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Powerful Profile: Philomena Kwao

Powerful Profile: Philomena Kwao

by Melissa Magsaysay

The Activist and Maternal Health Advocate on Her Unorthodox Journey in Fashion

In a time when models and celebrities are thankfully using their voice and platform to promote causes and call global attention to injustices, British-Ghanaian Philomena Kwao is a light that shines among the brightest.

Growing up in Southeast London and of Ghanaian descent, Kwao was highly aware of the disparity between her surroundings and those of her relatives in Ghana from an early age. Inspired to bring more modern health care to her home country, Kwao began studying medicine, until her path took an unexpected turn toward fashion.

She has utilized her success as a model as an advantage rather than a derailment, managing to combine her lifelong passion for healthcare with her visibility in the fashion industry.

Here, Kwao discusses her path and how her mother’s beauty ideals encouraged her to celebrate her curves and culture.

“Every time a brand uses me, they take a stand in widening the beauty standard and giving young girls who look like me a chance to feel seen, feel beautiful and be recognized.”
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Q&A with Philomena

How did you start modeling?

I started modeling by accident! Growing up modelling wasn’t on my radar at all. At first I wanted to be a doctor and then I wanted to work for The World Health Organization helping developing countries improve healthcare access and quality. I studied hard towards those goals completing degrees in both economics and international health management.

During my masters degree, my friend entered my pictures into a competition held by Models1. They were searching for plus size models to add to their existing board. I ended up winning the competition and the contract. My first year was incredible. A few months after, I was signed in New York and after graduating university I moved to New York. Since then it’s been an incredible journey.

Did you feel represented in the media and in fashion magazines when growing up?

I grew up in South East London on a council estate. I wasn’t even aware of fashion growing up. My mother bought my clothes and luckily, in some ways, social media wasn’t as pervasive as it is now. The media I did consume was primarily driven by African American media; music videos and magazines that perpetuated a certain body type. Lighter skinned, long curly hair and an hourglass figure. That affected me more than fashion magazines and shaped my perception of beauty and self worth.

I was first exposed to fashion magazines at boarding school. I didn’t feel that they were for a girl like me so I largely ignored it. It wasn’t until I started modelling that I truly became aware of the lack of inclusion in mainstream media.

The change I’ve seen from when I first started to now has been incredible. I’m excited to see what’s next. There are more races and sizes and genders being showcased and because of social media people have the chance to share their own version of beauty. It’s amazing.

What has been your greatest joy of having a career in fashion/modeling? What has been your biggest challenge?

My greatest joy is that every time a brand uses me, they take a stand in widening the beauty standard and giving young girls who look like me a chance to feel seen, feel beautiful and be recognized. It’s difficult because that same beautiful quality is also my biggest challenge, convincing brands that my beauty is more than one dimensional and widening the narrative of what black beauty should be. For black models it isn’t one size fits all, but it so often feels that way. It’s very rare to see two black plus models in the same shoot! It’s hard, the notion that there can only be one version of black beauty at a time.

In your experience, do you feel as though the industry has made great strides to be more inclusive?

There has been tremendous improvement in the movement towards inclusivity but there still a huge way to go to make sure that we don’t tokenize the same margins of society that we want to include.

How has your British Ghanaian background shaped your view and ideals of beauty?

Having such a diverse background is such a blessing. My view and ideals of beauty have so many layers and dimensions that are often difficult to explain, especially as a first generation immigrant. My mother’s beauty ideals were shaped by Ghana, not the UK. Growing up she celebrated the richness and depth of her skin tone and encouraged me to celebrate the beauty in my skin. But there is also a dark side, a pervasive culture in African countries that sees lighter skin as a beauty standard. Skin bleaching is very prevalent and having lighter skin is seen as a desirable feature. In the UK this was further emphasized by the hip hop music videos and magazines that I watched and read. I fell victim to this and bleached my skin for several years.

In terms of my body, being curvy has always been celebrated in Ghana. Thinness was often equated with poverty and illness. Being larger meant you had access to food and a better lifestyle. That’s changing now as people are becoming more health conscious. For me personally, I never wanted to be skinny but I always wanted an hourglass body. It’s taken a while to feel comfortable in my body and although I’m a lot better now, I’m still working on it.

These days I’m more appreciative of the fusion of my heritage. I see my ancestry represented in my features, in my skin, in my body and I beautiful embody all that it means to be British and Ghanaian.

Your work and advocacy for maternal health is so incredible, why is this an area you feel especially passionate about? What are the best resources people can turn to to learn more about this issue?

Maternal health is important to me because I am constantly reminded of my privilege in my daily life. I still have family in Ghana and they are no diffident from me. But because I was born in London, I have wider access to maternal health care. It’s just unfair and I’ve always felt like I needed to do something. I think that was my primary driver as a child to do well in school to become a doctor and later on work in health policy and advocacy.

My career has taken a turn but as a model with an incredible platform I’ve been able to use my voice for good. I’m an ambassador for an organization called Women for Women international. They work with women around the world who have been affected not only by poverty but by the horrors of conflict and violence. I’ve recently come back from an incredible trip with them to Nigeria (which can be viewed on my social media profiles).

You can learn more (and support) by clicking the link and becoming a sister. But it’s not only monetary, every little bit helps. We all have our own platforms and we can use it to spread positive information and help our own little communities. Using social media responsibly can really help this.

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