As Torontonians enjoyed their first taste of spring weather on May 13, hundreds of women (and a few men) sat indoors, listening intently to the words of internationally renowned model Adwoa Aboah.
Aboah was one of three outstanding women on a panel at the Women Inspiring Passion and Purpose (W.I.P.P) summit, but she wasn’t just there to talk about her success in fashion—she also opened up about why she uses modelling as a platform for causes she cares deeply about. Like her Gurls Talk video series with i-D, which aims to get women more broadly discussing mental health, body image and sexuality—issues she’s struggled with personally, too.
Aboah told the crowd that she felt as she gains greater success in the modelling industry so too comes the sense of greater responsibility to invoke change. Shivani Persad, a model from Toronto who was in the audience that day, agrees.
“If you have a far-reach or such a wide platform, I think you’re really doing a disservice by not standing up for something and not speaking on issues that you’re passionate about,” says Persad, who has amassed more than 11,300 followers on Instagram.
You may recognize the Trinidad-born Mississauga-raised model from images on the side of Sephora stores, the face of Aerie ads or the star of Dynamite’s videos, but Persad is one of many in the industry, like Aboah, working to prove that she is more than just a pretty face.
“I think that people think modelling is easy and that we’re very simple-minded,” she says, but the McMaster University political science graduate is chipping away at that perception through online activism.
Leveraging social media for change
The concept of models becoming the face of causes they care about is not new (think Iman’s efforts to help her homeland, Somalia, or Tyra Bank’s female empowerment programs), but this new generation of model-activists is able to leverage their massive social followings to motivate change.
The podcast, which is currently in its first season, features models who want to go beyond typical “what’s your style” questions and dig into the issues that matter to them. The result is in-depth and personal conversations with guests ranging from Leyna Bloom, who spoke about being black and transgender in the industry, to model-entrepreneur Jessica Perez, who created the Tycoon app to help models and freelancers keep track of their income.
My name is Shivani Persad. I was born in Trinidad and Tobago, a beautiful island in the West Indies. When I was four my family and I moved to Canada. As I was growing up there were things that were made very clear to me: you should be a good person, university is a must, we’d prefer if you were a doctor or a lawyer, oh and dark skin is NOT beautiful; it’s actually pretty worthless. When I became a model, these skin stereotypes were subtly perpetuated. There was almost no representation of Indian girls in North American fashion, and the ones that were here were mostly very light skinned. Finally the industry is slowly changing, but we still have a lot of work to do. So, I’m making it my mission to make it happen. I want to be an activist for dark skinned women and bring awareness to the issues we face. I’m Shivani and that’s my skin story. #whatsyourskinstory #ilovemybrownskin #unfairandlovely #ownyourcolour
Beyond her podcast, Persad regularly posts and vlogs about social issues and challenges she’s faced within the modelling industry, like the lack of diversity or her struggles as a dark-skinned model in a global industry that idealizes whiteness. Advocating for issues that are close to the heart are what set models like Persad and Aboah apart from, say, a Pepsi-toting Kendall Jenner.
Taking on critics
While Persad is pushing the fashion industry to change, some critics point out that models can also perpetuate issues like unhealthy body image.
“To those critics that are saying that models are part of the problem, I would say that I agree,” says Persad. “It’s the industry, but the industry and a lot of people in it are trying to make a change and I think we should focus on those people.”
And she points that focus to people like Cameron Russell.
The 29-year-old supermodel is the leader of the “Model Mafia,” a group of model-activists working to bring attention to issues like fashion’s role in climate change. Russell and more than 30 members of her Model Mafia squad recently attended a climate change march in Washington, D.C., which was documented by Glamour.
But in an industry where models are paid to represent a brand, does this type of advocacy run the risk of missing out on work opportunities? Persad says that is the golden question and, after careful consideration, her answer is simple.
“As a model you don’t want someone to ever turn you down because of your political views. Like any job, they should be choosing you because you’re good at your job,” she says. “For me, if someone doesn’t want to work with me because I hold certain views, then I don’t want to work with them either.”