Living Unapologetically Confident with Andrea Thomas

I was created in God’s image.

Every woman has scrolled through Instagram gazing at photos of what we perceive is beautiful. We are fixated on what we should have and what we should look like, maybe it’s a Chanel bag or washboard abs. We have all wanted to look and feel – perfect. It takes a certain level of self-love to overcome the need to constantly compare yourself to someone else.

After scrolling through my Instagram timeline one afternoon I was immediately captivated by a young brown-skinned woman wrapped in a blue floral gown. Her body commanded the photo as she stood in an elegant yet vulnerable pose. I wondered to myself, “What does it take for a woman to exemplify this much confidence?”

Andrea Thomas, a WeSpeak model, knows the journey to self-confidence all too well, and she is redefining standards of beauty among women of color. Vitiligo is one of the major hurdles that was added on to her natural insecurities growing up. Although the journey has not been easy, we can learn a lot from how she has embraced her image and lives unapologetically confident.

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Every beautiful story has a beginning, middle, and end, where does your story begin?

My dermatologist believes my vitiligo was triggered by a bad sunburn. I was 5 years old. There is so much more to learn about vitiligo and how it starts. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease that causes my immune system to attack the melanin in my skin. In general, people think it is something that can be reversed through the right diet and vitamins but no medical doctor would support that claim. There is no cure for the disease but there are treatments like topical creams and UV light sessions.

What was it like growing up?

When I was diagnosed with the disease the doctors told my parents that I would probably need therapy. In short, my parents asked me, “Are you ok?” to which I responded, “Yes”, and we pretty much never really talked about it after that. I now know I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It is a part of who I am. It is what makes my appearance unique.

I started getting bullied in the 2nd grade. I always felt like I had to overcompensate with my personality. I needed to be fun and friendly, so people would like me. At times I also bullied others as a defense mechanism. I didn’t feel like a whole person.

I never wanted to wear skirts or dresses because I didn’t want people to see my legs. I wanted to draw less attention to myself. I just remember wearing black leggings to the zoo on the hottest day of the summer. I wasn’t comfortable showing my body.

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When did you gain confidence in your image?

Honestly, it’s something that I’ve had to work hard at every day. I started to feel confident around the age of 26. That’s when I began to show more of my skin, but it wasn’t until I was 31 that I fully embraced my image. I have come so far but I’m still a work in progress.

I  feel like I’m here for a reason. I have a purpose for my life. I was created in God’s image, so how could I not love myself and embrace who I am. Click To Tweet

How did you get into modeling?

I was finding a lot of vitiligo models on Instagram. I don’t know them, but I found it to be beautiful and empowering. I wanted to take some pictures, just for myself, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I was approached at a gas station by a model who wanted to start her own agency. I didn’t end up signing with her, but it gave me that final push to pursue an agency. I found Briauna and WeSpeak through Instagram. I filled out an online application and submitted one of my Instagram pictures, which was not good quality, but it was full length. That’s where it all started. Briauna wanted to meet me and go forward, so I said I would give it a try.

I thought I was just taking pictures for myself, but it turned into something much greater. So many people have reached out to me all from a #hashtag on Instagram. The power of social media is crazy. I have reached over 2,600 people just from one photo on @cantcuredopeskin. I never imagined I would gain so much attention.

What I learned about modeling is that it hardly has anything to do with being pretty. It is more about uniqueness and being confident with your image. Click To Tweet The way we used to think of models has changed, some are short, some are plus size, and even have skin conditions like myself.

I think Winnie Harlow brought a lot of awareness to the disease. She made it cool. I have no idea what her vitiligo story is and what she has gone through in the industry to get to where she is. I’m sure there was a lot she had to overcome. Her success made people comfortable enough to share their stories as well. There is an entire community of people living with vitiligo and now we have representation. It was hard growing up and not seeing someone who looked like me on TV.

What are some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome while navigating through life?

It is difficult to navigate through life already being marginalized as a woman of color, but when vitiligo is added into the mixture it makes it worse. Click To Tweet People assume it’s affecting my health, or that I’m contagious. People are so misinformed about the disease.

I worked for an all-American company when I was younger that wanted their employees to look a certain way. They wanted me to wear their clothes, and have a natural, athletic look. One of my managers wanted me to work the front of the store, but most of the time they kept me in the back. I guess I didn’t fit their branding model. Sadly, people with vitiligo don’t go after leadership positions for this very reason. People tear us down in subtle ways, so we settle.

I’ve been in some very dehumanizing situations. People have asked inappropriate questions, made bets on my condition, and I am finding out that people fetishize vitiligo.

If you ever want to ask someone a question out of curiosity, please ask yourself, “Would I want to answer this question from a complete stranger?” I think that the approach and consideration of the situation usually make me more willing to talk to someone. For example, if my arms are full of groceries and I am walking to my car, please don’t launch into a long story about your cousin whose vitiligo was cured! Usually, I am more than willing to talk to anyone so long as it doesn’t lead to unsolicited advice or offensive comments.

If there is anything you would want young women to learn about your self-love journey what would it be?

Believe in yourself. There is always something more, something greater than yourself, but if you never try you’ll never know. Click To Tweet This message isn’t just for people with vitiligo, but for anyone struggling to love themselves. Don’t be afraid to take a risk because there is a reason why you are here.

Hearing Andrea’s story was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned so much about self-image and how it shapes the way women are viewed in society when we don’t meet the status quo. Andrea is a good example of how women can overcome any obstacle in life and truly love themselves for who they are. Whether you are plus sized, have an ailment, or you are stuck feeling down about your self-image, it’s important to take the time to find your purpose and make a commitment to loving the skin you’re in.  

*Photos by Elina Khachaturyan (@eakphoto)
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