- The 26-year-old appears with Ashley Graham in the new Swimsuits For All campaign in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue
- The Ghanaian-British model said people think of Beyoncé or Rihanna when they talk about beautiful black women, but darker skin tones are pretty, too
- She added that the plus-size modeling industry has done a good job of spotlighting body diversity, but not skin tone diversity
With size 14 stunner Ashley Graham covering the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, it truly seems like the plus-size industry is making major strides in the media — but according to Philomena Kwao, it still has a long way to go.
The 26-year-old Ghanaian-British model says that in spite of the growing acceptance of curvy women in the fashion and modeling worlds, curvy women with her deep, dark skin tone are still largely left out of the picture.
‘I think that the plus-size industry has been great with size diversity, but it hasn’t really been great for skin tone diversity,’ she told Elle.com ‘I still feel segregation along skin tone.’
Plus-size and dark-skinned, Philomena, who grew up in London, is pretty much one-of-a-kind in the modeling industry.
And while that uniqueness is partly responsible for her success — she’s done campaigns for Beth Ditto Collection, Torrid, Addition Elle, and, most recently, a Swimsuits For All campaign alongside Ashley Graham — it has also made climbing to the top harder.
When she was younger, she had a tough time loving herself because she looked different from the women she saw on TV.
‘Growing up, I had body confidence issues not really so much because of size, but my skin color. I had trouble recognizing that the depth of my skin tone is really beautiful because whenever people referred to a beautiful black-skinned woman, you’d see Beyoncé and Rihanna,’ she said. ‘So, you’d do harmful things to try and get to that color, like skin bleaching. I once tried those whitening soaps.’
Fortunately, she eventually gave up on those, and managed to break into modeling — which worked wonders on her confidence.
While some people might assume that being in an industry that focuses solely on looks could hurt a girl’s self-esteem, Philomena said it put her in position to celebrate what makes her different and unique.
It gave her perspective, too, since seeing herself in the mirror or in pictures all day, every day made her realize the world doesn’t fall apart when she doesn’t look ‘perfect’.
Booking that Swimsuits For All campaign, which is running in the current Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, was especially ‘self-affirming’, because Philomena never thought she could be a swimsuit model.
Despite her big break, though, she still insists there is much to be done for diversifying the modeling industry as a whole and the plus-size modeling industry in particular.
‘There’s not many models in the U.S. that have my depth, like, really dark skin, that are also plus size,’ she explained. ‘Skin color has been one of those things we haven’t really, really addressed on a large, widespread scale.
‘When I started, there was only one other girl that I could name that was even close to my shade. I didn’t understand why there weren’t more black plus-size models with darker skin tones. It feels like the final frontier of beauty is to be black, to be plus, to have natural hair.’
Though she knows skin tone and race can be a touchy subject, she also feels important to talk about it so things get better.
‘Some conversations are difficult, but if we shy away from every difficult topic, we will never see change,’ she wrote on Instagram.
Things are changing, albeit slowly, and Philomena is happy to have some a major role in shifting the industry. In an Instagram post sharing her Swimsuits For All ad, she wrote: ‘It’s the golden age of body positivity and I’m so proud to be a part of it.’
But even though she’s breaking down barriers, she’s not a fan of labels. She told Elle.com that she doesn’t like to use words like ‘plus’ or ‘curvy’, since they come with certain connotations. She’s also averse to the idea that you have to be slim to be happy.
That’s because she’s perfectly happy, but she doesn’t obsess over her weight. Instead she does healthy things because they feel good, like starting the day with a green juice and exercising.