Seeing ourselves represented on the screen is a rare relief. It makes you feel seen, makes you feel validated, and despite representation slowly being weaponized for commercial gain, Shukriya Mohamed believes representation helps us feel empowered enough to get out of bed and get out there.
Born and raised in Abu Dhabi, the young Somali model says she didn’t see herself in the people around her growing up. “There was a very specific type of shame that I dealt with being black. I was surrounded by Arabs and I wanted to blend in and fit in,” she says.
Now, Shukriya says “I appreciate my blackness and my body so much.”
She exudes a contagious positivity and charm, and is proud of having worked her way up to becoming a beloved creative and model emerging from the UAE.
Her work both behind the camera as a production assistant and in front of the camera as a model has given her a 360 perspective on just how the industry works and what we can do better to help people feel more seen.
“I was once taken away from the production side and put in the cast, then I had to switch back to my production role with my wig still on. It wasn’t pretty because I had been hauling ass since 4 am,” she remembers.
Shukriya landed her first modeling gig at the height of the body positivity movement, which she now looks back on as an absolute disaster. “They wanted to do something because the rest of the world was doing things. I got paid dirt cheap. The stylist wasn’t prepared. They didn’t have makeup for my skin color so they ended up caking contour on my face,” she says. “I was a beginner so I didn’t know how to speak up either.”
While many brands boast that they are the face of inclusivity, they are nowhere near prepared for it. To deal with these challenges, Shukriya created a list of questions she asks before every shoot and refuses to give in to the exploitation that many models and creatives face within the industry.
“The thing is you give them your sizes but they come through with smaller sizes, and now it doesn’t fit and you’re standing there with your belly hanging out the zipper and you’re embarrassed.”
“In shoots, you feel othered. Because they’re like ‘oh the plus-size person, the plus-size model.’ You get separated from the rest of the cast. It’s very strange and alienating.”
Pursuing this congruence requires a deep commitment to educating ourselves. While cancel culture phases out the brands getting it wrong, there is still hope as many are integrating inclusivity into their business model when building from the ground up.
“The only shoot that I have been to where the clothes fit me was my friend’s shoot, because he made the first batch of clothing in my measurements to mimic plus size and worked from there, which was great.”
While representation plays an essential role in a society hurt by capitalistic and patriarchal ideals, there’s the fear that it can end up being further manipulated. “I just want to see someone like me wearing normal clothes that don’t say ‘breaking body norms’ or ‘breaking stereotypes.’ It has gotten pushed to a point where it’s not negative, but now people are like ‘wow, they’re here!’”
This version of the body positivity movement is highly commercialized, with a focus on the fact that diverse models and creatives have made it into the room while failing to remember and recognize why they are there to begin with. “We’re doing our jobs, we’re doing what we love, it should be normalized,” says Shukriya.
Despite the mostly positive feedback that she receives for her work from the community around her, she has also observed the false glorification that comes with it. “There are times when people comment on my posts or stories saying ‘I love how confident you are,’ and I’m just like babe…it’s a selfie. It’s a picture,” she says, pointing out the double-edged sword.
“These comments are usually from people who aren’t like me, who don’t exactly look like me. When you hear the word confident, it’s a good word, but when you attach it to something normal, it’s like why wouldn’t I be? If I looked different would you have replied with this?”
Culturally, modeling is still not always openly accepted in the region. Some of her family members, including her parents, are still unaware that she is a model. “They pretend like they don’t see it. It’s very taboo in Somali culture. For them, it’s the scandalous stuff. But I’m always like there are levels to this. If my mom ever asks me, I’ll admit it, because I do it tastefully.”
As a proud Somali woman, Shukriya loves her culture but admits she is also waiting for the storm to come. “I’ve learned that I am a lot braver than I thought I was because every time I’m in front of a camera modeling, I’m risking hellfire from Somalis,” she says.
“There are rappers and trappers, but as soon as there is a girl doing something a bit out of the box, they implode.”
Change comes with time, and she has accepted it for what it is. “I think it is a lot of pressure to put on someone to educate the masses. It’s just a battle that cannot be won. They have been in that mindset their whole lives.”
Despite these struggles, she is excited to keep working and building her portfolio. Post COVID-19, she also plans to get into acting, which is a long-time dream of hers.
“I hope to one day be in a feature film. I just know I have to do it and I want to do it.”
Follow Shukriya on social media: brokeindubay
Photo credit: Franceso Scotti