mocked, laughed at, and now a model, while black

Oluwaseun Matiluko

*Has modeled for Cosmopolitan Magazine, is studying law at Bristol University

I have had severe confidence issues most of my life. From what I remember of primary school I wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I was confident and high-spirited and danced and acted in front of the whole class. But over time my confidence was chipped away. Perhaps my younger self was innocent of my surroundings. I wasn’t aware of what differences there were. As I got older I started growing at a much faster rate compared to everyone.

Having a growth spurt at seven years old meant I was the tallest in my age group, taller than all the girls and all the boys who had to stand on chairs so they could be level with me in class photos. Starting puberty at age eight, meant the rest of my body soon looked different from those of the girls around me. I was so scared when I started my period. At this stage we had not learnt anything about that in school. I thought I was going to die.

It didn’t help that I was the only black kid in my entire class. As my hips grew larger, my tummy larger and my chest bigger, boys started to notice. Not in the over-sexualized way that black women have had to deal with for centuries, most prominently depicted in the exhibition of Sarah Bartmann. But in an aggressive way where I was constantly laughed at and mocked for the shape of my body.

I think that is part of the reason I took on somewhat an aggressive persona towards the end of primary school. Internalizing the message my father taught me every time I came home crying. “If someone hits you, you hit them back.”

As I got older this unsure sense of myself grew larger and larger. I grew paranoid about whether people were laughing at me or didn’t like me. I craved to fit in. At school I found myself “performing blackness” so to say. So fulfilling the false assumptions of my classmates that I knew how to twerk and how to rap. But still, I always felt I was on the periphery, on the outside of friendship groups and looking in.

I’ve now been able to come to terms with some of these issues. Although they have not entirely faded. I am able to assert myself more, and actively pursue activities I enjoy, like writing for Gal-Demilifestyle. It was through these opportunities I was able to get an internship at The Sunday Times Style.

I had never done any fashion related internships before despite craving a career in fashion when I was younger. At one stage I even emailed Shelly Vella, then Fashion & Style director at Cosmopolitan, for advice, but this dream died. I let my low self-esteem destroy it.

I was so excited to undertake this internship. Not only did I get to meet other interns who came from all sorts of background and, for the most part, were so gracious and nice, but I got to learn a lot about the fashion industry.

I was able to learn how fashion editors decide which brands and clothes they want to shoot. I even got to order clothes from designer brands for shoots. I’ll never forget how it felt to have a package filled with designer stuff addressed to me! From the contacts I established at The Sunday Times I was able to get the contact information of a fashion assistant at Cosmopolitan and then an internship there. This was the magazine I had dreamed of working at since I was a teenager.

At Cosmopolitan I did similar tasks, but was granted even more responsibility. I would order a variety of items for their Christmas Gift Guide and re-organize the fashion closet. Everyone at Cosmopolitan was so marvelously friendly. Although I was sometimes worried that I hadn’t done a good enough job, I got amazing feedback from the rest of the team.

A couple of weeks passed then the most amazing thing happened. Some of the team got back to me to ask whether I would like to feature in a shoot. I was speechless, and kept reading and re-reading the email to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. But I hadn’t.

They really wanted me to model for them. Big chested, wide hipped, big stomach, me. I still couldn’t believe it when I turned up to the shoot and got my makeup done by a fantastic makeup artist, my hair done by a great stylist and my photos taken by the brilliant Rosaline Shahnavaz.

I was surrounded by professional models and heavyweights in the industry. I had to pinch myself at times to believe it was happening. I had to pinch myself on the way home. I was worried none of the clothes would fit me. I was worried I would not know how to pose or how to model, and that my pictures would be scrapped. But again, my worries were unfounded. The fashion editor commented that I was one of the best models on the shoot.

Oluwaseun Matiluko in Cosmopolitan January 2019 issue

When my issue came out on 1 December I screamed and ran down the street to the Co-op, paid £3 and flicked through the pages. I saw my photo and I cried. I cried of happiness as I, for once, finally looked at myself and thought I looked beautiful.

Until that moment none of it really seemed real, that someone like me, a plus-sized dark-skinned black woman, would feature in one of the nation’s bestselling women’s magazine. Before then, I was in disbelief that someone would look at me and think I was worthy enough to be in a magazine. Indeed, when I later told some people that I was in Cosmo, they looked me up and down, seemingly confused why I of all people would be chosen to feature in a campaign. Yet their looks didn’t faze me like they normally would.