Interview by Emma Menteath Words by Nakhalar Sterling
Curve Model Shareefa J opens up about unhealthy body ideals, afro hair and affirmations.
It’s a grey Thursday evening. Sat comfortably under low-lighting on brown-leather armchairs, we wait inside Spring Studio’s bar for curve model Shareefa J to arrive from her shoot. You may recognise Shareefa from various brands’ campaigns, ours included. It was on-set where we first fell in love with her charm and care-free spirit but, having worked with her on a few occasions, we wanted to find out more about the woman behind the lens.
At 6 pm on the dot, Shareefa arrives. Casually dressed in a pleated skirt, a sheer floral top and ankle boots, she approaches us with a huge smile and a bounce in her step.
“My hairline was coming out. Some of it still hasn’t recovered.”
Not only a model, but the 28-year-old is also a journalism student, an ambassador for Calm, a suicide prevention charity, and co-founder of Shine4Diversity (www.shine4diversity.com), a social awareness diversity movement for minorities – so she has little time on her hands.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t seem to faze her, she’s surprisingly excited to share her story with us. ‘I’m just going to moisture my lips while we talk if that’s okay?’, she says enthusiastically. We all laugh while she continues to bare all with freshly glossed lips.
‘I trained for three years in musical theatre before I became a model’, she says. ‘Once I had graduated, I was auditioning in the day and working at night, floating around the streets of London and feeling skint. Until, one day, somebody asked me If I wanted to be a plus-size model. At the time I had no money and I was on the breadline – choosing between tampons and toothpaste every month for survival’, she says with unforeseen optimism.
That’s the thing about Shareefa, despite many hardships, it’s as if positivity is ingrained in her. As she opens up about her humble upbringing and greatest influence (her older sister), it becomes abundantly clear why. Shareefa grew up in Norwich: ‘we were very poor’, she says. ‘We didn’t have shoes or a decent meal – most of the time, our meals were in a soup kitchen.’
Although childhood proved difficult, by watching her sister put challenges aside, Shareefa’s outlook on life changed. ‘My sister is a paediatric doctor, and she got there by thinking: I don’t have any money but I’m going to get a scholarship to a private school. She has always achieved amazing things through her determination and resilience, and she has instilled that into me.’
Shareefa would soon realise that she’d rely on those strengths throughout her career. The model’s seven-year stint in the industry hasn’t been easy. ‘I kind of fell off’, she tells us – largely because of the discrimination that she faced against her natural afro hair texture.
“Your body doesn’t have to be super slim or super curvy, you can be who you are.”
‘Brands would only use me with a wig because I’d look racially ambiguous. They wanted curls that dropped because that’s what the industry wanted. My hairline was coming out. Some of it still hasn’t recovered – so I have patches of hair missing’, she says. ‘I wasn’t happy, so I stopped wearing wigs. And, because I wasn’t wearing the wigs, I wasn’t booking the jobs.’
After six months without modelling, Shareefa travelled to Australia to reinvent herself without wigs. “My agent called me and said, ‘you have a job tomorrow, can you make it, and could you find a place to go and get your wigs put on?’ I told her that if she wants me to wear wigs I’m going to fly back home. So she changed my headshot to a picture of me with my natural afro – so, no more wigs.”
We became so engrossed in her story that we almost forgot to ask her about the curve modelling industry itself. Her response is far from what we expected:
‘It’s a really nice community and the models are great to work with. There’s not that many of us, and it’s not competitive, in my view – but it has changed a lot. The idea of plus size is body positivity but it’s creating a new ‘hourglass’ body ideal and I don’t think it’s that healthy.’
Shareefa is right: there has been a record number of Brazilian Butt Lifts as millennials fuel the plastic surgery boom, according to CBNC News. We see it every day in popular culture and on the Insta-feeds of high-profile celebrities, from reality star Kim Kardashian famous curves to rapper Cardi B’s cartoonish proportions.
‘I see women having surgery to get their bum and breasts bigger and their waist smaller. I also see other brands actively telling others to find their perfect hourglass. I think it’s just as toxic and problematic as what we’re trying to get away from in the first place. To fight fire with fire isn’t the best way to make an inclusive society.’
“I did positive affirmations twice to three times a day to tell myself that I was enough.”
We wonder if the model has ever been tempted to modify her looks but, no – she hasn’t. ‘I’ve been heavily encouraged to change my bust size because I’m a plus-size model with a small one, but I’m keen to be the truest version of myself. Your body doesn’t have to be super slim or super curvy, you can be who you are’
Shareefa hasn’t always been comfortable in her skin. She describes her three years in musical theatre as a ‘breeding ground for eating disorders’, where she’d sometimes eat one apple a day and was weighed regularly. ‘I’d have to stand in the mirror and point out the things that I didn’t like about myself. It was a crazy time’, she says. ‘In my first year, I lost 4 stone and I’d be constantly congratulated for it’.
Now, the model embraces her imperfections: ‘I did positive affirmations twice to three times a day to tell myself that I was good enough. When we have this negative self-talk, all we’re doing is brainwashing ourselves into thinking that we’re not good enough. We put those ideas into our minds, so we can take them out.’ When we have this negative self-talk, all we’re doing is brainwashing ourselves into thinking that we’re not good enough. We put those ideas into our minds, so we can take them out.’
The interview is coming to an end, Shareefa has a journalism class to attend. One of the many things that we found ourselves loving about the model is her openness. We talk about boundaries that the fashion and modelling industry is yet to break. Her views were is insightful, to say the least.
‘It’s still very extremist. We’re seeing sizes four and six but, when it comes to the in-between sizes, I do think that we need more representation. It can be quite toxic for models, girls are now overeating or undereating but, if the clients behaved differently, there wouldn’t be so much pressure.’