My fake families never really look like mine.
I do a fair bit of commercial/lifestyle modeling, booked either on my own or as the wife and mom of a nuclear family. Though it’s a positive development to be booked as a natural-haired Black woman, it’s always interesting to see how clients and casting agents create the look of my “family.”
You’ll have me – a Black woman with curly hair (kinks and tighter curls don’t get me work, but looser curls do). Then you’ll have my husband – a clean cut, handsome Black man. Our fake kids are always beautifully adorable, but in my mind they never look like they could possibly come from the combination of my “husband” and I. The children I’m cast with are always biracial, with light complexions and big, loose natural curls – and while my science-loving mind knows that genes can do all kinds of interesting things, this feels more like an attempt to create the perfect visual for a “modern family.”
“Modern family” has become synonymous with “Black family” on many of the sets I’ve been on. Agents and photographers smile encouragingly to ensure that I feel excited about portraying something “modern” even though Black people and Black families have been around for eternity. Seeing us is still new in Canadian media, I guess – so it’s par for the course for set staff to feel self-congratulatory over their forward-thinking booking.
At one of my last shoots, everyone cooed incessantly over how adorable my “kids” were, and it was right on the mark – those children were absolutely gorgeous. However, the remarks about their hair and skin tone from the all-White staff started to feel like they were fetishizing the children, and I got a funny feeling in my stomach. That unease was for both those kids and my own daughter who, with her brown skin and kinky hair, existed on an opposing end of the spectrum.
Many consumers comment positively about the fact that we’re seeing more diversity in media. More people of colour, more Black women with natural hair – but having this kind of intimate view of the industry makes me pause on the celebration. Sure, my very presence on some of these sets means we’re making some headway – but when my deep brown eyes and brown skin and tightly curled hair consistently gets erased from my generation to the next – there’s a direct message there. My nuclear family shoots often feel like casting agents want to fast forward to National Geographic’s view of what Americans will look like in 2050, but a piece of me leaves feeling like I have to hold up my own daughter as proof of resistance. Similarly to how my hair is more accepted in the industry when it’s a specific kind of natural texture, Black children seem to be more acceptable when their look is more ambiguous. Where my darker-skinned child has been called for bookings for charities dedicated to poverty in Africa, lighter-skinned children are consistently the ones booked to work with me on mainstream shoots. It seems that the next best thing to being colourblind is believing that the one true path to seeing everyone as beautiful is to blend us all into one big melting pot. If the beauty in all racial, ethnic, and cultural expressions and combinations therein was authentically validated and represented, it wouldn’t feel so much like casting agents were treating Black families like a lab assignment, picking and choosing the “right” looks at random.
It’s not lost on me that the majority of creative staff I work with are White, so these views on what a “modern family” and what a marketable Black lifestyle and aesthetic look like are through those eyes. As I always say, more diversity behind the camera is needed to help increase diversity in front of it. We’re on the way to a more inclusive representation of our society in media, but I don’t feel like we’re there just yet.
After my last shoot, I felt compelled to go home, lift my daughter into my arms, and tell her how beautiful she was. While I’m cognizant of not solely complimenting my daughter on her looks, days like that one reminded me why it felt important for me to do so. There is so much more room for a wider representation of society in today’s media, and while I’m happy to be taking up the space that I am, I’m working to make sure that my daughter feels beautiful and self-assured in her space too.