One of the questions I'm asked the most is, "What is it like being a Black asexual model in the modeling industry?"
It's probably because that combination sounds like something inherently contentious and I can no longer deny the truth in that. Yes, modeling is associated with sexuality - sometimes justifiably, sometimes not.
It's also associated with a rather specific beauty standard which hasn't always been appreciative of Black phenotypes. Asexuality has never been associated with Blackness; in a world where Black people are either hypersexualized or desexualized by the white gaze, being Black and asexual is often treated as paradoxical. So, all in all, existing as all of those things must be a little weird, right?
Yes, but not for the reasons most usually assume.
I entered the modeling industry not because I thought I was strikingly beautiful - quite the opposite. With my big alien-shaped head, cartoon-looking features, Bratz doll proportions, and gothic style, I thought I could be one of those 'weird' models. You know the kind. I was specifically drawn to a more alternative style of modeling in particular because it seemed like a space for outcasts like myself. Only, even in that space, it was ironically white. With my work, I was trying to increase the representation out there for alternative Black girls in a time when it was quite rare to see us. I wanted to be the change I wanted to see and needed growing up. It turned out that I'd carry that same ethos into my activism in the future.
Some picture the modeling industry as being a space full of sexist objectification, with pervy photographers, seedy studio activities, and an unhealthy culture. That can sometimes be the case, but that hasn't really been part of my experience. The complexity for me has little to do with my experiences actually navigating the industry itself. After all, that's influenced more by your physical appearance than your life story. Despite what people think often happens in the studio, the focus is on angles, lighting, and making sure the clothes look alright, rather than the lack of sexual attraction that I experience.
Of course, there were moments when it got a little awkward. When the male photographer asks me to look at the camera like it's my boyfriend, being asexual and aromantic meant that nothing immediately came to mind. I doubt I nailed it.
When I've been asked to participate in shoots that seem like they're more about them molding and selling my personal 'sexual allure' rather than creative expression or advertising products, I've had to turn them down. And I've always been acutely aware of the fact that being associated so heavily with an obscured, often stereotyped sexual orientation isn't going to win me many mainstream campaigns outside of Pride Month.
But that's not the contentious part. That part happens when the images taken in the studio make it to the outside world. That's when those intersections play a role.
Capturing an image means representing something. If that image contains someone who is part of a social group, it becomes representation for an entire demographic, whether you like it or not. Before I publicly came out as asexual, there was nothing particularly controversial about my image as a Black woman in 'racy' clothing. It's not exactly an uncommon way that Black women are depicted in the media, so despite modeling in various styles, I became most known for ‘sexualized’ images and the reception I got was pretty positive.
But when I publicly came out as someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction, I became an example of asexual representation, and that's when the problems started. After all, I wasn't the 'right kind' of asexual representation.
There is a certain 'look' associated with asexuality. Something between The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper and someone more...homely and frumpy. If you're not sexually attracted to anyone, you're expected to make yourself sexually unattractive. You shouldn't allow yourself to be interesting to look at. Ideally, you should be white, and come across with an aura of childlike awkwardness that must come innately with being 'out of touch' with the expected forms of sexuality. A Black woman unapologetically dressed like a gothic half-naked Dead or Alive video game girl, talking a lot and throwing up devil horns wasn't what the average person expects when they hear the word ‘asexual.’
Those inside and outside of the asexual community collectively raised their eyebrows and part of me thinks that shared morbid curiosity contributed to me being recognized as an asexual activist quickly. I found myself in documentaries, being used in clickbait headlines about the ‘asexual lingerie model who doesn’t want sex,’ being invited to speak at universities, across online platforms, appearing in Pride campaigns for brands like Uber and even collaborating with Budweiser to open an asexual pop-up bar. Fortunately, I've always had more to bring to the table than shock value, but that hasn't always been acknowledged. The attention was partially on my perspective but mainly on my 'controversial' outfits.
The more people became aware of me and my modeling, the more I started receiving abuse from people on social media because of my job and appearance. I was being called a slut, a whore, a cock-tease, as well as a virgin loser simultaneously–on a strangely regular basis. I was a living, breathing sex toy and an anti-sex agenda all at the same time. If I had a penny every time someone described me as an attention-seeking narcissist, I'd have made more money than I ever earned at a photoshoot. And I know that me working in a shallow industry has as much to do with me being called an attention-seeking narcissist as the stereotypes often associated with asexual people does.
I’ve encountered people who assume that I must be the kind of asexual who thinks I'm too good for anybody; that no one meets my standards enough to be sexually attractive to me. It's a natural conclusion to jump to, considering that my asexuality hasn't rendered me a nervous wreck who hides myself away out of shame for not meeting societal expectations (though I would’ve been more acceptable if I had). It must be my life's mission to tempt and agitate men, while contributing to the sexual objectification of women, with my troublesome asexual tits...or something like that.
If these assumptions people make about me sound a little extreme, it’s because they are. It is the consequence of being caught between two contradicting narratives - the one where Black women are inherently hypersexual and must be sexually available, and the one where asexual people need to be sexless and unappealing with an aversion to anything associated with sexuality. As my asexuality makes me sexually unavailable to others, to them, my body and what I do with it is just a provocative lie. But I embrace the perplexity. I'm okay with being an oxymoron, as I know there are people out there who find my work empowering.
Maybe if I wasn't so perplexing, I wouldn't have found myself in a position where I'm able to show what being asexual actually is. It's a sexual orientation, not a lifestyle choice, not a personality flaw, not a limitation. You can be asexual and express yourself however you want to, be whoever you want to, wear whatever you want to, and fall into any demographic. Being a Black asexual model might make me less palatable, more scandalous, and more likely to attract racist, sexist, and acephobic abuse. But as long as I get to keep being myself, I'm past caring.
Featured image courtesy of Yasmin Benoit