Heart of Gold
Heart of Gold: Lily Donnell on race, body, image, and self confidence
November 20, 2020
The beautiful Lily Donnell is Chapter Six’s first model. We photographed her on a sunny day in Malibu, resulting in the gorgeous shots we use for our website. In this interview we discuss race, body image, self- confidence, and growing up on the Westside of Los Angeles. We all believe that the first step towards making any type of impactful change is loving yourself.
When did you become aware of your race? Was there a defining moment?
Although I was conscious of my skin color and knew I was different than the majority of the people I was around, up until elementary school I didn’t really have an awareness. Race really didn’t register, as you are in your own world as a kid, and I hadn’t yet learned judgments or preconceived notions.
At a certain point this consciousness of self started evolving, and I started to become aware that I was one of the only kids of color in my class. Then it was recognizing that girls with the most friends, the ones everyone liked, didn't look like me. Most of the people at the school didn’t look like me. I would say it was a slow process of recognition and by the end of elementary school I had developed a chip on my shoulder about it.
I was about to ask Lily what was the meanest thing that anyone has ever said to her regarding her appearance. But before I could pose my question, she already had her answer. As women, we all have those comments that stick with us, and degrade us, which is a good reminder to our readers that words are very powerful.
I was about eight, at school, and I walked into the bathroom wearing a skirt and a girl looked at me and asked, “why do your knees look like that, why are they so dark, why are they so ashy?” It set off this trigger in my head of like “yeah, why are they like that?” “Why are my knees different from everyone else's?”
After that interaction I developed the worst insecurity about my knees. I wouldn’t wear any clothing that showed my knees until I was around 15 or 16, where I tried it out for a bit, and then went back to covering them because I realized I was still too insecure. I also had many moments filled with these intense feelings of “I don't look like my peers, I’m ugly, I hate how I look, I hate my hair, I want to look like everyone else.” All of this culminated in me feeling different, not pretty.
How have you transcended and worked on your insecurities?
I left the toxic environment - high school is so intense - you're with the same people every day all day and I made the choice to leave LA. When I moved, I realized other cultures, places and people do not necessarily place as much value on looks. And I felt that I could cultivate other things about myself that were more important to me than how I looked.
Self-hatred and anxiety had a huge part in me drinking more than I should have. Drinking would let that melt away and I would kind of like myself, and I would feel more confident and more beautiful. I felt like I was spiraling out of control. I decided okay, you have a choice to either follow this path and mess things up for your life, or find something inside of yourself that makes you feel whole.
It felt like a life or death choice. There was an inner resilience, and I knew I wanted to deal with this now and not when I was 50. When I made that decision to give up alcohol, every decision from there on was a decision of self-love, because every day was a decision not to hurt myself. Slowly I built more self-confidence because I was choosing to love myself, which at the time felt radical.
Everything that caused me to get to this dark place fell apart when I made my own decision; it was either give up or move on. Choosing to love myself, I grew to love so many things about me. I found I didn’t need other peoples validation, or meet other peoples standards. I like my skin, I like my hair, and what other people had said were lies.
On being gaslighted and not having the space for the important conversations:
The Ferguson Protests in 2014 really affected me but I didn't know how to have conversations with some of my white peers. These things that were at play had affected me my whole life, but I didn't have the vocab to express it. I feel like when we were growing up the climate was, ‘racism is over,’ so no one was talking about race.
I feel something would happen because of the color of my skin and people would be like no, racism doesn’t exist anymore. It resulted in me feeling delusional and paranoid. There was no validation over my experience. Then, when I did speak up, I was the mood killer, I was the angry black girl.
There were painful conversations about the n-word, and feeling a deep sadness because no one was understanding. It was this defeated sadness of why can’t they hear that I'm in pain and that understanding alone would be enough for them not to use the word. People thought I was being “uptight.” When I found the strength and vocab to defend my beliefs, it fell on deaf ears, and that hurt me, and then I had to shove it away.
I remember being so sad, coming to my peers with the most vulnerable part of me with my fears - and the door was just being shoved in my face. Every conversation, my heart was breaking. My head would question, “Do they not realize that this directly affects my life, and I am someone they love, these are real things that I experience?”
There’s always a worry about my dad and that something could happen to him. I resigned myself to thinking that things were never going to change. So, right now it does feel like finally people want to commit to authentically listening - though I still have fears .
What was it like growing up in LA? And not being part of the “in-group,” i.e., the idolized girl, white, thin, blonde?
The idolized image we grew up with was the more rail thin the better. I wasn’t thin, and I matured and went through puberty much faster than all the girls around me. My school's culture had a very specific eating pattern: for me lunch was often salad or a small smoothie. So, I would strategize how I could lose weight by going to school and not eating lunch, but instead, getting iced coffee.
Yet, I never got to the point where I was skinny enough for anyone to be concerned. Even though I was eating restrictively, I was still much bigger than them, so it didn't show up. I would skip dinner, weigh myself constantly, and stand in front of the mirror, never satisfied because I was never going to look like the skinniest girl.
Other than looks, there was also the neo “liberal,” creative, artistic culture of the Westside that affected me psychologically. Every boy in high school was into rap and were obsessed with being in these rap collectives. They loved black culture and black art but I felt excluded from that and it felt somehow like they were gatekeeping those things. I have a distinct memory at a party with all these white rich kids, and “New Slaves” by Kanye West was blasting and everyone was screaming the n-word but no one would look at me or talk to me or even seemed to process how it might make someone like me feel. It felt so off. I remember questioning, “what the hell is going on?” It was this series of very isolating experiences.
What has your experience been modeling so far?
If one little girl benefits from seeing just one model that looks like her, that’s a win. Then black girls see themselves as someone worthy of being shown. But I worry because brands are using black models' image to sell as a way to cash in on trends and to appear woke and with it - it’s hard. Although there is still so much more to be done, it would have made my younger self feel so much better to see someone that looked like me being represented. Growing up, the standard of beauty in media was white and European. So even though I was mixed, I believed I must be the opposite of the standard of beauty - I spent years to try to attain something that was never going to be attained and that now I don’t even want to attain.
I think something important to consider is that black is not just an image - how do we work with brands to elevate our positions of power? In representation of ads, it feels very surface level and brands are getting exposed for that, especially with numbers with people of color on their board - on their staff - it doesn't match up.
I guess you could say I’m suspicious, and my question is where is the TRUE INVESTMENT IN US, “the black community,” but right now we see brands being called out and forced to walk the walk in order to talk the talk.
When do you feel the most beautiful?
I like to make a ritual out of beauty. I put on a playlist, and I’ll decide today I want to be a bad bitch and be really sensual and listen to some jazz. The end result will be a 60s cat eye and me feeling mysterious. I like to follow my own sense of what makes me happy aesthetically, even if it's not what other people like. Every day I go further and further with my image, and fight with this lifelong brainwashing.
What we wear and what we adorn ourselves with has the power to bring us confidence. So, DO WHAT YOU LIKE - WEAR JEWELRY, DO YOUR MAKEUP CRAZY. I think that this practice is just as valid as internal spiritual practices. Cultivating how you look reflects how you feel, expressing yourself in dress and style and makeup. Physical things make me feel confident and that does not make me feel shallow; we are in physical bodies and that's our experience. So, to summarize, I feel confident presenting myself in a way that I like to be seen and that feels good to me.
What are some solutions you’ve agreed with for building a more inclusive world?
1. A GENUINE COMMITMENT TO KINDNESS: Culture shifts in schools. When it’s not cool to be mean, then you get to a place where people feel comfortable with being themselves. I was rarely comfortable enough to voice my concerns.. If someone had genuinely tried to listen to me when I was younger, or be conscious of their behavior, I would have been so unbelievably grateful.
2. LET GO OF OUR EGO: People are scared to make a mistake. Today’s “cancel culture” has gotten out of control. People can make mistakes. We all have to commit to learning, which means we are facing our fears: fears of being critiqued, fears of having the uncomfortable conversations
If there is even one kid that is having an easier time because this discussion is on the table, then I believe that there is good actual change happening. If I had said one thing I was saying today, back in the day, I would have been laughed at.
Do you have any suggestions for me on how I can be more inclusive of race moving forward? How can brands be catalysts for change? And models?
Companies can’t rely on just hiring black models alone. That image profits off people of color, so brands need to be doing the work behind the scenes. You can’t just throw one black person in there, instead we need a huge emphasis on actual representation. So, I believe advertising needs to include all shades and not just lighter skinned people of color. COLORISM is real, it’s a type of diversity that is aligning itself with whiteness, and comfortable with white consumption, and it’s still exclusive to darker skinned people. We also have to draw the line between celebrating someone's beauty without fetishizing it.
Secondly, jobs need to be offered to women of color; people doing the behind-the-scenes need to be diverse as well. It's so messy and confusing. How do you build diversity without furthering white privilege? Capitalism and furthering money - most brands just care about making money. People authentically committing to caring and not just being committed to making money and also supporting black owned brands is sooooo important and a direct way to give back to communities of color!