To model in Sports Illustrated’s famous swim issue is to be objectified. Readers indulge in the fantasy of wanting the women or wanting to be them—and part of that allure comes from being able to project onto photos that don’t talk back. Ebonee Davis, however, is not here to be a silent siren.
Officially named one of SI’s 2018 rookies, Davis joins the ranks of former rookies like Tyra Banks, Chrissy Teigen, and Gigi Hadid. The 25-year-old Seattle native was previously a part of the magazine’s model search in 2016. Back then, she wore her hair with the same style that’s dominated the issue for decades: long with loose beach waves. Now, she proudly wears her hair natural.
Since making the decision to stop chemically relaxing her hair in 2016, along with being more outspoken about racism in the fashion industry and beyond, Davis has booked countless big campaigns from Calvin Klein, to Gap, and MAC. She firmly attributes this to feeling more confident with what she calls her “authentic” self. Here, in her own words, Davis tells ELLE.com more about her hair journey, why her nude shoot with SI was meaningful, and how she feels modelling is changing for the better.
I really feel like I’ve come full circle in my career from where I started: Being in the model search competition in 2016, not making it in the magazine in 2017, then being welcomed back as an SI rookie this year. It means a lot to me—especially coming back to my authentic self. My real self. The real Ebonee.
In 2016, I was very much conforming to industry standards and pressures. In 2017, I really stepped back and reevaluated everything. I decided that I wanted to be true to myself. [Being named a rookie] is the last thing I expected after changing my appearance because for so many years I was told by clients in bookings that to have the career I wanted, I should look a certain way.
I went natural right after the model competition search at the beginning of 2016, and before that, I was getting relaxers and wearing weaves and extensions as I began modelling. I was getting relaxers ever since I was a kid. There was a point when I had to chop my hair off because I did a fashion show and they straightened it again from its curly state. It just ruined my hair completely and I had to go completely short.
On social media, I get a lot of people who reach out to me and they’re very thankful. It’s usually black girls who are going through the same thing. It’s not something that just happens in the modelling industry. In every industry, so many work places, and at school we’re told how we are naturally isn’t good enough. I do get a lot of thanks from a lot of people who say they’re inspired by what I have to say and it makes the whole journey worth it—the good and the bad.
I think people have become more aware and I think models are not as afraid to speak up anymore. We’re not as afraid of the consequences. I also think people in the industry are becoming more open-minded and recognizing the need for representation and diversity. I hope it continues to progress and evolve. I see a lot more models with natural hair being signed which is cool. That makes me feel happy.
I think sisterhood [among black models] in the industry is super important. We are pitted against each other because of tokenism and it creates competition amongst the black models in the industry. So, for us to band together and really stick with one another is a pushback against that form of oppression.
Models are being more outspoken. Brands are getting behind the models, too. I feel like more brands are reaching out to models with a voice and people who have something to say. That’s definitely a cool change. [The companies are] ultimately the ones with the power to create messages and put the words out there that they want to influence society.
For the Sports Illustrated nude shoot I did pick the words myself. They were words that I feel represent who I am on the inside, everything that I stand for, and the message I want to give to the world. The most important of those words for me is “love.” It’s because of love that I’m here. It’s because of love that I chose to be my real, authentic self. I see myself now as worthy just as I am. So if there’s one word that I could choose to say to the world it’d definitely be love. Self-love is so important.
AS TOLD TO KRISTINA RODULFO
This article originally appeared on elle.com