Nyakim Gatwech is the queen of dark.
The Minnesota-based model has gained a lot of online attention after Yahoo News wrote about her unpleasant conversation with an Uber driver. The model-activist has been very vocal about loving her skin and who she is. She is not afraid to share her story and thanks to that she has appeared in local magazine covers to national campaigns. Getting to this point has been a journey for Nyakim to say the least and she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
Q: How did you cope and deal with the negativity and ignorance from haters back when you were in middle and high school?
When I was in middle school, I didn’t know how to cope with the negative comments I received daily. Back then, the way I dealt with the negative comments was either locking myself in my room and crying or trying to fight the people that said mean things about me. I knew it wasn’t solving anything. Locking myself in my room was causing me to become depressed and fighting back was getting me suspended from school. My problems weren’t being solved, so I told my sister, “kids are making fun of me because of my complexion. What do I do? I wanna bleach [my skin] and all this stuff.” She told me that [skin bleaching] wasn’t the way to go about it.
She was the shoulder I cried on. We talked a lot. She would give me such great advice and remind me constantly how I am so beautiful and there is nothing wrong with being different. They [the bullying kids] aren’t used to seeing someone that looked like me. They were scared of seeing [someone] different, seeing something new. In high school, I just didn’t care [anymore]. I love myself. I didn’t care what people had to say. I was just like, “you need help if you’re going to talk down to me like that - something is bothering you. You just need a friend, or a hug or something.” In middle school I didn’t know how to cope with the negative comments as much as I did in high school. I grew to learn to love myself.
Q: How do you deal with them now?
Now, I am not bothered by it [the negativity]. I accept my skin, I love myself, I’m not insecure about my skin anymore. I don’t think I’m ugly anymore. I have confidence in myself. It doesn’t bother me as much because I am okay with who I am. Sometimes in the morning I remind myself, “out this door, there are going to be negative people looking at you sideways, people are going to say negative stuff to you, [but] it doesn’t matter because you are beautiful inside and out and the people that see it will be more.”
If you are so affected by the mean stuff people say about you, the negative comments people write about you then you attract negative people. But if you are positive and confident, then you attract the positive people. If you walk with pride, confidence and love yourself then you are going to attract people who come up to you and say, “oh, you’re beautiful!” I have become a strong woman where I can stand up to anyone that says something to me and educate them. [I can tell them] the reason I look like this is because I come from this part of the world. There are so many beautiful human beings around the world, you never get to see all of them. We all look different. We are all different shapes, different sizes and its okay! We shouldn’t be scared of different.
Q: Its one thing to deal with haters, but when you encounter Models, Designers or Makeup Artists, people who are supposed to be your peers, how do you push through?
That is the hardest thing, when its your workplace. With my fellow models, peers and friends, I wouldn’t say anything. Sometime I would go to casting calls and I’ll be sitting next to a group of girls and some of them would be nice and say things like, “oh, hi! Where are you from?” While some [models] would look at me like you’re not a model, you shouldn’t be a model (for whatever reason). I deal with this by not letting myself be bothered or brought down by it. There’s a bigger picture. At first, I was doing it to just prove a point that I’m beautiful too. Now, I’m past that point, I am not just proving a point anymore. I’m standing up for all those little girls that were like me at one point, that are being bullied right now, that are going through the things that I went through.
You can do anything you put your mind to, right now I am doing this for them, for my younger self. For Makeup Artists and photographers, I feel like it has gotten better for me right now. When I shot with photographers in the past, I would do a photoshoot and its dope, and the photographer would edit it and send me the pictures and they are so light. Its gotten better, I would talk to them [photographers] and be like “hey, I’m not trying to be rude, I know this is your job, [this is] something you’re good at, but I feel like this is just too light, its not my complexion, do you think you can tone it down the lightening?” And some of them [photographers] would be like “okay, thank you for letting me know that.” And they would fix it. For the Makeup Artists, when I’m getting my makeup done, either they would put a foundation two shades lighter because they didn’t have my foundation shade and my face would look different from my neck or they would say “Oh you don’t need a foundation” because they just don’t have my foundation. I just started to always carry my foundation with me. Instead of being hurt by it, [thinking] “oh now I can’t do this photoshoot. My makeup don’t look right. I don’t want to offend the photographer”. I am nice about it and say, “hey I have this foundation that I think is dark enough”. I just have a solution or try to talk in a very kind way, before I just didn’t say anything and go home and cry about it. “I had the worst photoshoot or fashion show”, “I looked so bad on the runway” but now I speak up.
Q: What do you do to practice self love?
I look in the mirror every day and remind myself that I am beautiful, I am different, I am strong and I am confident. I talk about it [self love] on my Instagram and Twitter. I love to do makeup. I get my nails done. I treat myself, because, in the past, I didn’t.
Q: During MNFW you mentioned not only black girls, but girls of all shades and sizes reach out to you. Why do you think they feel encouraged by you to do so?
I feel like it’s because I tell my story. I am easy to be connected to. I was willing enough to tell my story about how I got bullied because of my skin color and how I was told I shouldn’t be a model. The fact that I was able to open up and tell my story, that is what made it easier for little girls and other models to reach out to me and be like, ‘hey this is what I’m struggling with, what can I do?’ If I can, I would give them advice. With my story, I was just being myself. I did not plan to write the Uber story. I don’t even know how that came up! Honesty! I was just posting [as usual]! Every time I post a picture on Instagram, I write something motivating.
For the Uber story, I was looking at our skin color, because it’s the first thing you see when you look at the picture. And I just wrote the story [in the caption] and Yahoo! saw it. I feel like the reason they are able to reach out to me is because I am myself. I check my Instagram messages all the time. If you want to send me a message or email, reach out. I will give you the best advice I can. I always put myself in their shoes.
Q: If you could say anything to that Uber driving from that one day, what would you say?
I feel like I would say the same thing to them as when I first had the conversation. Which was ‘I am sorry you feel that way and feel concerned but the state I am in right now I love myself and I am beautiful. I would never bleach my skin for anyone or any opportunity,” because I [apparently] would miss job opportunities for whatever reason. That’s what I told the uber driver. You have the right to feel that way, you have the right to your opinion, but I love myself right now. In the past, I did consider bleaching my skin, but right now I would never do it for that reason – or any reason at all. If he told me what he did while in middle school, I would have cried. I would have said “yeah, I wanna do that!” but today, I am confident in what am I, who I am and where I come from. If a guy doesn’t find me attractive because of my skin color, that’s his problem. If I don’t find a job, that’s their loss.
Q: What are your thoughts on Instagram and its impact on girls’ self esteem?
Instagram is a good network and social media platform, but I also feel like it can tear you down as a person. There are so many “how you’re supposed to look” pages out there. So many people you follow are living lives that are so perfect, but you don’t see the stuff they go through daily on Instagram. Never trust what you see on the screen completely. That’s not always the truth. [However], at the same time, it is a good platform to make something out of your life. You can reach out to big brands through Instagram. Its good and its bad.
I feel like there should be an age limit too. My little cousin, she is 10 years old and has an Instagram. She said, “Auntie, I am following you.” I said, “where?” “Oh, I see you on Instagram!” “Through whose account?” “I just created an account [on my own].” I’m like, “no, no, no”. There are so many bad things on there. It can tear you down, it can build you up, you've got to be a strong person to not let what you see on a phone or laptop screen tell you who you are as a person or make you think twice about the life you have.
Q: Lastly, do you have any words of advice for girls struggling with self confidence and self esteem?
My advice is to build self confidence, feel confident in who you are and love yourself. There are so many people who love you and want to be your friend. If you are having self-confidence issues you are not going to see the people who love you, you are going to focus on the negative people. So my advice is to just talk to the people who love you. Talk to your friends, if you are being bullied talk to someone. Talk to family. Work on loving yourself and know that at the end of the day it comes down to you. If you don’t love yourself, no one else will. But as a little girl, how do you work on that? How do you work on your self confidence? I didn’t know how to. I cried a lot and locked myself in my room.
So I’m not expecting you to be able to do this right away. Confidence takes time. It takes time to build yourself when you’re at that stage. Just know there are more people that love you than hate you.
This interview was done and the photoshoot was styled by Debbie Aderinkomi.
The Photography - Aidan Petrilla
The Styling Assistant - Cooper Felipe
Apparel provided by: Scout & Molly's Edina | Shop Hazel and Rose MPLS
Accessories provided by: The White Room MPLS | Gold Fine Jewelry
Sunglasses provided by: InVision Distinctive Eyewear
The Makeup Artistry
Nyakim Gatwech's makeup for this photo shoot was done by WarPaint International Founder, Jessica Mae, whom is also the founder of Artisans Unite - a non-profit that focuses on inner-beauty and self-confidence.
Many thanks to Nyakim Gatwech for doing this interview and photoshoot, and allowing us the time to get really well spoken answers to serious questions in the beauty, social media, and other sectors of "real life".