Ellie Brown

︎︎︎phd reseacher & writer

Adwoa Aboah
NR Magazine, Vol. 3

Adwoa Aboah has become a standout face in the fashion industry as of recent, and was named “Breakout Star” by Models.com last December. Certainly, Aboah cuts a striking and distinctive image and, having appeared in numerous high profile campaigns and publications, there is little wonder she was the industry’s choice. Yet, the allure of Adwoa Aboah goes beyond her discernible talent within the modelling industry; she was also named runner-up in the “Humanitarian Model” category of the same awards. Through the founding of the online platform, Gurls Talk, Aboah has also become a recognisable voice for girls – one that has, arguably, been lacking. The premise of Gurls Talk is simple; it sets out to “[work] together, [empower], and [take] the time to listen” – ultimately, bringing girls from all walks of life together to talk about their issues with others who are feeling, or going through the same. It isn’t hard to see why Gurls Talk is doing as well as it is in its short lifespan thus far. Both the website and Instagram account are sleek, sharp and vibrant examples of what can be identified as ‘gurl culture’ online. No doubt as a result of this, Gurls Talk has attracted support and endorsement from the fashion world with, for one, exclusive photos from the first event night held back in October being featured on Vogue online.

The online presence of Gurls Talk has the feel of a carefully crafted collage of collaboration and celebration. Features on artwork, photography, poetry, writing, and interviews demonstrate a sense of what being a part of Gurls Talk entails. Yet, Gurls Talk strives to go beyond this sense of community at face level – the website has an advice form, allowing girls to get in touch with licensed psychologist, Dr Lauren Hazzouri (or Hey Lauren, as she prefers in a chirpy post about herself). It seems to be precisely the empowering, inclusive environment Aboah has set out to achieve. However, this isn’t without its drawbacks. Whilst the internet provides the free space for women to talk about sexuality, of what it is to be a woman -  in reality, it is subject to codes and conventions that limit what can be said. Though it is because of the internet that Aboah has been able create Gurls Talk as a platform to connect with girls around the globe, the internet itself isn’t necessarily forgiving of ‘aberrant’ womanhood.  

On 3rd January, the photography of Eliza Bourner was featured on the Gurls Talk website, alongside a short explanation of the concept behind her series of work called ‘Petal’. Petal depicts images of the female body in various states of dress, decorated with flowers that, in their simplicity, address the “dichotomy of sensitivity and sensuality”. When one of these photographs was posted to the Gurls Talk Instagram, however, the post was swiftly taken down for violating the social media platform’s ‘Community Guidelines’ – that is, the presence of artistic nudity on Instagram is too much to handle. Of course, this in itself isn’t especially surprising. There’s longstanding contention around Instagram’s nudity policy, as the popularity of the #freethenipple hashtag highlights.

But, this particular setback didn’t dampen the spirit or the ethos of Gurls Talk. Rather, Aboah used it to draw attention to the somewhat hypocritical logic behind Instagram’s community guidelines. Posting a screenshot of Instagram’s explanation for the removal of Bourner’s photograph to the Gurls Talk handle, she pointed out the fact that the social media platform is teeming with photos “posted by celebrities that are in no way appropriate or even more importantly show no meaning or depth” – in a way that the photography of Bourner clearly attempts to do.

It’s the day after this incident that I speak to Adwoa over the phone. For her, this has spurred her on to fight harder, because it’s frustrating to see “an image with so much meaning, by someone who took so much time in producing their artwork taken down because it down because it’s got a nipple in it”. It’s the meaningful stuff, that “adds a bit more depth and passion” that we should be focusing on – regardless of how much hard work it can be dealing with the regulations set in place that can undermine Gurls Talk’s celebration of other people’s work. Adwoa is aware that not everything is going to be to everyone’s taste. Seeing comments on posts where people either completely disagree or get upset with the content is as much a part of the process, because at least it’s “getting people talking and thinking about things”.

Ultimately, Adwoa is aware of the fact that she’s responsible to some degree, she says, “you have to remember who’s looking at your post and who you’re communicating with, who the girls [interacting with Gurls Talk] are, and where they come from.” The key for Gurls Talk is producing good content. It’s not difficult to see why the removal of Bourner’s photo is particularly frustrating, then. With the constant bombardment of images and messages directed at girls (and, of course boys, too), it’s difficult to navigate social media whilst retaining a sense of self. And it’s within this framework that Gurls Talk is trying to establish itself as an empowering environment – against the tide of the hypocrisy of (social) media.

Speaking to Adwoa, it’s clear that she’s genuinely passionate about the cause. Though she is keen to emphasise the importance of the Gurls Talk team, whose tireless hard work is something that’s pushed her since things really took off last year, credit is most certainly due to Adwoa herself. To have someone like Aboah as the driving force behind Gurls Talk is perhaps what gives it its credentials; whilst being open about your issues isn’t the easiest of tasks, it’s something that she’s managed to confront in an admirable way. You only have to watch the short video she did for StyleLikeU back in early 2016, where she openly spoke about her experiences with getting sober and self-image, to get a sense of why. Adwoa admits that Gurls Talk is part of a journey for herself, a way of practising what she preaches.

In the short time that Gurls Talk has been up and running, she says that she has been “able to learn from all the girls getting in touch and all the writing and artwork.” Whilst Gurls Talk is, for Aboah, whole-heartedly a platform to enable the empowerment of girls, it’s also a learning process for her: “in the dark times I’ve had and still struggle with, whether it’s self-love or care, or just getting up in the morning, it’s been a really great attribute to my life. I have huge co-dependency issues and, in a selfish way, looking after other people has really helped me as much as I hope it helps other people. It’s a lot harder to just do it yourself.”

Hearing the humility and matter-of-factness with which Adwoa talks pinpoints precisely what it is about Gurls Talk that’s so intriguing: that is, there is no pretence here.  Asked if she thinks that the perception of women in the public eye who speak out as being ‘outspoken’ needs to be challenged, Adwoa agrees: “it shouldn’t make headline news for someone in the fashion industry, or an actress, or a musician to talk out”. Having been called an ‘outspoken model’ herself, it’s not how she would describe herself. Rather, she says, it’s a case of having “suddenly become a lot more comfortable in myself”. Speaking openly is, for her, a way of being truthful to herself.

It’s counterproductive then, to shut down women who speak out as merely being outspoken: in order to appreciate the work being done by Gurls Talk seriously, the voices associated with it must be listened to with sincerity. Otherwise, the important issues that Aboah is seeking to normalise continue to be undermined – and thus, the girls for whom Gurls Talk is aimed at continue to be unheard.

Over the course of our phone call, the removal of Bourner’s photograph seems all the more poignant. Even when women, like, Aboah and the Gurls Talk team, are doing their utmost to demonstrate that speaking up is normal, there still remains the constant bombardment by the media of the hypersexualised woman – one who certainly isn’t labelled as outspoken. Of course, the work of Gurls Talk goes far beyond the incident of Bourner’s photograph, but if there’s anything that girls should remember in a world that is obsessed with the female image, there is no greater attribute than defiance and courage. If Aboah’s runner-up award for Humanitarian Model of 2016 is anything, it’s a nod to that.

If 2016 was the year that Gurls Talk succeeded in curating a respected platform, then this year is set to be exponential for Adwoa and her team – with concrete plans for sexual education in the mix. The quality of sex education in schools, or lack thereof, is a very real issue – Adwoa speaks for many when she says she didn’t receive very good sex education at school. At a time when, for example, porn is readily available online, and is largely unregulated, despite meagre attempts to regulate access, it feels particularly on point that Gurls Talk will set out to confront such a task. It feeds too back into the problems with body image in the face of hypersexualisation. But, equally, tackling things as small as “celebrating your period [and] celebrating losing your virginity” is a feat Gurls Talk will take on; these are discussions that girls often don’t feel comfortable talking about (Adwoa admits herself that some of these things make her uncomfortable) because they are deemed slightly taboo. So, this year will see Gurls Talk releasing videos about topics like “pleasure and recognising what turns you on”, as well as going into schools (Adwoa already has a series of appearances lined up), as a way of hopefully opening up an honest conversation.

By tackling these issues and the stigma around them, Aboah hopes to help those who may be too scared to speak out; bottling up feelings is exactly what Gurls Talk can help girls overcome. “I bottled so much up for such a long time, and I just burst. There are other women that have been in my life who have been through very similar situations [to hers], who have not been able to talk about anything, or show their vulnerable side.” There isn’t anything, for Adwoa, that we shouldn’t be talking about, there really is “nothing that is too much”. Ultimately, the aim is that Gurls Talk will give people the chance to have their voices heard, to be able to connect with those who have been in similar situations – otherwise, the cycle of bottling up and struggling alone will continue. “We’re never going to get through these problems, if we’re all too scared to talk about things.” What Adwoa is working towards doesn’t sound like the views of an outspoken model, but of someone impassioned to give girls a real chance.

February 2017