If you don’t know who Philomena Kwao is, then get into this article and let us introduce you. Back before the body positive movement, before Ashley Graham, Gabbi Fresh, Tess Holiday, and countless other plus size models and influencers, there was Philomena. The thing is, she didn’t know that she was going to be a model. She actually had intentions of having a career in Global Health Management—and proudly has her master’s degree.
So you can imagine her shock when her best friend submitted her picture to a modeling agency. The timing was serendipitous, and she had just what the fashion industry lacked—she was an intelligent, chocolate, curvaceous girl, with a heart of gold and a passion for diversity.
At a statuesque 5’10, the Afro-Brit beauty, with Ghanaian heritage went on to become the first black plus-sized model in a groundbreaking editorial for Sports Illustrated Magazine, has worked on multiple major campaigns for Essence, and other brands including Torrid, MAC Cosmetics, Lane Bryant, Evans UK, and Nordstrom.
Paving the way wasn’t easy and she admits that the road leading up to her success was rough. She sensed that the fashion world didn’t know what to do with her—she felt ignored, isolated and neglected. At one point early on in her career, she even tried losing weight and wore hair weaves to try and fit in.
“I was a dark-skinned, plus-sized girl with short natural hair in an industry, that idolized [straight hair and thin] models.”
Fortunately, in 2013, when Lupita Nyong’o starting winning awards and became famous, the perception on standards of beauty started to change. Once jobs started coming in with essential photo shoots—capturing her head and body shots, Kwao says that she started feeling comfortable with her body.
“You can’t hide with modeling. Everyday, I’m forced to look at my body for what it is. It’s basically making friends with your body.”
“There’s power in our words and actions. People listen when you have fame.”
Since becoming comfortable with her own body, she’s felt the need to encourage others to do the same. In fact, one of her most recent Instagram posts sought out to promote body acceptance but was met with unexpected backlash.
What had happened was….she voiced her opinion regarding a certain reality star’s body image, and how black women were taking pictures of the star into plastic surgery rooms—dying to look like that, and praising her (completely fake BTW) body type as the model for what black women should look like. Since I refuse to mention the name, we’ll just say it rhymes with Schmim Schmardashian. The post triggered a response that divided a lot of her followers, including black women, who—as confusing as it is—idolize the reality star and her sisters.
“As weird as it is, I only mentioned her because she’s the head of a unit that’s driving a-lot of black women who try and reach that type of figure, because they think that’s what a black woman is supposed to look like. It’s becoming dangerous.”
“Our culture has been alienated for so long, so much so that we cling onto a lot of things that we define as being black, although they’re not, and that includes our bodies.”
Kwao shared that recently, reports of women in her native Ghana, have died from plastic surgery trying to get butt implants.
“It’s a conversation that we need to have. We’re black because we’re black. Not because, we have a big bum, or because we speak a certain way. We must investigate where these stereotypes are coming from and, get rid of them. Stereotypes are holding us back.”
Aside from unapologetically voicing her opinion, the activist at heart, is most proud of her work as global ambassador of Women For Women Inc. Charity, an organization that helps female war victims in eight different countries by giving them the tools to work towards education and economic empowerment.
In addition to working with Women for Women Inc., in October, she will travel to Nigeria to establish a one-year cause program teaching women basic skills and literacy to draw from resources in their own country— the women also earn a stipend from this program.
An avid writer, Kwao is also the author of a children’s book advocating self-love and acceptance for little girls titled, Queen In Me, which comes out October 1.
Follow Philomena on Instagram, Facebook & Twitter @philomenakwao, show her some love, and let’s keep the conversation flowing about body AND skin positive representation in the media.