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Why 'token models' aren't enough: Model on the need for diversity in fashion

In an essay, Ebonee Davis tells us about her struggles as a model and how fashion can help shape the world to be more inclusive.
/ Source: TODAY

Model Ebonee Davis is known for her Calvin Klein campaigns, appearing in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, and walking the runway at New York Fashion Week. But the 24-year-old is also an outspoken advocate for diversity in the fashion industry, and she recently spoke up about the issue in a popular TED Talk.

In an essay for TODAY Style, she tells us about her personal struggles as a model and how fashion can help shape the world to be a more inclusive place.

Modeling is something I wanted to do from a really young age. I started in Seattle during my freshman year in college, and after my first year, I decided to drop out and move to New York. I moved without an agency, without a lot of money — just about $1,000.

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Model Ebonee Davis in New York in November. The 24-year-old is using her platform as a model to send a message about inclusion in fashion. CJ Rivera / Getty Images

It was really difficult to get placements. I was turned down over and over. (Finally an agency told me,) "We'll take a chance on you, but you have to wear your hair straight, or wear a weave or extensions." It was constant compromise. It took a toll on my self-esteem, so it was definitely a rough start.

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One of my biggest goals when I started modeling was to work for Victoria's Secret, and I was told, "You probably won't do that." There was just this constant doubt. I tried not to let it affect me, but it did. (Editor’s note: Davis has since worked for Victoria’s Secret.)

The Calvin Klein campaign was a great moment for me. When I saw it, I cried. I had stuck to my gut, even though my old agency told me I would never work with my natural hair. Then I booked the biggest campaign of my life, and it ends up on a billboard. It was confirmation for me that I was doing the right thing.

I do think there's been progress in inclusion (in the fashion industry), but there is still a lot of work to do. It's one thing to put a token model in a magazine and call it diversity; it's another thing to have representation and really understand why it's important. I think that "why" is sometimes missing.

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In this industry, we're selling products to people. When you sell products to people, you're using their emotions. Traditionally, it's made people feel insecure, and that's sort of the ploy, what gets them to buy products. It's taking a toll on people's mental health, self-esteem, their confidence and their ability to love themselves. Especially as a young black woman, when you don't see yourself represented, or you see yourself represented inaccurately, it's really hard. If you're constantly made to feel inadequate, how do you succeed as a human being?

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Davis grew up in Seattle and now lives in New York. She's modeled for Calvin Klein, Victoria's Secret and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, among others.Michael Stewart / WireImage

Representation is important because it goes beyond fashion. It goes beyond the industry. Our responsibility is bigger than the industry. We are a reflection of American society, and not only do we reflect it, we create it. With that power we can set the tone for how people feel about themselves and how people feel about other people.

It's so easy for people to turn a blind eye to the struggles of people of color … when the only time you see a person in a hijab is when the news is talking about a terrorist attack, or the only time you see a black person on the news is when they're talking about a robbery or a killing.

But what if you saw people of color being highlighted in more beautiful ways? Then, people become humanized. Then, when you see someone like that in person, you think, “Oh, you’re a human. I can appreciate you and find the beauty in you,” rather than associate that person with stereotypes.

As told to Rheana Murray. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.