Interview of Yasmin Benoit by Amanda Attanayake
Hi Yasmin, how are you?
I am doing very well, thank you!
What are you up to these days?
I’m working on getting my Masters degree. My taught classes finished recently and now I’m just writing essays and trying to finish off term two. Then it’s on to the dissertation.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Linkin Park since Chester Bennington died. I was listening to them anyway, but his passing definitely rekindled something for me. I also recently saw Sumo Cyco live again so I’ve been re-enjoying their last album, Opus Mar.
You’ve described yourself as a leading Black alternative model in the UK. How have you seen the industry change since you joined it?
Well…I think the alternative modelling industry has always been very consistent with its beauty standards, and they aren’t as much of an antithesis of usual modelling standards as people would think. But there has always been quite a consistent but small number of Black models in the alternative modelling industry, doing their own thing, making their own impact in different ways. There were women doing that before me, and there are women still doing that. I don’t think that number has necessarily increased since I started modelling – it might have actually decreased with some models moving on to new things.
The only change regarding Black alternative models in the industry that I have noticed is that it’s slightly less uncommon to see one modelling for an alternative brand that usually just has White models. But that’s mainly because I’m on the scene now, so there’s one extra face in what is really a handful of Black models. I try to work with brands a lot because they play a key role in determining what ‘alternative’ looks like, I try increase that representation.
I can’t really compare things to how they were before I joined the industry, because obviously I wasn’t in it, but maybe brands are becoming more open to the idea of having Black models in their promotional imagery without worrying about alienating their customer bases. Our society has placed more emphasis on inclusion and some of that has to bleed into the alternative industry too.
Have you had any experiences with sexism or racism? How did you overcome those?
I would say that most (not all, but most) of my experiences with racism have been indirect or at least subtle. When I see any kind of racism in our society directed at Black people (which is quite often), I feel like that’s my experience with racism, whether it’s directly about me or not. I’m sure that I’ve been stereotyped because of my race, I’m sure that I’ve been treated differently because of it; I know that my experiences in society have been affected by me being Black.
I feel the same way about sexism and being a woman…and, of course, being a Black woman – despite combining those two experiences – becomes an entity in and of itself. For me, these are obstacles, and I just try and work around them. Kind of like, “They’re hindering me from achieving this, how am I going to do it anyway? They’re putting out this negativity, how am I going to counteract that?” Where possible, I don’t let it influence my path, my decisions, my goals or my expression. I think that’s a victory over it.
Do you feel hopeful about a more inclusive and diverse beauty/fashion/advertising industry?
I do feel more hopeful about it. In mainstream modelling, there have definitely been some changes… Albeit, about 90% of models are still tall, thin and probably White, but there have been some improvements. I think that social media has played a role in making businesses realise that there are people out there who want to be represented, and that there are people out there who will call them out.
I still feel like it’s tokenism for the most part. I don’t think the people in the boardrooms are genuinely that concerned about whether a girl has body image issues because of their advertisements, but they do care about backlash and making money – so they’ll throw in one ‘different’ model into the rather typical bunch…or do a campaign about loving yourself while continuing to airbrush every ‘flaw’ that their models have in their other campaigns.
But no matter what the motivations are, as long as the image is out there, that’s what makes the impact. So yeah, as long as inclusivity continues to be profitable then we’ll see more of it – at least to a degree.
We live in a culture of social change, but one where there is a long way to go until equal representation in the media is reached. What advice would you have for young people growing up in this culture?
Honestly, my main piece of advice would be to find a hobby – one that has nothing to do with the internet, or what you look like. I think it’s very easy to get caught up in social media, to base your worth and your perceptions of your own self-image on your following – or lack of it. And social media can be messy. I think you can balance things out if you have something else, something that involves interactions with people in real life, something that lets you know that you have a skill, something special, or something to contribute that has nothing to do with getting likes or looking the right way. Make art, play an instrument, go fishing, exploring, something like that.
When did you first see or feel yourself represented in the media? Was it an appropriate representation?
I don’t think I ever did see myself represented in the media and that’s one of the reasons why I decided to take this path with modelling. I didn’t relate to characters purely based on them being a Black girl. There were plenty of Black girls in the media, mainly in music, but sometimes as characters in TV shows or films, but they usually weren’t like me. The way that Black women are, and have been, portrayed in the media usually fits a certain stereotype.
They’re a diva, or they’re sassy, or they’re the comic relief, or they’re just the token; I wasn’t any of those things. I related more to any character that was quiet, that was an outcast – the ‘alternative looking one.’ Of course, that usually ended up being a White character…sometimes it wasn’t even a female character, sometimes it was a villainous character. But Black girls weren’t portrayed in those ways, it didn’t overlap, so I didn’t really get that representation. I still don’t have it, so I try to be that representation.
You’ve also mentioned that one of your goals is to raise awareness about asexuality. What do you wish more people understood about asexuality?
One thing I wish more people understood about asexuality is simply that it is an option in a very sexualised society. Our society teaches you that romantic and sexual relationships are the be all and end all. It’s the purpose of interaction, the purpose of life, the purpose of individuals. A character arc is not complete if they’re not dating someone. It’s literally seen as being unnatural if you’re not interested in a sexual relationship – like there’s something wrong with you, and you’re ‘sexual issues’ need to be overcome.
When I say that I want people to know that asexuality is an option, I want people to know that it isn’t all about sexuality. You can just be, and be complete and satisfied without it, and you can still have fulfilling interactions with people. You’re not broken, you’re not unnatural, or boring, or undesirable if you’re asexual. Asexuality isn’t a weird thing that happens to people who were abused, or who are unattractive, or unsociable, or prude. I think there’s probably more asexual people out there than most originally assume. They just feel like they have to conform to society’s sexual standards.
What are your other goals for the next five years?
Well, my first goal is to finish my Masters degree and work out what on earth I want to do with it. I’m still stuck on that whole, “What do you want to do with your life?” question. There are more brands I want to shoot for, more photographers and creatives There are definitely more people I want to reach. I also want to do more in other areas, like photography. So watch this space!