We talk to 19-year-old Aweng Mayen Chuol about her life as a refugee and her conflicted relationship with beauty
“I don’t know if you’ve seen images of me, but I have a lot of facial scars,” 19-year-old South Sudanese model, Aweng Mayen Chuol, laughs down the phone. She’s also known for her eyes, the whites of which change from grey to brown depending on what climate she’s in – a byproduct of a genetic condition that she was born with. “People tell me I look like a jaguar or that I’m ‘exotic’,” she laughs. “Sometimes I just want to shout at everyone: ‘Look at me, I’m not just a scar, I’m a human.’ But I get it, it’s a curiosity. I know I’m different, I know my facial features are different, but to me that’s beauty.”
Born under a tree in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, Aweng spent her formative years in isolation. Her mother was 16 when she had her, the first of 12 children. She and Aweng’s father had fled their home in Sudan as war broke out. “Kakuma was a place that no-one knew about,” says Aweng, almost in disbelief two decades later. “We didn’t even know anything existed beyond it – other cities, other countries, other languages. We lived in a bubble.”
An adventurous child, Aweng spent most of her time climbing trees and chasing chickens, which is how she got her scars. “We still laugh about it as a family,” she says. “The whole thing could have been avoided. I could have run another way.” She wouldn’t change a thing about them. “They are part of who I am. I had it instilled in me from a young age that my scars made me beautiful. They were normal in my culture. They’re seen as a sign of coming of age or becoming a woman.”
Things changed, however, when the family moved to Australia, after Aweng had just turned seven. “What had made me beautiful before in my culture was now making people call me ‘ugly’,” she sighs. “So I had a very conflicted perception of beauty when I was a kid.” Undeterred, she put on a tumeric facemask most mornings and wore it into school, owning her difference. “I was like, ‘You think I’m ugly, well now I’m going to wear this facemask and you can’t stop me.’ And that’s why my skin still glows today,” she laughs.
“I was the only African female in my entire school. I began to think I must be ugly. I didn’t look like the next person. The next person didn’t look like me.” There weren’t that many women who looked like her in mainstream media, either. It was only when she saw Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave that she realised that women with dark skin could be considered beautiful. Until then, though, the only time she felt beautiful was when her dad told her so. “You are the most beautiful person alive, you’re perfect,” he’d say. But when her father passed away, aged 15, she didn’t really have a reason to believe it. After months of hating her own existence, Aweng finally turned to her mother. “I was like to my mum, ‘You have to step into my dad’s shoes now and tell me everyday that I’m beautiful.’ I needed someone to be like, ‘You got this’. Everyone assumed I was a grown up by age seven, because there were other kids to worry about. But you can’t forget that your eldest child needs support, too, no matter how intelligent or independent she seems.”
Aweng was working at a local McDonald’s in Sydney when she first got scouted to be a model. Fearing that at 16 she was too young, she made a pact with her mother that if it was meant to be, she’d give it another ago aged 18. Two years later, she was scouted again. By this point in her life, Aweng had finally come to terms with accepting her unique beauty, but working in the modelling industry, which has only recently begun its path towards a more inclusive and diverse casting agenda, brought with it a fresh set of challenges. “At first I didn’t feel accepted,” she says. “I felt as if I was a token. It wasn’t just that I was the only dark skinned female, I was the girl with the scars on her face. I had clients that I’d dreamt of working with for years come up to me and say, ‘We only want to use this side of your face because of your scars’. They didn’t even see me as a human. They only wanted parts of me.”
In the short year that she’s been a model, Aweng has walked for Vetements, Pyer Moss and a handful of independent New York labels, appeared in presentations for MM6 and Sadie Williams, graced the pages of Dazed, Nylon and Dansk, worked with rising photographer Tyler Mitchell, and collaborated with stylist Ib Kamara on a shoot for Burberry. “I’m a lot happier now,” she laughs. “I’ve accepted that even though people were fetishising my beauty, they were appreciating it."
Off the catwalk and away from the cameras, Aweng is busy studying two degrees, Politics and Psychology, at the University of New England in Australia. “My goal in life is to be the first female President of South Sudan. I feel like I’m needed over there, I don’t know if you've noticed but we’re in a crisis,” she explains. “It's time for millennials to take over. Now, not in 10 years time. It's messy right now, imagine in 10 years time."
Her studies in psychology, however, are purely for pleasure, although they’ve put her in good stead for navigating her way through the political minefield of the fashion industry. “I work in an industry where you’re constantly surrounded by people 24/7, so it helps when you understand how different people work. Everybody is different. It’s ok to be different.” She’s also a keen activist, posting regularly about the refugee crisis as well about LGBTQ+ issues (she identifies as bisexual). “I am very vocal,” she says. “The more vocal I am, the more I become known as more than just a model, more than just a scar, more than having a 36-year-old mother or 12 siblings.”
When asked how she sees herself, however, she sums it up perfectly: “I see myself as someone I wish I saw when I was younger. As someone who has grown a lot and who grows everyday. I am my own hero.”
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