Emma Dabiri: 'People would say “it’s a good thing you’re pretty because you can kind of get away with being black"'

From the November issue of IMAGE, six Irish women reflect on what beauty means to them.


What is beauty today? For the last three years, photographer Lee Malone’s passion project has been to challenge perceptions of beauty by capturing women in their most natural, make-up-free state. In the November issue of IMAGE, he photographed six women who opened up to Holly O'Neill about what beauty means to them. Here, Emma Dabiri tells her story.

PORTRAITS BY LEE MALONE

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Emma Dabiri, writer, presenter and social historian

"Once upon a time, I couldn’t leave the house without make-up, let alone be photographed.

I had so many hang-ups about weight until my thirties. It really dominated my life. The changes that pregnancy brings... I’m a good few stone heavier than I am normally, and it’s not just the bump – it’s the size of my arms, the size of my legs, the roundness of my face. I wouldn’t have been able to pose, to have my photograph taken, with that weight, no make-up and my hair, before. Now, it’s crazy for me to think of how easy it was to do. It would have been impossible for me to do when I was younger.

When I was first pregnant, I cut all my hair off and went back to having natural hair. Being pregnant and breastfeeding really changed my relationship with my body. Now that I’m doing it all over again, I am a lot more comfortable with it.

Recently, I sat on the edge of a bench and the other side of the bench went flying up in the air because I’m so heavy. Even the thought of that happening to me at any point in my teens or twenties – I wouldn’t have been able to recover from that! I’m a lot more in tune with my body now. When I was younger, I was always fighting against my body. Now I feel more connected to myself and my body. It knows what it’s doing, I’m leaving this in its hands and all will be well.

I am more confident now than I have ever been. I don’t feel like I owe the world perfection.

I think a lot of that has to do with self-worth. When I was younger, I was very insecure and felt so much pressure to conform to a certain type of prettiness, a certain type of femininity. People would say things to me like, “It’s a good thing you’re pretty because you can kind of get away with being black.” That put a lot of pressure on me from a young age; it made me really obsessed with my appearance, and my self-worth was really tied to it. I still love make-up, and when I’m going out, I enjoy wearing it.

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Before, though, it was like a crutch, a mask I was hiding behind, and I couldn’t bear the thought of anybody seeing me without it. I enjoy a more natural look now, whereas in the past, make-up was my war paint. And on special occasions, I can really enjoy make-up, rather than panic that a bit of my lipstick might rub off. I wore winged eyeliner every day from the age of 14, and I’m only weaning myself off it now. I’m really good at eyeliner now, after many years of practice, and often on public transport – my precision is good!"

Lee Malone is hoping to publish his Perceptions of Beauty book of portraits next year with money raised going towards various women’s mental health and domestic abuse charities. @lee_malone_photography

This article originally appeared in the November issue of IMAGE Magazine.

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