MARI RAMSAWAKH (Instagram @model_mari) photographed by VINSIA MAHARAJAH (Instagram @vinsia)

Brown, Queer, Disabled and Modelling

A Nuance writer explores the power and the hardships of modelling at the intersections of gender, ability, and race.

Written by Mari Ramsawakh 
Modelling and Styling by Mari Ramsawakh
Photography by Vinsia Maharajah

Growing up, I didn’t even consider modelling as a possible career for me. I’ve always been the smallest person in the room, just barely reaching 4’11”. That is if you measure me at the start of the day before gravity has had its way with my spine. And I was taught that admiring myself or valuing my looks for anything other than other’s approval was for the vain and vapid. Kshyama’s words in her essay A Crucial Message To All Brown Women and Girls rung true for me with upsetting clarity.

In fact, as someone with spina bifida, I had always assumed that anything I did with my life would have as little to do with my body as possible. I was always a writer, a thinker, a dreamer, but I had given up on a physical future a long time ago. My body was supposed to hold me back, not move me forward.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was digitally introduced to Rachel Romu, a disabled model and singer/songwriter, that I even considered that I had something to offer the modelling industry. Seeing Rachel pose with their cane in high fashion shoots stirred something in me, and the first time I reached out to ask for advice, Rachel expressed nothing but encouragement. But even then, I stood over a foot shorter than Rachel and there weren’t many brown models outside of agency standards.

At the same time, someone whose writing I already admired started to share their own modelling portfolio. Iris Robin is an Asian and openly nonbinary model, who is only mere inches taller than me. I was also seeing models like Cassandra Ava working alongside them, challenging normative beauty standards in a beautiful way. Seeing it possible that height, race, and ability weren’t going to preclude me from success, I decided that I was going to go for it.

The first thing that I learned about myself was how much I was made to feel ashamed for even being aware of my body. I hadn’t realized until I started modeling that I had spent most of my life trying to make my body small and unnoticeable. I had been careful not to move my body in certain ways so as not to seem too “into myself” or too sexual. While my style has always been out there, I had always been hiding from judging eyes. There is such a significant difference in how I carry myself in my first shoots to how I carry myself now, and hopefully how I hold myself in the future.

Getting over the idea that my body wasn’t valuable or shameful was just the first step. While my first shoots left me feeling confident and beautiful, stepping into the modelling industry left me struggling with my sense of self and my own body image. I wasn’t just joining in with models like Iris and Rachel and Cassandra, I was also competing against white and abled models. I had spent my whole life learning not to compare myself against tall, white, and abled women but all of that work started to fall apart when I realized I was competing against them and most often losing.

“When I tried to forget about the industry standards and started to carve out a place for myself, I found I was jealous of other models because I wasn’t confident in my own work and I felt like my position was precarious and transient,” Iris wrote in a Twitter thread. “I was worried I would lose my place to them.”

As much as I wanted to believe that I was happy disrupting modeling standards, to be the representation I needed to see, I also realized that I was starting to feel a certain resentment for the same models who had been encouraging me at the start of my journey. Now that I was contacting the same photographers, trying to get into the same castings, I had these conflicting feelings. I wanted to see these models succeed, but I also wanted to succeed too. But there never seems to be enough room for all of us.

“The only way I’m going to get there is by working for myself while also working for other models like me,” Iris wrote further in the thread. “When I succeed, so do they. When they succeed, they’re showing me that I can succeed too. They’ve done it, created their own path that is then mine to follow.”

I’ve tried to internalize this attitude, but at the same time, I’ve also taught myself to forgive myself when I slip up. While I still struggle with feelings of envy, I also know that these feelings come from intricate systems rooted in the patriarchy, white supremacy and ableist norms. It’s easy to get caught in a shame spiral when confronting my own problematic thoughts, but shaming myself does nothing to solve the problem. Instead I remind myself that other models — other nonbinary, disabled, and racialized people in general — are not better or worse than I am. We all occupy different intersections and experiences, and we could never take each other’s places.

Modelling may never be one experience for me, never wholly positive or wholly negative. Sometimes I want to give up and let somebody else take the responsibility of “paving the way” for people like me. But at the same time, I now see my body and my identity as not just valuable, but also necessary. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let Eurocentric beauty standards and ableism take that away from me. Modelling has given me a chance to change my narrative.

The outfit for this shoot was picked purposely, combining Indian design with punk aesthetic. This was important to me to not separate my brownness from my radicalness, something I had always struggled with growing up. I was taught to be a “good brown” child, I had to be traditional, submissive, and obedient. But brown and South Asian people are not one monolithic group. We’re all different and that doesn’t mean we are letting our people down. It means we were allowed room to grow into ourselves.