On Monday, Australian model Ajak Deng posted to her Instagram page that she was quitting the industry. "Put your best foot forward," she captioned a picture of herself walking down the runway, "I am happy to announce that I am officially done with the fashion industry, I will be moving back to Australia In order to live the life that I fully deserved. Which is real life. I can no longer deal with the fakes and the lies. My life is too short for this dramatic life. I am thankful and grateful for every sweet souls that I have crossed path with." It's an eerily symbolic image. Deng is wearing a white dress, with a white backdrop, being unapologetically black and beautiful in a white industry which woefully underrepresents women of color. Deng has been on the scene since 2008, landing her first big campaign in 2010 for Benetton and being tapped as a "Model-of-the-Moment" many times over since. Her career is substantial and she's been a regular fixture in the fashion world for nearly a decade. What makes her departure so poignant is the statement from her manager Stephen Bucknell which followed her announcement, commenting that Denj had always struggled to book work in Australia because the industry's bias towards white models: "They'll book the big caucasian girls, spend the big dollars, and fly them in from LA, but I'm yet to see them book a dark skinned girl in that way."
You read that correctly. Ajak Deng is leaving modeling because the industry is racist.
The. Industry. Couldn't. Handle. This. Gorgeous. Woman.
This isn't the first time Deng has taken to social media to call out the fashion industry's flaws. In 2014, she tweeted angrily about being booked and then cut from a Paris Fashion Week show: "This is how it feels when you get kicked out of Balmain for being Black and that their [sic] didn't invited you. Fuck you and fuck you. Balamin," Deng wrote. Finding success — and, perhaps more importantly, respect — in the fashion orbit and combatting racism along the way has been frustratingly difficult for Deng. In 2011, she told Vogue Australia about the advice that one of her role models, Alek Wek (a fellow Sudanese model, coincidentally from the same town as Deng) had passed along: "'This industry can be really hard, but all you’ve got to do is just think of it as something you’ve already started and you really want to finish. You don’t want to quit in the middle of it, so just don’t quit.' I’m definitely not going to give up until I see where this is going to end". It seems like after all the years of fighting for her deserved equal treatment, she is bowing out gracefully.
I can not and will not fault Ajak for bowing out. It is disappointing, both as a fan of hers and as a watchful participant in the industry as a whole. However, the disappointment I feel can be laid squarely at the feet of industry standards that praise Black features when they are devoid of Black bodies. There is something to be said of the emotional toll that it takes to navigate in the world as a Black woman. Full lips and ample hips are hallmarks of beauty so long as they exist in the same space as lighter skin, if it doesn't, they are marks of shame. The simultaneous sexualization, fetishizing, praise, and abhorrence of these qualities is something I've taken to dubbing the "Kylie Jenner Effect". It is disheartening to know that the world that calls to question the "marketability" of skin and beauty like Ajak's is the same one that will craft headlines about how "Booty is Back" or that this is the "Age of the Bombshell", but only if that bombshell is a blonde-haired Gigi Hadid.
A perfect example of this dichotomy is shown on the recent photo posted by Mac Cosmetics to their Instagram page of, model Aamito Lagum's lips in their Matte Lipstick: Royal. The close-up of her lips sparked a torrent of racist remarks spammed onto the page, in which fans of the makeup line compared her features to that of a monkey or Rapper Jay-Z (of whom is often the butt of jokes that walk the line between shallowness and prejudice). Lagum took to her page with a response and all I can do is quote Beyonce: "You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation".
At this point, the conversation on race within the Fashion industry has become cyclical. Pillars within the industry, be they designers, casting directors, or even makeup artists have been have been called out for the disparaging treatment of black models and other models of color. Time. And. Time. Again. It sparks a controversy, there is an outcry for change, the next season a few faces of color are sprinkled in for tokenism and six months later, the same argument occurs. Zac Posen took a stand with his Fall/Winter show in New York two weeks ago in which he made a point to cast almost exclusively Black models. Granted, the reasoning behind it can be, in part, attributed to the fact that his collection was inspired by Ugandan Princess Elizabeth of Toro, it is a little victory to say the least. In contrast, you can compare the African Influenced Valentino show last October which sported "tribal" fashions on a slew of white faces, with one or two women of color peppered in the 50+ looks shown. Again, the industry only loves Blackness when it is convenient.
Images Courtsey of Vouge.com
Last September model and blogger Ashley B. Chew made a bold sartorial statement with her DIY tote bag emblazoned with the phase Black Models Matter a play on the famous hashtag for the BLM Movement. Alongside her Pyer Moss tank top, it was a bold and stance outside the traditionally white shows of NYFW. Like the hashtag the bag mimics, her creation has picked up steam and had been seen on the arms of the likes of Naomi Campbell, Iman, Zac Posen, and even Ajak Deng. Chew has also spoken out against the struggles she's faced as Black women navigating within the modeling industry and the outside world. In fact, it was a frustrating casting experience that led the 24-year-old Indianapolis native, who is also a student and painter, to create the viral bag. For Chew, it's an urgent call for diversity on the runway and behind the scenes in fashion. Signed with LModelz, she's walked for designers such as Antonio Urzi and Hendrik Vermeulen in New York and Miami, and worked as a production assistant behind the scenes, thereby witnessing that lack of diversity firsthand. "People don't realize it but the fashion industry is really cutthroat. People will tell you straight up if they don't want black models or natural hair." Chew told Fashionista, "Skin pigmentation doesn't matter either. Light, medium or dark — you're going to be treated as black. I feel this is why 'Black Models Matter' created such a buzz, because it's been an issue for awhile. There's nothing worse than getting turned down for your natural composition."
Deng's departure from the catwalk should serve as yet another wake-up call about fashion's ongoing diversity problem. Despite minor, gradual improvements, there clearly aren't enough minority models being booked. Racism was likely a key catalyst for Deng's departure from modeling, given how vocal she has been about being discriminated against throughout her career because of her skin tone. So, what does it mean when models of color who are scoring gigs, like Deng, are so pissed off by the industry they're compelled to call it quits?
It goes without saying that there is really no one true standard of beauty and that the old cliche of "beauty is the eye of the beholder" holds substance, even in the context of an Image obsessed industry like that of Fashion; but a simple look at the casting practices of any major show will show that we are still beholden to think that beauty can not exist where melanin does and all you have to do is look at Ajak to know that that simply isn't true.
Beauty is not gravity. It is not rigid. It is not dogma. It is not Law. Beauty is malleable, beauty shifts, beauty changes. Like water, beauty exists in many forms and it hurts me to know that there still are people who don't know this simple truth.