Char Ellesse, Nyome Nicholas-Williams, and Enam Asiama are transformed into resplendent statues in a series that celebrates marginalised bodies
Bathed in warm fuchsia light, with similarly-hued flecks of glitter twinkling enticingly on their skin, Char Ellesse, Enam Asiama, and Nyome Nicholas-Williams stand on three plinths, arms stretched upwards towards the sky. Defiant and powerful in their nudity, the photograph transforms the three into resplendent statues – modern-day iterations of the carved effigies that line hushed museum halls the world over.
As part of Exhibit, a new series conceptualised by creative director David Evans and captured by Timo Kerber, further images close in on each of the models in turn, celebrating not just the soft, radiant beauty of the folds and creases of their bodies, but their resilience, determination, and grit.
All three have found themselves at the mercy of Instagram censorship, with posts that depict them in the same manner as ‘straight-sized’ models shadowbanned, or, more drastically, removed by the platform altogether. This editorial, then, is a retaliation to that – as well as a rallying cry to those with the power to do so to incite change within Instagram’s ranks.
“The unfair censoring on social media platforms is not only alienating people from the real world, it’s causing marginalised groups to be even less visible than ever before,” says Evans. “Images of queer, Black, and plus size bodies are not ‘sexually suggestive’, but with recent changes to social media guidelines, most of these bodies are disappearing for this reason. They are being unfairly censored, yet the visibility of hate is still clear as day.”
Nicholas-Williams knows this struggle particularly well. In August 2020, Instagram took down an intimate portrait of model in which she sits topless on a stool, arms folded over her chest. It was the kind of image you see slim white influencers with Eurocentric features post every day without issue, and in no way sexually suggestive. On the contrary, Nicholas-Williams is poised, fixing the photographer Alex Cameron’s camera with a penetrative stare – the result a simultaneously soft and powerful shot imbued with a great sense of intimacy.
Instead of taking the move lying down, Nicholas-Williams, Cameron, and writer and Polyester editor Gina Martin embarked on a hashtag campaign, #IwanttoseeNyome, that subsequently went viral. “Because of that, I was able to speak to the CEO of Instagram and influence a change of policy on semi-nudity on the platform,” she explains.
The fight goes on however, given marginalised people whose bodies don’t fit neatly into accepted ideals are still being targeted and censored by Instagram and countless other apps. “Marginalised bodies are here to stay, and we’re not going anywhere” Nicholas-Williams adds. “We are busting down doors, creating our own tables, and bringing the seats with us.”
As Exhibit gets its debut today on Dazed, its trio of models discuss their relationships with their bodies, the power and powerlessness of harnessing social media, and how they’re pushing back against its archaic and grossly unfair censorship.
CHAR ELLESSE (SHE/HER), 28, LONDON
“My relationship with my body has been a battle since I was 12, when I started suffering from body dysmorphia. I’ve since done a lot of work on myself, but as clichéd as it sounds, it’s a journey, not a destination, and I think settling on that concept has allowed me to cultivate a far better relationship with my body. It would be a lie to say I don’t still struggle a lot of the time, though – but being queer and ‘out’ and being in a gorgeous, healthy relationship with my girlfriend has really helped.
This photoshoot was the first time I had been naked on set, and in all honesty it felt liberating. I feel like, when it comes to my body, as much as I struggle in day to day life, if I’m shooting for something I see it through the eyes of others and I’m able to look at myself as art. Being around the other girls on set was just gorgeous, and the energy from the rest of the team was so warm and empowering. Just to know that we were all there to create something so magical, and to be the representation I wish I’d seen more of growing up, was indescribable. There’s power, radiance, defiance, hope, and beauty in the series.
Social media has helped me find and form my identity, and I’ve met so many of my close friends through Instagram. Having a sense of community, and being able to experiment with how I present myself to the world has been a blessing. Just being able to see how different types of people there are out there and hearing their stories and experiences of self-acceptance has played a huge part in finding myself, my voice, and my community. Instagram was an instigator (in my journey to becoming) unapologetic, having this space on the internet to curate my ideas and opinions has broken down a lot of walls of fear and judgement – I can exist as I want, when I want.
“Being around the other girls on set was just gorgeous, and the energy from the rest of the team was so warm and empowering. Just to know that we were all there to create something so magical, and to be the representation I wish I’d seen more of growing up, was indescribable” – Char Ellesse
The first time I was censored on social media was probably when I first started speaking out about things I cared about. I first started using Instagram as an outfit diary, to see a development of my personal style, and that’s how I first built up a profile. But when I started using it to express my opinions of social politics through my captions, that’s when engagement dropped – it was the first time I felt a shift in my profile not being as visible. This was maybe four or five years back, when not so many people who weren’t actual educators were speaking on things. I was just someone with a big mouth and opinions, so I just continued speaking on things that mattered to me.
To be honest, it wasn’t until BLM 2020 that I was appreciated for being unapologetic in speaking on them, but there needs to be a consistency in continuation. Black people are not a trend. Queers don’t only exist during Pride month. There needs to be constant conversation, online and in real life, around things that require change, otherwise they’ll go stagnant. Nothing changes if nothing changes, but we keep going back to blissful ignorance.”
NYOME NICHOLAS-WILLIAMS (SHE/HER), 29, LONDON
“My relationship with my body has been a complicated one as I had an eating disorder towards the end of my teens and into my early 20s. I would associate my height and my weight, and thought they were mutually exclusive – I had a very warped, skewed view of my body. I’m in a much better place now, after years of self-work and exploration into why I viewed my body in such a non-helpful way.
I celebrate my identity every day in the way I dress, and social media is the tool that allows me to share that. I have very supportive and loyal followers, which is important as I have Dominican and Jamaican heritage, which both have a strong community spirit. They’re also very diverse, which inspires me to keep fighting for body equality and for people to be accepted and share their are on the platform in any way they choose – without fear of retribution on platforms that are supposed to be for everybody.
“Marginalised bodies are here to stay: we’re not going anywhere. We are busting down doors, creating our own tables, and bringing the seats” – Nyome Nicholas-Williams
I myself was censored by Instagram back in August 2020. I did a creative shoot with the talented photographer Alex Cameron in which I was semi-nude. I posted a picture from the shoot which was taken down by Instagram. Gina Martin (writer and Polyester editor), Alex, and I campaigned against it with the hashtag #IwanttoseeNyome; it went viral and because of that, I was able to speak to the CEO of Instagram and influence the change of policy on semi-nudity on Instagram.
This shoot was about making noise and celebrating fat, Black, marginalised bodies in all of our glory, and photographing that in a way that’s not been done before. The mood on the set was 10/10 – I was comfortable, the vibe was great, and it’s always amazing to be around such talented creatives. Taking the photos I felt very powerful, liberated, and fucking strong! I felt like I was standing in my power like I do every day. I always aim to be on my highest level of frequency. I was channelling the power of my mighty ancestors. Marginalised bodies are here to stay: we’re not going anywhere. We are busting down doors, creating our own tables, and bringing the seats.”
ENAM ASIAMA (SHE/HER), 20, LONDON
“The relationship I have with my body is definitely deep-rooted in confidence. As I’ve grown up, I’ve been able to recognise both my good and bad qualities, and have the courage to show up unapologetically as myself time and time again. Whenever anyone – from my parents, to my friends, to total strangers – had anything to say about my appearance because of what society told them, I still always chose to come as I am, wear what I want, feel how I feel, and take up as much space as I wanted to.
As I’ve grown into my adult body, I’ve looked back at some of the things that have been said and processed them, and I’ve been able to heal from them – a lot of what was said was by people around me who never did the work to understand their body, and they projected on me. But it’s good to be around people who are able to be honest with you, and I’ve been vigilant about how positively I talk about myself. I’m always working on my relationship with my body, whether through self care, or challenging myself in different ways either physically or mentally. I do the work and show up for myself when my body’s not feeling okay.
I use social media to celebrate my body a lot, which can be a bad thing. I rely on it to show the happy moments between me and my body, when I feel very empowered or sexy, but on the other hand, also the sad moments when I’m not doing so well – it means that it’s often just the surface level of things, and people don’t get to see the process or thoughts behind what’s going on there. I’ve also picked up new creative skills – from illustration to video and photo editing – which has helped me refine my aesthetic in a way that isn’t unrealistic or fake.
“What social media, or as we know, Instagram specifically is saying to us is that you’re fat, and you have a body that not everyone wants to see. We don’t want you creating any disruptions, so we’re going to perpetuate the violence that you’re feeling by taking your photo down completely” – Enam Asiama
My Instagram community is so important to me. I’ve created a space on social media where my community is able to hold me accountable in anything that I’m doing, particularly when it pertains to my body and how I feel about myself. It’s brought me great strength, and has enhanced the way I see myself – a lot of fat people have a slight disconnect from society because we’ve always been shunned and othered in so many ways. But I’ve been able to teach others and learn from others and figure out my identity, and I’m inspired every day by all the individuals I’ve met on there.
The first time I was censored on Instagram was a long time ago. There have been so many instances where I’ve created work that has been shadow banned or taken down, the commonality between those moments being times when I was revealing parts of my body – not my entire body, but parts of my body that aren’t conventionally seen as ‘desirable’.
What social media, or as we know, Instagram specifically is saying to us is that, you know, you’re fat, and you have a body that not everyone wants to see. We don’t want you creating any disruptions, so we’re going to perpetuate the violence that you’re feeling by taking your photo down completely. It’s sad, because as fat people, and queer people, and Black people, we already see people silencing our voices, or pushing us to the back and telling us not to take up so much room. It’s caused a lot of harm and trauma to people that look like me, and it’s just messed up because in the same breath, when you go onto someone who’s straight-sized, they’re able to sell the same sexy image you took as a campaign or just an everyday selfie, and nothing gets taken down.
“I loved the pink hue of the shoot. It’s such a glorious colour, and looked even more radiant on all of us. It spoke to how vibrant, full of life, and colourful each of us is as an individual” – Enam Asiama
When it comes to how we push back against that, I will always say that allyship is one of the best ways to do it. If people in our society who are able – and generally that’s white, cis, het folks who have gotten ahead in the game through privieleges that have put them in a position to dictate stuff – speak out against things that are happening to people who are part of minority or marginalised groups, that would be a start. We’re in 2021! Write to your MP, your local government, rally against social media when things like this happen using your own platform. There is so much that can be done to campaign and fight with us and for us.
The shoot itself was really incredible. I always have an incredible time working with David, Timo, Teresa, and Tolu. The mood on set was just full of love and light, and I just felt very safe. It was something that had a lot of thought put into it, and it was ethical, too – even the glitter we used was vegan-based and biodegradable, which was good because we were literally covered in it from head-to-toe and all the cracks in-between. I loved the pink, too. It’s such a glorious colour, and looked even more radiant on all of us. It spoke to how vibrant, full of life, and colourful each of us is as an individual. And it’s always great to work with people that have similar stories to yours and who come from similar backgrounds. I adore Char and Naomi, so it was a case of these are my favourite people, and I get to work with them, and we get to stand there and represent for everyone who looks like us or shares our stories. The energy was fierce.”
Further credits: MUA Theresa Davies, Nails Edyta Betka, Hair Lu’s Curls, Set Design Jade Adeyemi, Assistants Zelie Lockhart, Nic Marilyn, Keia Tamsin Morrison