Danielle Brooks on being a body advocate for her younger self: 'My purpose is to be the person I wanted to see'

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Danielle Brooks opens up about the importance of representation. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Danielle Brooks opens up about the importance of representation. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

Danielle Brooks embraces her place in the body acceptance movement, calling herself "the voice of the curves" since she's been in the spotlight. But one of the most vital parts in her relationship with her body is allowing herself to not be positive about it at all times, and not to punish herself for that.

"My goal is to always live authentically in my skin and to love the body that I have," she tells Yahoo Life. "Do I always win? No. But will I always strive for that goal? Yes. Because that's the more peaceful place to live."

Her approach to the topic stems back to her upbringing when she became acutely aware of the standards that society had for women and their bodies, and noticed that she fit outside of that.

"When I was growing up, we didn't have social media, but we had magazines, we had billboards, you know, those magazines that came to your mama's house of women's clothing. You always kind of were forced to pin your own body image against someone else's," she says. "You can't escape it. ... So I think I've always kind of been aware of America's beauty standard and how I always went against the grain of that by just being who God created me to be."

Exploring that dichotomy between what she saw in the media and how she saw herself was something that she became interested in and even researched for a high school paper.

"I pulled every magazine that I could find at Walmart and I started to go through each one and see if I saw myself in any of them. The ratio was so low, I did not see myself at all," she says, noting that it was around 2007. "That's why when I was in a position when the industry and media and everything became interested in who I was and my light started to shine a bit more and people started taking notice, I said, 'That's my purpose is to be the person I wanted to see.'"

Brooks first gained traction when she appeared as Taystee in Orange Is the New Black where she was celebrated for providing representation for plus-size Black women among a diverse cast. She also showed off her undeniable talent when she starred as Sofia in the 2015 production of The Color Purple — a role that she'll soon reprise in the 2023 film produced by Oprah.

In all that she does, Brooks's biggest goal is to show up as herself, unapologetically, in the hopes that others growing up unrepresented can relate to her in one way or another.

"Curly hair, dark skin, and a curvy body, whether they look like me or not, if they can identify themselves in what I'm doing, which is being authentically myself, then that's a win," she says. "It's always been about being that person that I've always wanted to see growing up."

A big accomplishment in that mission came in 2017 when Brooks starred in Lane Bryant's "I'm No Angel" lingerie campaign. Outside of her work on-screen or on stage, she became a part of a movement that she strongly believed in. "There were so many people who responded to that, to seeing plus size women being sexy and being unapologetic in their skin. And that really opened a lot of doors for people," she says.

While representation, acceptance and accessibility for all body types continues to be a slow process throughout the fashion industry and elsewhere, Brooks continues to do her part by using her own platform to share messages that are important to her. She's even recently partnered up with Aerie for their latest SMOOTHEZ collection, noting that the brand's ongoing commitment to showcasing unfiltered bodies is what drew her to it.

"This battle of being unapologetic and loving your skin and loving the body that you've been given is still so important and it still is valid and it's something that should still be talked about and celebrated and reminded to these young girls every day," she says. "I think that it hits home even more now that I have a daughter that's creeping up on three and who's starting to be more conscious of her body."

In fact, it's a full circle moment for Brooks who gets to be a part of the representation that her daughter Freeya will grow up seeing — the type of representation that Brooks craved as a child herself.

"I've always been aware of it, and it's just hasn't gone away. It's only kind of amplified now that I have a daughter, and I think my purpose has amplified as well," she says. "It's important to remind her as she grows up like, you're fly, you're amazing, you're dope, every bump, curve, back roll, everything is perfect just as it should be."

She also emphasizes that it's OK to not be so positive all of the time.

"No growth comes without pain, so it hasn't always been easy to discuss body image. There's some times where I don't want to," Brooks says. "I think it's OK to give myself permission, because it is my body, to say, 'I don't want to talk about this, I don't have to.' I actually can give myself permission to release myself of that responsibility, because this is my body and I have to do the work within myself if there are times that I need my own personal healing."

One of those times was when she had just become a new mom and had to come to terms with the way that her body had evolved.

"I gained 60 pounds with my daughter and after having her I was very discouraged to talk about my body because for the longest I've called myself 'the voice of the curves,' and here I am not as curvaceous as I wanted to be," she recalls. "I think it's important to bring that into the conversation too. It's not always gonna be perfect, you're not always gonna feel beautiful and that's OK to acknowledge."

Today, Brooks is most focused on recognizing that her relationship with her body "is forever changing. Day to day, minute to minute, week to week," especially as so much has changed since bringing her daughter into the world. Serving her baby girl and her own younger self is now her constant.

"We're all evolving and changing and I think it's important to always do what feels right for you. What I do know for sure is that I'm always going to be a mom and I'm always going to be an example for someone," she says, "whether that's just Freeya or a bunch of young girls out there like me."

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