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Shine4Diversity: Two models fighting for representation in global media

After a modelling stint in Australia, Shareefa J felt something wasn’t right, but didn’t know how to fix it. Among other things, Sydney’s modelling industry seemed to perpetuate tokenism, and her Australian model friend Mahalia Handley felt the same way.

When the pair reconnected on an Instagram discussion of the subject, they decided to do something about it. So they created Shine4Diversity.

We were intrigued by this border-crossing partnership. So we caught them on Zoom.

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Mahalia (left) and Shareefa (right) found each other through their shared experiences within the modelling industry.

What’s Shine4Diversity’s origin story?

Mahalia: “I had an experience with an ex-colleague, who told me that we already had equality in the fashion industry. So I went to the closest shopping centre to see how many white models there were in comparison to BIPOC models. That was the awakening for me. I then posted quite the rant to Instagram about it. Shareefa saw the rant and had been experiencing even more issues! She reached out and we decided to meet and explore what we can do.”

"I dealt with lots of micro-aggressions. Particularly about my hair."

Shareefa: “In my experience, it was moving to Australia from London and seeing this huge disparity in the way BIPOC were spoken about, treated, the opportunities that were available to them. I dealt with lots of micro-aggressions. Particularly about my hair. Strangers shaking and touching it, and professional stylists unable to work with it properly. As soon as Mahalia put this post up, it was a ray of sunshine. I was like, ‘Finally, somebody else gets it. Wow.’

“We met up for brunch in 2018 and started hatching plans.”

You guys have a really unique perspective on diversity as models.

M: “We see the advantage of engaging people through our own platforms as representatives of plus size models of color. We have that audience and we know that women are constantly reaching out to us on our own platforms. We both knew it would be important to bring this to attention because of the audience we’ve collected.

It’s about models being a reflection of real life, right?

M: “The businesses are selling clothing to people who are brown and black and white and every color under the sun.”

S: “I always think about young people growing up and not being able to see themselves in the media. As Beyoncé says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Representation is really, really important. The media also provides exposure to different races in certain areas of the country where you may not have that race. You have accurate representation that actually helps to remove discrimination. These brands have a lot of power to influence our opinions.”

Tokenism is something that’s core to your message. Can you elaborate on that?

M: “I’m a pain about ratio. On set, I often look at how many other people of color there are. Is it just me? And normally I’m also the only plus-size person too. I ticked their box. It’s like when you see companies doing things around Pride yet they don’t reinforce it throughout the year.”

"Why is everyone else wearing matching yellow and you put me in a zebra print dress? I’ve never even been to Africa!”

S: “Once, when everyone else was wearing a yellow dress, they put me in a full zebra print outfit. Like, why is everyone else wearing matching yellow and you put me in a zebra print dress? I’ve never even been to Africa!”

How can brands authentically incorporate diversity?

S: “I think that casting is terrible anyway, because it’s done by race, which I don’t get when it comes to fashion. Clothes are clothes.

“One of our Shine 4 Diversity girls, who was on our first campaign said “The feeling I get is that brands actually don’t think I’m attractive.” And that’s a really good point. You don’t just need to have one BIPOC. You don’t have to have one Black, one Indigenous, one Asian. You can have like two or three people of the same race in a campaign.”

M: “And don’t try to shoehorn a disabled, gay, black, plus sized model just to tick boxes!”

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It's not about ticking boxes, it's about making sure your campaigns are a reflection of real life.

Have you noticed any significant changes in the past few weeks?

S: “The biggest thing I would say is recently we were working with a brand called FYI, and they did a call out to find us volunteers because we were running three petitions.

“We get no funding from anyone. We just do it because we care. But so far, we’ve had 26 volunteer applications in one week just via Instagram. People are really engaging with our content.”

M: “On Instagram Live, we have really organic conversations with people about their experiences. That’s where we’ve seen good dialogue.”

Lots of brands have changed their messaging lately, what are your thoughts?

S: “PR companies are very powerful. Their entire job is to make a brand look good. I would be interested to see what their company looks like inside. Who’s making decisions in their head office? Is it a boardroom full of white people? Or is it a boardroom full of people from all different ethnicities and backgrounds? I’m distrusting.”

M: “Ben & Jerry’s had some pretty bang-on straight implementations and tangible actions. A lot of what I’m seeing companies do at the moment is like, ‘We’re going to increase more diversity and we’re going to do this.’ Anyone can say that.”

You’re both big on Instagram, how has that helped?

S: “We’ve both built our social media platforms as body positive models so we have strong audiences who are socially aware and keen for change and equality. Our message around diversity and inclusion is supported and received really well by our audiences.

“Being verified Instagram account holders helps with our online presence and as both of us have over 10,000 followers we have access to helpful tools like “swipe up” links to promote our website.”

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What does the future hold for Shine4Diversity?

S: “There’s so much work that needs to be done. We’re tackling representation within fashion, TV, film and the media. But also on a community level. For example, I put together a Shine4Diversity team and we ran a half marathon to raise money for sickle cell anemia, which is a disease that affects Black people, particularly. I think we’ll keep connecting with communities and keep encouraging diversity in different spaces”.

M: “I’d love to do a book where we can really start to highlight experiences. I know we’ve also opened the doors for people who have maybe got their own diversity projects. Something that we discussed is doing a Shine4Diversity anthology, where we would collate stories from people all over the world, particularly revolving around race.”

You’ve recently started using Linktree PRO, are you enjoying it?

S: “I love our Linktree. Have you seen it by the way? I’m very proud of the redesign!”

It’s lovely!

S: “We love that people can click on our Linktree and have options of all these different things that they can do. Even the clicky buttons – when you push them down, they actually go down and it feels like you’re actually pushing a real life button. People are doing our petitions and it makes people leave our space feeling accomplished.

“And it looks fab in your own branding. I love how easy it is to just shuffle things around and how quickly it updates. I’ll be on the phone to Mahalia because she’s in Australia and I’m in London and I’ll be editing it, and she’ll be looking at it on her iPhone in real time watching it change in front of her eyes.”

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Any causes you’d like to shout out?

M: “For sure! Models for Change now is a new movement aimed to help protect black and POC models on set. We’re also fighting to include Afro hair education in Certificate III Hairdressing in Australia and make BAME hair and make-up training mandatory in the UK.”

Shine4Diversity’s Linktree

Shareefa loved customizing her Linktree. It now has their unique brand colors, which makes it visually appealing and in line with their aesthetic. She’s also made use of Priority Links to draw attention to links she believes are particularly important –  which is awesome for time-sensitive petitions. 

They’ve also made use of our ‘Support Anti Racism’ prompt, which encourages all visitors how to support Black Lives Matter efforts globally.