What It Looks Like When “Diversity” Is More Than Just a Word

The wedding industry has work to do

WOC Styled Wedding Shoot
A few months ago, I posed a question to the wedding industry: Do Black Brides Matter? The answer? Sure—there are definitely websites that have reshaped the Internet in terms of diverse representation in wedding publications. However, just because there are non-white couples on a wedding website doesn’t mean there’s an abundance of examples of different looking women who may have fat bodies or kinky hair. I understand it may be impossible to create weddings that cater to everyone, but aside from celebrity weddings, there are just not enough images for engaged couples of color.

I was initially hoping that by bringing attention to the issue in my first essay some progress would be made, or a conversation would happen in the mainstream wedding media. It didn’t, and meanwhile, I continued to receive more and more “Thank Yous” from people who undoubtedly agreed that this is a problem. They all said the same thing: they realized there was a lack of inclusiveness, but no one was quite sure about how to solve the issue.

I quickly realized it wasn’t enough to keep begging publications and wedding vendors to give people the equal representation. It was time to make it happen. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea where to start. When I open any wedding magazine, I can expect to see natural light, pastels, and a thin, blonde, white woman. And in the world of weddings, it often feels like straight white couples are the only market that matters.

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It wasn’t until the florist I had hired for my wedding tagged me in a photograph of promotional materials on her Instagram page that I really thought I could make a difference. The photo was a picture of me holding the bouquet she had made me on my wedding day. The audacity my florist had—to put this smiling chubby black girl on her company promotional material—resonated with me. I don’t know how many different times or how many different ways I have to say this, but: Representation Matters.

I am not the fancy girl in a ball gown underneath a chandelier in a dining hall in the middle of Atlanta. Neither am I the girl in cowboy boots at a barn wedding. But wouldn’t it be nice to visually imagine myself as either one of those things, considering that getting married is supposed to have been a major milestone in my life? Seeing myself on her promotional postcard reinforced the belief that other black girls deserved that feeling as much as any other bride.

Once I decided to take matters into my own hands, I decided that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) do it alone. I reached out to as many vendors that I could find who aligned with the mission I wanted to accomplish: creating the opportunity for ourselves—and for other Black women—to finally, really be seen. Of course, there were challenges: finding like-minded vendors who were eager to amplify the belief that couples getting married come in every size, color, and identity… in Portland, Oregon (aka the whitest city in America). We decided to go all in and create something that would resonate with us and our communities—whether or not it ever saw the light of day.

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During my search, I asked potential participants the same question: Why do you think that there is such a lack of diversity on your own social media accounts? The response was almost unanimous. Many said that it was “super hard or difficult to find models or real couples of color” to use when promoting their work. It wasn’t that they were opposed to multicultural weddings, but they seemed to believe there was no abundance of weddings available for them to showcase. Here’s the thing: this is so often the answer from white people when people of color ask for representation. Despite being everywhere, we have a tendency to be invisible.

I knew it was a risk to ask any of the local companies to step outside of their comfort zone, but once I started recruiting, I found out that couples of color aren’t the only ones being “othered” by the industry. Many vendors of color also empathized with the struggle of what it feels like to be invisible.

Once the team assembled, we prioritized the goal of making this feel real. Not the scraps that we occasionally get thrown when we are featured almost in a prop-like fashion. It needed to be authentic. I wanted to not only give women of color more inclusive representation, but to help them meet vendors who can guarantee a safe space during wedding planning.

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If you are not a black woman in this white world, it sometimes feels impossible to put our experience into words that are easy to swallow. For centuries, black women have held the burden of making our own change. Our emotions and desires are labeled as angry, and our experiences are often invalidated. And although I didn’t think so initially, I quickly learned that this project would not be any less of a challenge.

To begin with, we cast a pair of plus-sized black models. There were so many times during our fitting of the dresses that I cried watching the beauty of these real women, the same women who had been turned down at bridal show auditions because they didn’t “fit the vision.”

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There were so many different occasions during the shoot when I would doubt myself and what I was doing or why. But each of the women of color I worked with, especially the black women, was there to uplift me anytime I thought about stopping the shoot because nobody would care or want to see us. As a black woman, I’m not sure just how often people realize that it’s easy to doubt yourself and what you are doing. Model Ashleigh Elizabeth once explained:

“What separates me from other individuals (in the bridal industry) is not just the color of my skin and my size. It’s me.”

All of their faith combined helped me believe in myself and our collection vision for this project. On set, no one was nervous about blasting Rihanna, Drake, Beyoncé, or Solange for the models to vibe to as they vogued. This was our space and this was for all of us.

alternative WOC styled wedding shoot| Fun, Alternative, Non-Traditional Wedding photography in Portland, Oregon www.BethOlsonCreative.com| Fun, Alternative, Non-Traditional Wedding photography in Portland, Oregon www.BethOlsonCreative.com| Fun, Alternative, Non-Traditional Wedding photography in Portland, Oregon www.BethOlsonCreative.com
Regardless of our talent, the bar is set so much higher for women of color. The images we create often go unnoticed because our bodies and culture are so often only appreciated by people within our communities.

Before we even stepped foot on the set, I began to realize as we worked together the project was evolving. What started off as kind of a middle finger to the bridal industry turned into something so much more significant. The project reinforced the unbreakable sense of community that we as marginalized people can thrive off of. Each person involved was helping to push for inclusive images. Because of that, I think it’s equally important that you hear from them, too:

Beth-Laughing-office-window-600

If you have a more progressive view of the world, The Wedding Industry and process of planning a wedding in general can be a real enigma. On one hand it’s “Fuck the Patriarchy!” But does that mean you can’t also want a white dress and a dance party? My hope is to build a network of amazing business owners who are loud and proud about the value they place on all people and those people’s need to heard, understood and valued. I would hope that one day a couple would never have to worry about feeling rejected because of who they are or who they love. That the hardest part of finding businesses to work with would be finding someone who gets their sense of humor or has a life-size Tardis they can rent by the week. —Beth Olson, photographer

WOC Styled Wedding Shoot

When doing makeup on women of color you have to understand that these women have already gone somewhere or seen someone who didn’t understand how to match tone and properly apply makeup to their face. They’ve already been told their skin tone is “hard to match” or “foundation doesn’t come in your shade.” The point of being an artist is to be better than that to go above and beyond your clients’ expectations when it comes to makeup. Anyone can apply makeup; it takes a true artist to see the beauty potential and really bring it to life. —Peter Asio, makeup artist

| Fun, Alternative, Non-Traditional Wedding photography in Portland, Oregon www.BethOlsonCreative.com

So here’s the thing, I didn’t set out to conquer a white dominated industry, I set out to better my life. I just happen to be a woman of color. I’m from the Middle East; I have a big nose and hair that took me years to figure out. I happen to stand out. I’ve always loved that about myself—okay maybe not always, it took some awkward teen years—but eventually. Honestly, to me, it’s not about making a statement or giving myself some kind of equality torch to run with; it’s about participating in an industry that I Love and Respect, meeting new people, making brides happy, and celebrating love in the color, shape, or form that it happens to take! It’s that simple. —Sherine Iskander, event rentals

| Fun, Alternative, Non-Traditional Wedding photography in Portland, Oregon www.BethOlsonCreative.com

I wanted to be in this project because as a woman of color and a plus model, when I open a magazine I am unfortunately not able to identify with anyone. Which made me question for my personal and business endeavors, will I ever be able to experience this moment. As a youth we identify to what we see more than the words that our families encourage with. So to be able to take part of this project so the little girls who aren’t darker in complexion with afros or mixed with curly hair, but just in the middle, or for the girls who are top heavy or bottom heavy, so they can see they can have their day and look as beautiful as any other representative they see in most bridal articles. I immediately jumped on the opportunity. —Ashleigh Elizabeth, model

| Fun, Alternative, Non-Traditional Wedding photography in Portland, Oregon www.BethOlsonCreative.com

Feminism is an integral part of my ethos and foundation of my company, and I see it as a fuel for the space I want to carve out for myself and flowers in my industry. I’ve made that very clear in my identity as a company and continue to speak it throughout my continual brand building. I’ve heard of vendors turning down people due to their race, body, because they can’t afford them, or because they’re not the “look” they want. I believe everyone deserves access to beauty, whoever that person is. Not only that, but reconnecting to nature is important to me, and floral design is a perfect avenue for that as well. In regards to access, I believe that a price should not stop one from having their vision come into fruition, so I work closely with my couples to find ways to bring their ideas to life when it comes to their flowers. Even if that means I have to forage or find a flower as beautiful as a garden rose but half the price. I was taught at a young age that beauty can be anything—it really depends on the way you or the thing is presented or holds itself. I try my best to create beauty out of everything I touch, however it may have initially come to me. —Saria Dy, floral design and styling

rayna

I feel like I get more brides from other ethnicities versus Caucasian, which I love that they feel confident in my work to trust me. A lot of times in this industry, people tend to book an artist of their own ethnicity. There are companies who specialize in bridal and are amazing at it, but who lack diversity in their artists and clientele. They’re marketing toward a certain group when there’s more than just that. I don’t want the way I market my business to be divided or targeted. I welcome all. —Rayna Thomas, makeup artist

The most significant part of this project was proving that creating diversity and inclusiveness is not the mountain people make it out to be. It sucks to be tokenized as the one speck of brown in a sea of whiteness, but it is even worse to have art created for your culture by people who don’t represent you and don’t care about you. Everyone involved in this project cares about women and people of color, because that is who we are.

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