London-based model and activist Naomi Shimada always lifts our mood with her bold colour combinations and inspires us with her open and honest approach to life. To celebrate her edit of her favourite Topshop pieces, we spent the afternoon together in Dalston to talk about the power of clothes, female body image and Christina Aguilera’s underwear…
Hi Naomi! Can you introduce yourself?
Hi! I’m mostly known as a model, but I’ve recently delved into the world of documentaries. I’m also supposed to describe myself as an author now. My book agent keeps getting mad at me as I’ve been doing interviews and I don’t tell anyone that I’ve been writing a book… I do lots of things. I am a millennial!
What’s the book about?
It’s a memoir, talking about what it means to be a young woman in the 21st century. It explores the relationship between joy and pain, and how we survive pain through joy. Sometimes out of sorrow the best things happen, but you just have to go through the sorrow and face it head-on. You can mask pain, but it’s always going to come and smack you in the face. So it’s a book that says ‘why don’t we just talk about it?’ It celebrates honest, open living. A lot of it is taking shame away from the topics we’re made to feel ashamed about as women – sex, grief, our bodies.
You talk quite openly about female body image…
Talking about the female body is what I’ve been doing up until now, but it’s just an entry point into all the other things I actually care about. If you learn to live without caring about what you look like all the time, if you let yourself just ‘be’, it gives you more power to live your life – to do the work that you really want to do, to have friendships and relationships that you really want to be in. It’s about not putting up with the things that make you unhappy.
I’m so aware of how buzzword-y the term ‘body positive’ has become – I actually hate the term. When something gets overused, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. I want to talk about an attitude to life and not just the way you look. That frame of mind is not just about how you get dressed in the morning; it’s the confidence that comes when you love yourself and think you deserve better in all aspects of your life.
How have you achieved that confidence?
You have to get uncomfortable to get comfortable. You have to get know yourself and ask yourself real questions: ‘Are you happy?’ ‘What’s making you unhappy?’ ‘What needs to change?’
As women, we’re made to feel like we’re never good enough – all the time. But hating yourself is such a waste of time, no one else cares, only you. Think about how much time and energy you waste. I just wanted to do something more proactive with my time other than hating myself.
I just dress how I want to and I am unapologetic about it. I’m a human being in a size 14 body and I’m not ashamed of it. I find it really frustrating that I’m a person of average size – the most average size in the UK – and I’ve had to be really inventive about how I dress because I can’t go in and buy something straight off the rack as it doesn’t fit me.
How would you describe your style?
I really believe that clothing is an extension of our souls, it’s our superpower. And that’s how I use colour. I always tell people that clothes are our battle-wear. If you’re tired or having a bad day, then put on a bit of lipstick and a good outfit, and you feel like you can face the world. That’s the power of clothes.
I also try and take some of the power of the male gaze and that objectification back. I dress for me. I wear exactly what I want to wear.
What is your earliest memory of Topshop?
I remember the first time I came to London and went to the Oxford Circus store. I walked in to the underwear section and Christina Aguilera was there with her giant bodyguard. She was shopping the thong section like I was and I thought ‘OMG! I’m going to buy the same thong as Christina Aguilera!’
What do you love about the Topshop pieces you’ve chosen for your edit?
All the items I picked are so what I would normally wear. I like that they are all colourful and actually comfortable. I always dress for comfort. I hate anything that feels restrictive. I live a kind of life where I never know what I’m going to end up doing that day, so I want clothes to be functional.
I love a fun crop top – it’s my thing. I love a little bit of midriff, I always will. For a girl who has my shape and who wants to show some skin, that’s a nice way to do it.
What are your tips for people who might be afraid of wearing colour?
Start with touches, like a shoe or a bag. Then if you’re feeling adventurous, go for a tank top. What I love about Topshop are all the tank tops – I have them in every colour! Pair them with something you are more comfortable with. Ease yourself into it. I’m so into doing a full one-colour look – I’ll do all lime-green, all orange, all yellow, all red. But you don’t need to do that, you can flirt with it.
You’ll notice that, by wearing even a little bit of colour, it has the power to change your mood. It picks you up and people will react differently to you. When I wear all one colour, everyone wants to be my friend, everyone wants to say ‘hi’. It’s a really nice way to navigate through the world, especially with everything going on right now. Colour creates a nice reminder that we are supposed to talk to people in our community more. It’s a talking point. It’s something so simple, but it bridges conversation and creates a really beautiful connection between people.
Is it about having fun and not caring if something is ‘cool’ or not?
Everyone is a complete character with an interesting story, but people dismiss each other because we have a box of what we think is cool. How do you even measure cool? I don’t think girls getting lip injections at 16 is cool. I think platforming these girls is really dangerous because they don’t really care about the world and yet they are dictating what culture is.
Imagine having that platform where you could speak to so many people! We have to ask what we profile people for and why we look up to them. I want to look up to people who are intelligent, whether that intelligence comes from academia or not. It’s often about emotional intelligence. If you just care about stuff, then I think you’re cool.
That’s why I started being vocal in the first place because I realised that there was such a lack of people in the public eye who weren’t skinny. I just thought you could be an astronaut, an Olympic athlete, an amazing actress, but people don’t give a damn about you if you’re not skinny. And I just thought ‘wow! That is so embarrassing for society’. It’s like you have nothing to offer and everything else about you gets discounted. That’s insane! For me to justify my existence and placement in the public eye like this, I always want to make sure I’m best-dressed, that I’m just as intelligent, that I always have good hair and good make-up, that everything is on-point because I need to prove how important my visibility is. And not just mine, but other girls like me. We can be just as fashionable, our positioning in the world can, and is, just as important.
Who do you look up to?
There are some really amazing young girls coming through right now, like Amandla Stenberg and Yara Shahidi. They are so smart and they’re not constantly talking about their race. They’re so cool because they know the only way to move this conversation about diversity on is letting your art and your work speak for you, otherwise you are always bringing whiteness into the conversation and you shouldn’t be giving it the airtime.
I love my friend Kimberly Drew, the social media manager of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’s the It girl of the art world right now. She’s so smart and such an incredible curator.
I also admire Michaela Coel, writer and star of Chewing Gum, and Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo. It’s really important to platform young women of colour because that’s how we take this topic away from tokenism. You don’t have to make a magazine ‘The Black Issue,’ you just put black girls in your magazine all the time. Because the girls are there – there’s always been cool black girls. It’s not like there’s suddenly a wave of them. Society is finally waking up and realising it!
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m literally reading 10 books at the same time. Some are: Future Sex by Emily Witt; Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, my bible; Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari; Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, a book of poetry by Warsan Shire that’s beautiful, sad and intense and cuts so deep; and What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.
I want to go away by myself for two weeks and just read. There’s so much I want to read, but I find London a difficult place to do that. I just want it to be quiet! When I am in reading mode, I can do it for hours and hours and hours, so I just want to be by myself. I love going away so I don’t have to talk to anybody!
What are your favourite holiday destinations?
I tend not to keep going back to the same places. I like to travel alone, or meet people and connect with people when I’m there. This summer I’m going to the south of France, Tuscany and then Essaouira for my birthday. I spend a lot of time in Mexico – Mexico City is my spirit city. I’ve also been spending a lot of time in LA recently and I love it. And New York, where I used to live, will always be one of my homes.
What do you love most about summer?
I am a summer baby. I was born in July. I love the heat – the hotter the better! I also love the water. The swimming pool, the sea… I will spend as much time as I can in the water in summer. My dad was a wild-water swimmer!
What is your favourite London hang-out?
The Ladies Pond, Hampstead Heath. It’s like a female utopia there, how the world would be without men. Everyone there is reading such interesting books. I love just lying there and listening to everyone’s conversations – the conversations that happen when there are literally no men around are so interesting!