TO ANYONE EMBRACING SEXUALITY ON THEIR TERMS
To anyone embracing sexuality on their terms,
We’d like you to meet Gillian Chan from Brooklyn, New York. We first came across Gilly from her IG page and thought WOW, she is beautiful. But quickly, we found ourselves even more struck by the vulnerable reflections she takes to write out in each of her posts. Upon further digging we also learned that not only was she Playboy’s November ‘19 Playmate (!!!!!!!!) featured in the same issue that had Kylie Jenner on its cover, but she also founded @theremedyplatform, a space dedicated to talking mental health made specifically with communities of color in mind.
In my own journey of self exploration (Devin here), one of the key pieces I learned I was missing was any real integration of my sexuality. Being harassed by men as early as 11 years old and simultaneously chastised in the church for my clothes not being modest enough and therefore causing men to “lust after me”, created a hotbed for sexual dysfunction. My solution, I’ve realized in hindsight, was to cover my body in large, loose-fitting clothing, avoid sex at all costs, and seek out lots and lots of therapy. While it helped to a certain degree, it never reconciled my relationship to my body. To this day when I’m alone, when I’m about to shower or when I’m about to get dressed, at best I will feel disconnected from it and at my worst, disgusted by it. That’s why seeing Gilly, a woman who similarly had to endure unwanted sexual attention and harassment from men at a young age take back her power, with the ADDED struggle of embracing her mixed race heritage and self-described in-between sized body, is an inspiring act of self love.
As young women we are harassed, chastised, sexualized, and urged to be pure all at once. We fall all over the spectrum as to how we cope with this. But what I can assure you is, for Gilly, posing in an issue of Playboy is not giving into the masses of the over sexualization of women, but just the opposite. It is handing the power back to the women who’ve had it stripped from them since they were kids. It means reconciling your relationship to your naked body and sharing it on your terms. It is defiance against purity culture that says it's a woman’s responsibility to keep people from “lusting.” It’s a celebration of the bodies we are given and a refusal of any kind of external shame!! IT’S EXTRAORDINARY!
All that to say, Gilly Chan has done the healing work for herself and as such has done the healing work for others. We are so struck by her confidence, vulnerability, depth, and courage to take matters into her own hands by doing what feels right to her. We are excited for you to learn from this interview we were lucky to have with her. We, personally, are taking notes.
You were Playboy's November 2019 Playmate, but did you always see yourself modeling or working in fashion?
I’ve always loved fashion, but I didn't grow up wearing designer clothes like my peers did. My mom and I loved discount stores (i.e. Marshall, TJMAXX) and I always found that I could still express myself through thrift store items. It wasn't until I was an adult that I bought my first designer piece for myself. I actually went to college planning to play sports, but quickly realized that even though I loved to play and work out, it was a culture of people I couldn't connect with. I also had a love of creativity in me that I wanted to express, so I ran away to London to go to art school and onto Parsons and Eugene Lang when I moved to New York.
What was your major?
I did fine arts minor, sculpture more specifically. And psychology!
Can you talk about how modeling came into the picture?
It was on a whim, actually! I never considered it because I’m an “in-between'' model. You have your straight sized and plus sized models, but anyone in between, agencies are sometimes confused as to how to place and market you. It was at a time when I was waitressing and working retail but decided to submit a photo to an agency and they signed me.
What was the experience like, modeling for Playboy?
They were so collaborative - Playboy. They asked me what my vision for the shoot was, especially since it’s such a vulnerable state being nude. I asked them to have a female photographer, preferably a person of color. Kanya Iwana was my photographer. She's incredible. Overall the shoot just felt so me and so organic. They really captured the essence of who I am.
What was the setting for that shoot?
It was on a beach and it was foggy out. It had a very earthy feel. The team made me feel as comfortable as possible and were consistently checking in with me to make sure I was feeling good.
We’re curious about the feeling of having your nude photos out there. Particularly on the internet where everything feels very permanent.
At first it made me nervous because I was getting a lot of people reaching out and sending me photos of myself. So there’s that aspect to it. But it also makes me feel really powerful. A woman like myself, who is curvy, who is mixed race, to be confident with my body in this magazine. It kind of overtook all the fear of having my nude photos out there because I knew I was in control of the shoot. The shoot was a reflection of me, no one pressured me into it and everyone made sure it was how I wanted to see myself.
Does it feel like a celebration of your sexuality?
Yeah, and that’s why I’m more proud than worried about having my nude photos out there. There are so many incredible women, men, and non-binary people out there who have nude photos as an expression of rebellion and a way to celebrate their bodies.
How do you balance the celebration of your sexuality with feeling sexualized?
I am very aware that my body is being sexualized, but I also feel in control of it. I think that’s the difference. The way that people look at my photos doesn’t impact the protected space I’ve created by being in control of the shoot and how I’ve decided to be perceived.
Has embracing your sexuality become a form of healing?
Owning your sexuality, unfortunately, sometimes comes from trauma. As someone who has been in traumatic situations, it’s a form of reclaiming my sexuality and control. It helped me through my healing journey with trauma in the past. I’ve been tall and curvy since I was 14. Older men on the street constantly harassed me and it was traumatizing. For a long time I just wanted to hide my body. When I got into my twenties, I found a balance of showing my body in a way that made me feel comfortable. This is the way my body is, and I can’t change it so that other people are more comfortable with it.
How has Playboy given you the opportunity to take back your power and express yourself exactly the way they want to?
I loved magazines as a kid and used to tear out pictures of models and tape them on the walls of my bedroom. But every picture was of a thin, white model. It made me feel like I needed to look like that. I damaged my curly hair by straightening it for years because I saw that they all had straight hair. I wore extensions, and tried to lose weight. Having the opportunity to challenge that standard and help other women feel as though they don’t need to change themselves, feels kind of beautiful. It’s not body positivity - because that movement has been co-opted in a way that I don’t feel comfortable with it anymore - but encouraging women to feel comfortable and focus on things outside of the cis-hetero male gaze.
Can you talk about your experience watching the plus size community get pushed out of the body positive movement?
Body positivity was started by Black women, and while the movement garnered a lot of support by femmes, it also became non-intersectional and silenced fat Black women who started this movement. It's not what it used to be and it doesn't stand for what it used to be. Body positivity is inclusivity. Instead what we're seeing, especially within what people consider plus-size women, are women who are my size (size 12) or smaller. A lot of brands claim inclusivity, campaign using a size 6 or 8 model, and only go up to a size 12. That is not a plus size woman. How do you think that makes bigger women feel?
How do you show support as someone who is an in-between model?
There should be space for everyone. That's what inclusivity is. I just try not to use words like body positivity, because I know that's me co-opting a movement that wasn't made for me. I'm not discriminated against in stores, I can go into most stores and pick up something while a person who is a size 14+ cannot.
What would you say to people who would say it's easy for you to be confident because you're literally a model?
I would say attractiveness does not equal confidence. Confidence comes from within, what you see as your passions and how you see your place in the world. I've met a lot of beautiful successful people who have a lot of insecurities. They pick themselves apart and because this job comes with a microscope, you can always find something wrong about yourself despite being put on a pedestal.
How do you build confidence without creating an ego?
It comes from finding a medium where you can be confident but also vulnerable. For example, as a mental health advocate, I say “Hey, I’ve experienced mental illness,” and at the same time, “Here is how I am working through it.” I’m speaking out about my mental health experiences because I’m confident enough to, because it’s really hard, but I’m also being vulnerable and have a sense of empathy to feel and think about how others may feel. At the end of the day, a lot of women are taught not to be self-assured because they think a confident woman means she has an ego. But, whatever. My friends always say, you’re THAT person? Yes. I am.
This interview has been edited and condensed.