“My body was telling me to go back to ba­sics.”

Leona Lewis, singer-song­writer, 32

Glamour (South Africa) - - Beauty -

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.”

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