‘I think we’re all human beings and deserve to be treated equally
Philomena Kwao is an international plus-size model and global ambassador of Women For Women International (WFWI), a charity organisation. The British-Ghanaian woman is a gender equality activist who preaches the need for open dialogue and realism in the movement towards equal rights for women. Kwao recently visited Nigeria to celebrate with women in Jos who graduated at this year’s WFWI programme and have achieved life-changing skills to move from crisis and poverty, to stability and economic self-sufficiency. This 5’10 tall woman with flawless melanin-enriched complexion is also a talented writer for The Metro UK as well as an author who had recently written a children’s book titled: The Queen In Me. In this interview with MARIA DIAMOND, Kwao talks about her experiences as a young woman who have had to break odd protocols to prove that a woman can reach the sky and beyond if she so desires.
Tell us about your advocacy for women as a gender equality activist?
I believe that I do different things as an advocate for women, being a plus-size model, my main advocacy is about body positivity and confidence; how women can feel beautiful and confident in themselves regardless of their skin tone, body shape, body size, and hair. For so many women regardless of how bright or smart they are, they still feel down because they feel like they don’t look good enough, they don’t look the part, and all that is damaging. On that front, in its fundamental part, my career has been a big push for that because every time a brand decides to use me, they use something different and they show women that look like me that they are also beautiful and powerful in themselves. Also, I write for the Metro UK, a daily British newspaper where I tell personal stories with messages, sometimes it’s about being a woman in a work place of a male dominated industry, other times about being comfortable in your own skin. As a teenager, I bleached my skin for a few years because I thought that was the way to be beautiful due to the fact that around me, all I saw was light skinned women and they were always praised, so I thought that because of my complexion I was not beautiful.
Also, perming my hair and starving myself to get slim because everybody who is beautiful is slim, so I wanted to be slim. These are the things we do to harm ourselves, so I write about these topics. In terms of women in general, as WFWI ambassador, the charity platform has a global organisation that started in 1993, and the headquarters is in Washington DC, US, they work with women in conflict around the world, places like Syria, Afghanistan and here in Nigeria. What they do is empower women through teaching them to make changes for themselves. They have a 12-month programme where they teach the women how to do numerous things like saving, purchasing, finance literacy and basic healthcare. They have books where they share symptoms of illness related to women’s health. They also teach the vocational skills, in Jos the primary vocational skills being taught is knitting, poultry farming and agriculture. Also the women are given monthly stipends to help them. What really drew me to the program is the involvement of men; the women who are selected to be in the programme have their husbands and male relatives also enrolled in the programme, because to advocate change for women, it is of paramount importance to involve men in the conversation especially in a very patriarchal society. I also have a children’s book coming out soon. In the UK, I noticed that the little girl books always have white pictures; they are the little princesses and beautiful girls. You hardly see a dark-skinned little girl in a book, so I wrote a book titled Queen In Me, a very simple book but powerful message that talks about the black girl’s skin, nose, lips and hair. This book teaches them to find beauty in the feature that the society otherwise tells them is ugly.
What is your perception of the women who graduated at the WFWI program at Jos, did they strike you as empowered after all?
It was my first time at Plateau State so I wasn’t sure what to expect, it was one thing to know what an organization is doing, but I needed to have the Jos experience and firstly, I was immediately taken by how beautiful the state is, how green everything was, and it made me feel really sad cause the reason the area has been designated as a conflict area is because of the conflict with the Fulani herdsmen and the local. I was able to attend some of the classes of women who were about to graduate, I went to some of their houses and was touched that they allowed me into their homes. Some of them live in very small spaced one-room-apartment that is basically the size of a table for the women, their husbands and quite a number of children. It allowed me to understand why the programme is important and why there is need for it, the change and the effect it’s had on their lives. I believe the programme has impacted these women immensely with the turn-around they have accomplished in their lives and means of income.
Would you say their husbands and male folks who attended the programme got the message?
Initially some of the men in the community didn’t agree with the programme, they had the common notion that WFWI was out to stray their women, making them like the Westerners, argumentative, but eventually they saw the positive impact in other families who participated and their wives empowered, it encouraged others.
As an advocate for women equality, what’s your view of gender parity, how do you think Africans can embrace it?
Gender equality is a world in which irrespective of sex, you’re all treated and accepted in the same way. The problem of gender equality is not peculiar to Africa; you find same issues in the Asian society as well. People mistake gender equality for questioning of manhood; this makes women expect men to validate and sanction everything they do before progressing in life. I think we’re all human beings and deserve to be treated equally. Equality is basically a communal understanding and building of very good relationship between men and women. Nobody is trying to dehumanize one or the other, but man and woman should be treated with same fairness and equals.
How would you explain gender equality to an African woman who naturally sees her husband as demigod and the male folks in her world as superior?
There’s a lot of controversy as to what feminism actually is. Feminism is my right as a woman to exercise my life in the way I want. If a woman’s version of feminism is being a housewife and taking care of her husband and children, then her choice of feminism is valid. I may not feel it’s right for her to adore her husband and do a lot of the things she does and condole in her marriage, but it’s her choice. It becomes a problem only if she is compelled to do the things she does for the men in her world. As a woman, she should be allowed to portray her feelings the way she wants. I cannot force her to change, cause it would mean I am imposing my ideals on her. It is that freedom of thought that we have to allow because it is personal. However, when these systematic opinions restrict her from doing basic fundamental things that a man can do, then we feel there is need to have a conversation and stop the society that supports such wrong. A man can buy cars, build houses, head organisations and a whole lot in life, but a woman is questioned and restricted? No, a woman should be allowed to do all of those things and more if she so desires.
Tell us about your book The Queen In Me
The Queen in Me is the celebration of all the features that black women have been told are ugly, for example the shape of our nose, size of our lips, the kinkiness of our hair, our skin texture. I was born in London, so perhaps my perception may be a bit different because back then in London, you’d hardly see a black woman on the TV, you hardly see them celebrated as beautiful, when you see them on TV, it’s always a disadvantaged, negative portrayal. So when you grow up with that imagery, you believe you are negative because that’s all you’ve consumed and seen, you limit yourself, you don’t do well in school, you don’t aspire to do more and you don’t have any positive role models. So growing up, I was always looking out for picture book of black girls but none. You realise that this indoctrination happens very early before the children even learn to pick up the pen and express themselves; they already know they should feel ashamed about their hair, look out to perm their hair and do something different from who they really are. So because I couldn’t find one, I thought I might as well do something myself, so I made a little poem book with picture illustrations so black girls can find beauty in their features.
Why did you decide to model against visible odds?
When I was running my masters programme, my friend who was an ex-miss South Africa said I could be a really good plus-size model, initially, I didn’t think that was possible because I am on the big side compared to the regular slim figured models. Still she submitted my pictures to a modeling agency, I was called up and a few months into that, the US agent gave me a contract. After I graduated, I quit my job and went to New York for modeling.
How do you think confidence can be implemented in African women to know that every feature of black is actually beautiful?
Representation is the key, the more you show something, the more you normalize it, the more you normalize it, the more it becomes okay. If you have positive imagery of a wide range women sustained, you will find the change, because the change is attitude to what we see and we respond to what we see.
Briefly tell us how you amounted to a woman of bravery and confidence against the odds in your surroundings?
Modeling really helped me, I realised that women’s confidence issues comes from the fact that they have never really taken the time to look at themselves, to see beauty and uniqueness in their features. Being black and somewhat big used to be a big challenge but modeling as a plus size, made me appreciated the features in me that were portrayed as ugly.
What motivates you?
Lots of things, I find motivation in my mum, she is a strong woman, an overcomer. Then my fans that message me, when they tell me they’ve stopped bleaching, or starving themselves just to look slim, that motivates me. It tells me that what I am doing is bigger than just standing in font of the camera, posing and making money, it is actually having an impacts in the people who are receiving this imagery and are well represented as they weren’t before.
Who is your mentor?
I do a lot of self-mentoring but I have a very good friend who is honest and sees me as an equal. If you can find someone who sees you as an equal and honest with you, it’s very powerful cause they don’t belittle you, they encourage you and also tell you when you’re not living to expectation and should be doing more. Every person needs checks and balances.
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