’t leave my room for weeks and sometimes missed school because I hated how people would look at me. I felt ashamed. But my older sister helped me find the positive: she used to show me pictures of Alek Wek to say, “See! You can be a model if you want!”
Then, when I was 15, my aunt had to go to Paris to have eye surgery. My mom wanted me to go to keep her company and attend school there. Right before we went, my sister took me on vacation to Milan. We were walking on the street one day when I saw a big mirror. There were a lot of light-skinned people around us, but when I saw myself and how my skin was popping, it hit me: this is why people look at me. To this day, I look in the mirror and tell myself, “Look at your skin. Look at your teeth and your smile. You are beautiful.”
While in Paris, I got into modelling – photographers would literally stop me on the street. Then I joined Instagram. My very first account was @blackbarbie, which was something my friends called me growing up. But then I thought, ‘You can either call yourself that or you can find something that will matter to dark-skinned girls.’ So I came up with @melaniin.goddess. I wanted to show girls that it’s not something bad to be dark, that different is beautiful. It makes me proud to help girls realise that they don’t have to change who they are.
A year ago I moved to America to live with my mom, my little brother and my little sister. After more than 15 years apart, my family is finally living together. Today, I’d say my self-confidence is still a process, but my mom helps. She tells us every day how beautiful we are. My brother, who is as dark as I am, used to get bullied at school. Yesterday he said, “I don’t care if other kids talk about my colour.” He’s only 11. How cool is that?
when I was 14, I was diagnosed with bone and lung cancer. Following my treatment, I had a hip replacement, which wasn’t successful and which eventually led to getting my right leg amputated. After the amputation, I got fitted for one of those generic prosthetic legs with a foam cover. I so wanted it to match my skin tone and look extremely realistic. I was mostly trying to hide my prosthetic – and to make other people feel comfortable around me. It was draining. I was always conscious of how I looked.
I got really depressed for a while, so a couple of years ago I decided to get a stylish cover. The first cover I got was gold with maroon carvings. I remember feeling proud of it. And from that point I started to feel a shift in attitude and in how I treated myself. People no longer saw someone who was trying to hide. They saw someone who had pride. The inappropriate and intrusive questions stopped. It sounds like a simple fashion choice, but it really was my first step toward body positivity.
As my confidence grew, so did the way I approached beauty: I became bolder. I never used to wear makeup. And you’d think the more comfortable you are in your body, the less makeup you’d probably wear – but for me it was the other way around. I started wearing more makeup, playing with colours. That’s a very big deal as a black woman: when I was growing up, a lot of black girls thought that their skin was too dark to wear colourful lipstick. Now I wear purples and deep reds, and eye shadows in blues or greens. I’m also experimenting with my hair. I usually keep my head shaved because it’s easy for me. But I sometimes grow it out a little to explore different shades.
Getting more comfortable with myself also meant meeting people who I never would have thought related to my story. Whenever I’m talking about body positivity, I have this image in my mind: it’s any woman or girl who is trying to be comfortable with her own body, whether they identify as disabled, able-bodied, a woman of colour, LGBTQ or whatever. But at one point, when I was walking around in town, this guy in his mid 40s came up to me and said that he also had an amputation that he had been covering up. And because of me he was going to start exposing his leg. Anyone can have body issues, but I never thought my story would resonate with a man.
Experiences like that push me to help expand ideas around body positivity. For me the body positivity movement emerged with social media, especially Instagram, about three or four years ago. When I first started seeing photos, it was always a certain type of woman – and never a black woman. The movement has definitely expanded, but there is still a missing piece. During International Women’s Day, I saw so many illustrations of diverse women, but none of them with a disability. I’m going to continue talking about these issues so that, hopefully, this movement will be even more inclusive. I didn’t have a role model like that when I was 14 and that’s what I want to change.
“As my confidence grew, so did the way I approached beauty: I became bolder.”