Adwoa Aboah at the Cambridge Union: Modelling and mental health
By Amelia Holloway
Adwoa Aboah rocketed to fame in 2017. In the space of one year she appeared on the cover of Vogue, was named GQ’s Woman of the Year, and was voted Model of the Year at The Fashion Awards.
Yet three years previously she had taken a break from modelling entirely, and in 2015, attempted suicide.
Her journey during this break drove her to discover life outside of modelling, and that is what she came to the Cambridge Union on Thursday, November 14 to discuss.
Since 2014, mental health activism has been as much a part of her career as modelling. Yet when asked whether the two worked well together, her reply was “No, not at all”.
Aboah was born into the modelling industry, but she felt it did not always welcome her.
A career revolving around frequent rejection based solely upon looks, it has never been synonymous with inclusivity.
As a mixed-race woman, Aboah said she often feels this all the more keenly. She was not alone in her experience.
Only recently, Elle Germany demonstrated their own ignorance.
The November 2019 issue featuring the article ‘Back to Black’ has been slammed for implying that black models are on trend, coming in and out of fashion just like the clothes that they wear.
The tagline appeared on a cover featuring a white model, and the article itself went on to misidentify Naomi Chin Wing as Janaye Furman.
It was a catalogue of errors only adding to those characterising the rest of the fashion industry as of late.
From Gucci’s blackface-resembling polo-neck released in Black History Month, to Burberry’s hoodie with strings tied like a noose, it is insensitivity’s ‘it’ moment.
Such incidents are perhaps indicative of the industries tokenistic attitude to diversity.
For Aboah, this includes the imposition of quotas, and the toxic atmosphere they can foster.
She partly attributes the success of her own career to such quotas, however goes on to explain that: “I don’t know that feeling that you’re part of a quota makes you feel like you’re welcome,” as it left her questioning “am I there because there would be so much backlash if I wasn’t?”.
Discussing her experiences behind the catwalk, it is clear why, for her, this is a burning question.
Aboah’s now signature shaven head in part stemmed from her experience backstage.
Left sitting in make-up chair after make-up chair, as professional beauticians failed do their job simply because of the thickness of her hair, it was hard for her to feel anything other than an imposter.
She felt exhausted. Shaving her head was a reclamation: “one of the first moves I made in actually doing something for myself, and not just doing it because I felt it would make it easier for me to fit in.”
Her team advised her against it, but she loves it.
She spoke about how it not only removed any complication from her morning routine, but lifted a burden of anxiety present since teasing in the school playground, and enables her to feel more comfortable in her own skin, regardless of career concerns.
Gurls Talk, an online community ‘safe space’ for female discussion, also came from ignoring the doubts of those around her.
In 2014 the dip in her mental health, exacerbated by use of alcohol and drugs, meant that Aboah reached rock bottom.
With the support of her parents, medication, and a lot of therapy, she called time on modelling and got out of London.
She stressed that time on her own was crucial to gaining perspective, as it was then that she was able to put energy into something besides her career.
She realised the path she had been treading since childhood, the only path she knew, had been leading her in a direction determined by living up to external expectations.
From this realisation, Gurls Talk was born.
By unearthing the root of her unhappiness as being unable to speak freely about her emotions, she created a solution which “looks after me as much as I hope it looks after them”.
Aboah’s struggle with mental health inspired her activism, but it is a journey she is still on.
Speaking at the Union with the characteristic openness which rocketed Gurls Talk to success, she shared her recent struggle with trying to give up anti-depressants for the first time in five years, and the initial feelings of failure when she was unable to do so.
She has come a long way on her journey, and says: “I don’t catastrophise like I used to,” but it is a gradual process.
By being transparent about her own journey, she hopes others will be able to do the same; “I’ll give you part of me, and maybe that will make you feel more comfortable and able to share what’s going on in your life”.
It is a method which works, and even during her time at the Union, one girl’s question to Aboah included reference to her own struggles with mental health.
Aboah took Gurls Talk to Poland last year, where draconian abortion laws mean the topic is treated with stigma, yet this stigma was not brought into the safe space of Gurls Talk.
Here, women were able to share their own experiences with the panel.
At the Union, Aboah did the same. She spoke of her own abortion, and her fortune in being given the space to make her decision, when so many women she heard from were not.
Faced with discussing abortion with a group of women unable to exercise the freedom she herself had experienced, it would have been easy for her to write herself out of the conversation.
In an interview for The Guardian published this summer, Aboah confessed an anxiety towards engaging with discussions of academic issues, such as politics.
This is not the case for her ability to engage with the most emotionally sensitive of topics.
The current trend of ‘cancel culture’, where some people deny others the right to speak on issues such as race or gender, which they feel to be their own domain, has never gained traction in Gurls Talk.
Confronting her own identity as “a posh mixed-race girl” who went to private school, did not mean to Aboah that she could not empathise with others: “I knew that although I might not be able to relate to you, maybe I haven’t been through that, I do understand human emotion.”
She reminds us that fear of saying the wrong thing leads “to only a boring conversation... an awkward conversation where there is no emotion, or any understanding”.
Aboah professed her own occasional nerves with engaging with the topic of gender, worrying “what if I say the wrong thing, what if I use the wrong pronoun, what if I’m talking about grief - my parents are still here - and I say something insensitive.”
But she rationalises it: "Everything is quite uncomfortable, but I just choose personally to put that aside.”
This does not mean she sees herself as a one-woman show able to hear the issues of girls the world-over.
In fact, the extremely personal exercise of bringing Gurls Talk to Ghana was the one in which she stepped back the most.
She said she realised that “I know that Gurls Talk is needed all over the world, but that doesn’t mean that I am needed all over the world.”
Creating free events, providing a meal, and offering space to talk; it is a simple concept with a big impact.