The work of celebrating the beauty of black women is an emotional undertaking. It is also an art in which the undertaker likely finds her story intertwined with that of her audience. Shawanna Davis has mastered that art.
“Now I get letters like, ‘my daughter is 11 and she gets picked on everyday,’ says Davis. “I can write back and say, ‘I was called darkie. Let me write your daughter a letter.’ I’ve written letters to little brown girls like, ‘I’m just like you.’”
That first-hand knowledge of what it means to be a little brown girl in America led Shawanna Davis to start @BeBeautifulLA, an Instagram page that appears more like an art and photography gallery solely dedicated to black beauty. As a compliment to each image she uploads, Davis adds beautiful poems and quotes she finds on Tumblr and now through submissions. The powerful combination of poetry and photography along with Davis’ sharp curator’s eye is what touches an emotional chord with her audience. Since Davis launched the page in early 2013 she’s watched her following grow from 50 of her friends to over 100,000 people and counting.
“A lot of our magazines have popular actresses on the cover,” says Davis during our conversation over the phone. “We know who they are and we celebrate them, but we also want to see ourselves. We want to see the girl next door, we want to see the girl with imperfections, the ears, the freckles, the deep dark skin, the big full lips—not just a type that we’re sold.”
Davis was born and raised in Tulare, a small town in central California “with no real street lights,” as she describes. Her mother and her aunts were stylish women who were artists and entrepreneurs. From them she learned about feminism and all things beauty. Eventually Davis moved to Los Angeles to live out her dreams.
“I was a breech baby and so [my mother] was always like, ‘you’ve always been trying to get out there and try something. You always want to get a message out there. You’re running to get out,’” says Davis realizing that she’s never shared her birth story until now.
In Los Angeles she first began as a beauty consultant and brand manager for various companies. As a natural hair aficionado in the late 90s before it became ‘the thing to do,’ she helped transition women from processed hair to sporting their natural crowns. She also recalls working in a beauty store in which the owner described the natural hair movement and black hair care products as a fad. She convinced him to carry a brand in his store.
“I told him, give me three months with one brand and let me know how that works for you. Let me push something,” she said. “That was the first time I knew that if I stood behind a brand, solidly stood behind a brand, that I can build something. It’s kind of like the same platform I used to create BeBeautifulLA, the patience behind the brand.”
Eventually she went on to work in fashion and later she became an actress starring in a web series titled “Becoming Nia.” But her love for beauty, poetry, and black women always remained. She began keeping a log of her favorite poems and continued to collect magazines that celebrated black beauty. Her friends advised she start a blog, which she did (several times), but couldn’t stay committed to. Then she discovered Instagram. Instead of creating another page of selfies, she decided to showcase women with unique beauty.
“I remember always looking for myself as a teenager in a picture, like, who can I look up to,” she said. “I want teenage girls to find their image. A lot our magazines don’t talk to the girl that’s a little awkward that’s in her room and she’s writing in her journal about being sad. We don’t talk about black girls being sad. You got to be strong and you can’t be sad or really loving yourself.”
Davis’ patience with her brand paid off last year when she began working for herself full time. She offers light advertising on the BeBeautifulLA page as she continues to consult beauty brands on the side. The notoriety is also pouring in. Davis was recently featured on NYmag.com and TV One.
“I used to tell people that I’m going to tell my story one day,” she said with a hint of disbelief in her voice. “Everybody has pitfalls, ups and downs, and I feel like I’ve lived a few lives. I had a denim line, I’ve acted, I’ve done all these fun things. When you learn the lesson in the things that you’re not doing anymore, it’s like, ah, one day I’m going to tell my story.”
As Davis continues to share her story, we are all reminded of our own.