Queen Esie is a fashion model, body hair activist, painter, and artist, known for her multimedia project Lavender Project. Lavender Project celebrates the authentic female body by addressing one of the biggest taboos in beauty, female body hair. The project is a series of self portrait photography with a dress that elegantly reveals natural hair on her chest. Queen Esie shares her journey from being ashamed of her body hair to becoming liberated and free through her project, as she now embraces, and celebrates her body hair.
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Q. When did you start being conscious of your hair? What was it growing up?
I remember that I had body hair around my last year of high school, when I was about 11 years old, when I wanted to wear this dress, I saw that I had body hair and I remember that moment. And I remember another moment when my friends saw my body hair, and they reacted really weirdly and negatively. They were in shock. So I guess, when I was 11 years old, that's when I knew that I was very hairy. I think when I started having my grown chest hair, it was mostly my mom and my aunt who knew about it. I don't think a lot of people knew. I think my siblings didn't know for a long time. None of my friends knew about my chest hair. I was also shaving and waxing. I was doing all that. And it was growing back aggressively, and my skin was becoming really bad with ingrown hair and bumps. It was really terrible.
Q. Growing up with the feature you have, was it a source of insecurity for you?
I think just being hairy in general, was a big issue for me. It was making me very depressed and sad, but mostly because I was taught at a young age to remove it, but when I would remove it, then it would grow back like two days later super thick and blacker than before, so yeah, it was very hard for me because I didn't understand why something that needs to be removed would grow back so aggressively, as if my body became my enemy, as if my body didn't want me to remove the hair. So I think growing up I didn't particularly hate my chest hair, but it was just I just hated being hairy in general. And I remember my mom told me that I wasn't alone for sure, and I believed in my heart that I wasn't alone. I had never seen other women with chest hair, but I had seen in documentaries, with a woman living with facial hair like a beard but not chest hair, and my mom would often tell me that I’m for sure not alone. I completely agreed with her and believed her because I can't be one in a million right? So yeah, for sure, I'm not alone, I never believed that I was completely alone. But for sure, I felt like I was alone because I had no other no other women around me that had that.
Q. Was the thought that you couldn’t be alone the moment when you started to embrace your body hair?
It was mostly when my body just kept fighting back. And because I'm very spiritual, I was praying to God often, trying to ask him why he would make me this way? I have a sister and she's not hairy and so I asked why am I the one that was picked to be hairy, etc. So I would talk to God often and in the discussions that we had, I started to accept the fact that I am like this, and I had to learn to love myself and look at myself in the mirror and question why do I feel this way. Then I realized that it's the society that was wrong. It's completely normal for women to have hair, we all do. Some have more than others. And every time I was removing my chest hair, it was growing back, and I was always getting pimples and ingrown hair. So I had to learn to accept it. For a good period of time, I would buy shirts that would never show my cleavage, obviously, and so I stopped for a moment for a moment removing it. And then later on, I started getting used to seeing my hair, obviously when I take a shower and things like that, and I started getting used to seeing it and certainly be okay with it. Not only that, even when going to the estheticians and having them completely remove the hair, and I felt normal. But then I started to think, what's wrong with being different, you know? And because I started getting used to my chest hair, it felt weird seeing my body without it, and it felt strange, and I didn't feel the same anymore. I didn't feel like I was myself. So I started embracing it over the years. When I would go back to the esthetician, she asked if I wanted to start removing the chest hair, but I wasn't sure,and I started being attached to my chest hair, because it became part of me. And so, I told her to remove part of it, because I wanted to wear crop tops. So she removed part of it that should show. But after getting partially done, she would ask me, should we completely remove it? And I just couldn't do it, and I knew that I started liking it.
Q. And what did you say when you asked God why your hair is like this and why I have this feature, and what did God say?
He said that there was nothing wrong with me, and that there was something wrong with the society. That's what he said to me. This year actually found out from my aunts, since I'm half Haitian, half Ivorian, aunt from my Ivorian side told me that this is not weird that you actually are hairy, because it comes from your dad's side of the family. And like the women in your dad's side of the family are very hairy, and women who are very hairy was seen as a source of pride and all these things. But because of society today, people choose to remove it. So like it's not it's hereditary.
Q. Hair is a beauty trait in Ivory Coast?
Yeah. Hairy women were seen as very beautiful. And at the time in my great, great grandmother's time, it was seen as very beautiful. And so it's kind of interesting to see how times have changed, because of capitalism and things like that.
Q. What’s our take on the current beauty standard that you see in the media? Do you think it's empowering or is it still skewed in your opinion?
I think it's a little toxic. But I feel like I'm glad that we have Instagram, because we get to see different kinds of beauty. And so for sure, like in magazines and things like that, I think that the beauty industry is kind of evolving. So there's, it's becoming a little bit more inclusive. But it's still a little slow. But I think because of Instagram, we get to see different types of bodies, different types of people, we see different things and so it's easier for us to find role models or people who are inspiring.
Q. Let’s talk about your art project, the Lavender Project. The Lavender project was to celebrate the authentic female body. Walk us through that journey on how you started the lavender project.
Yeah, so because I've been hairy for over 10 years, I was always hiding it, always lifting up my shirt. I was getting very depressed. And so I was in this dark space, and because I'm an artist, I'm a painter, I've been painting since I was 12. So for me, I felt like it was very easy for me to express myself through art. And I felt like I was ready to stop hiding the secret, in a way. And I asked myself what can I do to set myself free? But then, I can't really tell each and every one of my friends and go hey, guys, I have chest hair...I mean, it'll be weird. So I had to set myself free in a way that I don't have to tell every single person individually, yet I could still share it. So I decided to make a dress. And I always felt like sewing was in my blood because my grandma, my mom used to sew, and my grandparents sew, so it always felt like who I was in my blood. So I wanted to make a project that challenged myself. So I made a dress that kind of shows my chest hair. And I went to get fabric, then I chose purple. I didn't want pink because that's a little too girly. I wanted something that kind of showed this womanhood, this strength, and I felt like that lavender brings out this elegance. And I created this dress. It took me about a month. Then we went to a park near my place to take pictures there, and I really wanted to be in nature because I like comparing it with the human body, because obviously grass grows, you cut it but it grows, just like your body hair.
My motto is, “On montre nos poils avec classe” (translated into : we show hair with class). So we show our body hair with class, and I want people to see that you can have body hair and be beautiful and wear a dress and feel beautiful. So that's what I did, but like my main intention of that project was setting myself free, and that's what I had done. So I posted my pictures on instagram. And when I posted it, I was so nervous! I muted my notifications. It turned out a lot of people encouraged me, and I was very happy that I inspired many people, and I didn't think it would become as big as it is today, because a lot of people know about it now, but it was just a project for myself and I didn't realize how I would also help others, and help others be free. Then in my project, I accompanied some of my pictures with some poems that I wrote, or some texts that I would find on the internet, etc. and I wanted it to be really artistic, but yea that’s what I did.
Q. Just to clarify, you were depressed and that’s why you wanted to do the project?
Exactly. Because I felt like it was becoming such a burden. Like I would go shopping, I can't even buy clothes that didn’t show my cleavage, even when I would model you know, I would do fashion shows and stuff like that, but I couldn't wear the clothes or show my cleavage. And so it was becoming very stressful. And nobody knew. And I didn't want people to see and I didn’t want people to judge me. And it was just, it was just too much. It became too much. And I felt like art has always been a way for me to express myself to talk about issues that I'm dealing with and so, I felt like it was going to be a perfect outlet. Also since I really liked Instagram and taking pictures, I decided to do something that I'll actually enjoy.
Q. The reason why I asked is because I was surprised that you said that you were depressed because in that photo, you were just so fierce! And as an artist, you also do paintings too, I’ve seen some of your body hair themed paintings, but what type of topics or themes do you explore when you paint?
So it really depends, I'm really spontaneous. Sometimes I talk about feminism, sometimes I talk about different subjects, but I never want it to be like completely obvious, I just want them to really think and reflect when they look at my work, so yeah, sometimes it's just like, history and things like that, because it's really like stuff that are going on in my head and just this idea pops up and I'm like, okay, let's do this. I'm kind of like really spontaneous, but I like to make it very colorful, because I love colors.
Q. You mentioned normalizing body hair. So do you consider yourself as a body hair activist? And what does the world with normalization of body hair look like for you?
Yeah, so I guess I didn't consider myself as a body hair activist before, I felt more like I was just living, you know, I'm just living my life as I am. Then people started seeing my body hair and started calling me as a body hair activist, and I was like, okay, I kind of accepted that title. It's not that it's not true. It is true.
And body hair being normalized, it will feel more like you know, it's a choice, because obviously we don't really have that choice. People will look at us strangely, and will pressure us to remove it, and feel like we're ugly and things like that. And so I imagine a world where body hair is normalized is when women get to choose whether they want their body hair or not, and it doesn't feel like we're pressured anymore. It doesn't feel like people look at us strange or strangely because we have body hair. It'll just be we're just living, and that's how I imagined it. We're not judging each other based on our appearance anymore. Like before, I was always shaving, having just one hair sticking out, you'd become stressed, you know what I mean? And so, so just like removing those pressures, and that stress that comes with it, always having to be hairless. So that’s how it would feel like when body hair is normalized.
Q. Do you think that body hair is becoming more normalized these days?
Yeah, I do since because of COVID-19 and movements such as Januhairy, so I guess women started really embracing it and this like, yeah, there's a lot more, a lot more women are embracing it today. And mostly because of COVID too, because it was winter when it started, and many weren’t shaving during the wintertime, but then COVID kind of extended the winter. So they had to look at themselves as they are, and kind of reflecting. And because of those movements out there, those body hair movements kind of really makes us question, why do we feel this pressure to shave, and how we've been taught that being hairy is not hygenic, etc. when it's not true, and like body hair has a function and all these things. And so, I really love these movements, and I didn't know them before I did my lavender project.
Q. You said that body hair actually signifies beauty in Ivory Coast in the past, but why is body hair so empowering for you and why do you think it empowers people?
I never really thought it was empowering. At first I just felt I was being myself. I guess the empowering part was just simply rejecting what society had told me to do first, since I was a little girl. I just thought it was kind of like the rebellion, so body hair kind of seemed empowering. It felt like we were kind of rebelling against these rules made by society. So it became empowering because we get to own our body, and be proud of how we look and how we feel in it. And so I guess that's the empowering part to me. And so, but later on, it became really more empowering. I felt proud, especially because my ancestors were also hairy, who I feel even more proud of. And they were seen as beautiful. And if I didn't know that, I don't know if I would feel the same way. So I was very happy to discover that. So it is the source of pride. I feel very empowered when I see my body here now. Yeah, just because I know that, you know, my ancestors had that, and I don't feel like it's weird or random.
Q. Does it make you feel beautiful too because you know that your ancestor had them and it was a beauty feature back then?
Of course! I learned and worked on my self esteem and I learned to find myself beautiful. I used to find myself very ugly when I was younger, so I had to build that up. And so, of course I find myself beautiful now, and I find my body hair beautiful. You know I always have to work on myself every day and that's normal, because when I go outside, people still give me that kind of look, so you always have to remind yourself, but I feel very beautiful now it's not like before.
Q. Is there any difference between the body positive movement? Is it part of the body positive movement? Or is it a separate thing for you?
I feel like they are together. Maybe originally I thought the body positive was more to normalize normalizing bodies, body types and curvy bodies and stuff like that, but I feel altogether we have this same purpose, to be comfortable in our skin. So I wouldn't really separate them. But obviously, it's a different war. But we're all fighting for this freedom in our bodies, so it's, it's the same cause the same thing.
Q. You mentioned freedom. When you were in a dark place, was there any place where you could just sense any seeds of it?
Mostly when I was like praying with God, that's when I felt free because every time I was going through something I was coming to him and praying, and he was giving me strength. So being in his presence, I could feel that and drew strength from. And also, I had to set myself free. I know we're talking about freedom but I had to liberate myself because I was tired of feeling this way and get out of this. For me, oftentimes, when I'm tired of something, that's where I make this important decision, and I made the decision, and I needed to do something about it. It was not good for my mental health, to not feel good about myself for 10 years, and I'm not just gonna keep being in that dark hole for the rest of my life. That was enough time for me to make the decision to share who I really am.
Q. On Black Lives Matter movements, as a black female artist in Canada, what have you been seeing in Canada? What’s your take on it and how have you been coping with it?
When it comes to Canada and the US, I feel like they're the same but it's just like, Canada hides it very well. For example, when black person dies, Canadian television will never refer to the individual as a black individual. They'll just be an individual, but we know it’s a black individual. And when things happen, we know it's because of the person's color. There's still racism here. It's just like Canada's in complete denial, and they enjoy being in denial. So with the Black Lives Matter, I felt like for me , it was very depressing, it was just a lot. It weighed so much on me. And seeing my brothers and sisters dying like this, it was just horrible. And so like, it was very hard for me to deal with that. And sometimes I had to just get off Instagram because it was becoming too much. As black people, we deal with that differently. But for me, I had a very hard time. And so, I was like posting and bringing awareness and to educate people, but a lot of times I just couldn't because it was just a lot.
Q. Did you see any shift happening after the whole protest going on, as a black female artist, was there any differences between pre-2020 movement vs afterwards?
I can't say that I've seen anything that's changed because I haven't been outside much yet. But I guess that I feel like people want to be educated more, they're more open to understanding what's going on with us, police brutality, and all these things. And trying to really understand us and try to view us as human beings. This educational aspect that has opened up and people are more open to learning is the change I see, and people are more aware of what others are going through and are dealing with, and it's a great thing that people are willing to learn and to change those habits that they've learned that they didn't know was racist, and etc. We're all in this world, we all have to live together, and so we have to find a way to really help each other as well. And we have that power to do so. To me that was the greatest part of the movement and what's still going on, that people are learning and wanting to know and read about it.
Q. Going back to the topic of embracing yourself. I want to open up to more questions about how you can live your life authentically, being true to yourself. And so one of my questions I have is what makes you, you and Esther that you are today?
To answer that question, I gotta think about what are the things that if removed from myself, I wouldn't be myself anymore. So what makes me me is my body here. That's something I've learned to accept as being part of me, my mind, my beliefs, that's something that's part of me that makes me, me and without it, I wouldn't be where I am and I wouldn't be who I am. Also, art makes me, me. I have been painting since I was 12, and I can't live without it. It's so exciting to me, especially the satisfaction of completing a work, it's the best part. I'm just like a very happy person, and that's also something that makes me, me.
Q. Seems like you're 100% living true to yourself regardless of the society tells you. Have you ever felt like you were not living true to yourself ever?
When I was hiding my chest, I wasn't being true to myself, but also I can't say that I'm always 100% myself, I can't say that because I can't dance, okay!! And I'm not gonna put myself in this kind of position!!! So I guess I'm not always 100% me, but I'm still growing as a person!!
I can't say that I am perfect, I can't say that. The year when I started my lavender project, I wasn't always showing my chest. I wasn't doing that, you know, I still didn't feel ready to do that, so it was a slow process. Then I started buying shirts that show my cleavage, but it was a slow process, and that's just how I work. I kind of go at this pace when I'm ready to do things. So I don't want to rush it and just do that, it would be too overwhelming. And so it's very slow, like even after like during quarantine. You know, I stopped shaving my armpits. Before, I was still shaving my armpits, my leg, stomach, and all that. I didn't shave completely and I got to see myself as I am. And so I kind of like learned to embrace that again. It’s a continuous process. And now, I can go out in short shorts and have hair on my legs. But I'm still growing. I don't think that growth is no, you always grow every day and so I don't feel like I could ever stop growing and I'm always learning about myself.
Q. If you were to give someone advice about how to accept and embrace yourself, what would you say to them?
I would tell them that it doesn't happen in a day. They might see my images and my images are there to inspire and to help and tell people that it's possible, but I don't want them to think that it happens in a day. It's a slow process and I like to remind people it took me 10 years. It didn't take me a day, at least that people see that it's possible it might be faster for them to be able to love themselves. If I had these kinds of images, I would have done it sooner myself. But, I'm still happy that growing up, I've come across documentaries of women who decided to keep their beards and so, growing up and having that in my head kind of helped me as well. And so what I could say is that it's a process and that it's possible and that you can do it, and it's all about making a decision. Once you make that decision, it starts this new journey. But being ready is important, but sometimes you're never ready. You just have to try it and see if you know if you're comfortable or not. Just challenge yourself.
Sometimes I don't feel like wearing short shorts, but I challenged myself, and tell myself I can do this. And when I do and I realize I can do this, then it's all about just pushing yourself a little bit and you get to see, it's like you're learning about yourself. You kind of get to see how it is, but there's some people that could do it in, you know, in a snap, they could just stop shaving. For me, it was a process I'd be like, okay, let's stop covering chest, or shaving your armpits, and see how this goes, and it was slow for me. But I know it's possible, I did it, and I'm the proof. And so that's what I would tell them and that they are and everyone is beautiful. And you just got to work on yourself every day. And take a good look at yourself in the mirror say in the mirror that I’m beautiful and that I'm smart, like my mom told me to do as I was growing up. And that's been something that I've been doing that has helped me and so for me it's important to always be kind to yourself. Because you're your best friend, and you need to be your best friend. You cannot be your own enemy or else you will just never succeed in life in general, but you need to become your best friend. So when these negative thoughts come into your mind, you need to change them into positive thoughts. You need to work on yourself continuously. And for me, I always encourage myself.
Q. What would you tell your younger self? Would that be a similar answer, or is that going to be different?
Yeah, I've been asked that question. My answer always would be that if I went back in the past, and I saw myself, I know who I am, so I can't just say hey, girl, you're beautiful. And now all of a sudden I will believe that. I wouldn't believe a thing if I went there. So if I saw my past self, I would tell her that there's this thing that you hate about yourself, that would be so empowering in the future. And that you would love that, and you will feel proud.
Q. Wow that is very empowering. So something that you may hate about yourself can actually be a strength for you! And my last question is, what does beauty mean to you?
I feel like beauty is a feeling. I feel like some days I don't feel beautiful when that happens. But most of the time I feel beautiful these days, which I'm happy about. Enough to always feel very beautiful but so it's a feeling. I feel like you can be the most beautiful person in the world, and everybody can find you beautiful doesn't mean you feel beautiful. And so Beauty is this confidence and just how you feel in your own body. Sometimes this is the clothes that make you feel beautiful. Sometimes it's things that you do, so for me, that's what beauty is. It really depends. Like, I can say that sometimes this based on what I wear sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I feel very happy. So beauty is complex. People say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But for me, what is beautiful is confidence. Like, every time I see someone that's confident I find that so beautiful. And I feel like when I'm confident I feel very beautiful as well. . And also beauty is something that's unique. I like to see things that are unique, and I find unique things beautiful.
Thank you Queen Esie, for joining our podcast and sharing your journey, and great insights with us!
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