‘Too pretty to be Aboriginal’: Meet the model who wants to abolish our beauty ‘paradigm’
As I move around the shopping centres, nearly every young woman I see is wearing her hair long, straight and blonde. And few naturally have that hair colour. That is very clear evidence of how entrenched the Nordic ideal is. I can think of nothing that is likely to change it
Sasha Kutabah Sarago has been a model, a magazine editor, a documentary maker and a writer: now, she describes herself as an abolisher of paradigms.
The Wadjanbarra Yidinji, Jirrbal and African-American woman wants us to reject the idea of beauty perpetuated by corporations and across pop culture, and in her just released memoir, Gigorou, she details her mission for change.
Through the book she traces her life as being surrounded by beauty, from her first job as an assistant at her mother’s salon to the revelation of seeing the black supermodels of the 1990s, then becoming a model herself. In reaction to that experience, she launched the first digital magazine for women of colour, Ascension, in 2011.
“When I look at beauty... I look at it more through sovereign beauty,” she says. “What I was born into: how my community embraces me and nurtures me. If we all looked at where we come from and the beauty in who we are, the lineage, the bloodlines ... that’s where you abolish paradigms, or make the change.”
To her mind, things have changed for the better since the Black Lives Matter movement and that informs her belief that change will only come from the individual, “Putting the onus on the government or the beauty industry, we set ourselves up to fail. You just have to look at how the system was built and then you’ll find your answer.”
She questions what we’ve been fed by popular culture, folklore and the multi-billion-dollar Australian beauty industry - particularly how women of colour were told they were not beautiful for so long. “If you’ve ever dimmed your light or hated how you looked or searched for beauty in all the wrong places, this is the book for you,” she says.
As a child of 11, she was told “you’re too pretty to be Aboriginal”. In those days, she says, “we internalised our shame and tried to reconcile it as best we could”. That ugly comment inspired her 2019 documentary of the same name.
Researching the film, she spent time in the State Library of Victoria, going through shocking and offensive material about Indigenous women in articles from The Bulletin, People and even this newspaper, as well as in films, music, literature and advertising. “There seemed no limits to the colonial perversion that sullied our women; there was no room for her dignity,” she writes.
Sarago writes as she speaks and although the book deals with many big and confronting issues, it is also very funny. When her aunt, who often travels alone in the bush, speaks of the ‘little man that travels with her and protects her’, she quips: “That’s where I draw the line. I don’t do spirits.”
There’s also the experience she had dropping $1500 on a Louis Vuitton bag only to find it was completely impractical: handcream tarnished the leather handles, “finding clean surfaces for Louis to sit on, checking the weather to see if Louis could join me for the day... and where were the goddamn compartments?”
At the opposite end of the spectrum are warnings about men with fetishes for Black women, and Harvey Weinstein-types who she says you’ll inevitably find in any industry that involves women and money.
In Gigorou, Sarago reflects on her experience modelling and then a magazine editor. Those insights inform her firm belief that the system is inherently flawed. “Working for government in the past and in the corporate world to the fashion and beauty industry, I see how the machine works and I see how the game is played. So for me to thrive and to be able to make change, I have to extract myself from them. That’s why I talk about decolonising beauty. I talk about it with a First Nations perspective - after going through the mainstream and then trying to find my beauty or my self-worth through those systems, I’ve always failed.”
“You’re working within a system that is designed to serve a certain group, so why would I go and play in that space again? And get burnt? It’s insanity, doing the same thing and expecting different results.”
Her vision is bigger than just beauty - she underlines how much would be gained by Australian society if we were to embrace the world’s oldest living culture. Sarago speaks proudly about how her people operated before colonisation.
“We had women’s business and men’s business... the symbiotic relationship and connectedness that everything had. There was a system of lore that would govern if things were out of discord, if there were boundaries that were stepped over. It was written over 60,000 years ago [and operated] until colonisation.”