by Preveena Jayabalan
Note: This essay includes references to suicidal ideation and depression.
“What will people say?”
As girls of color, particularly first-generation Americans, that's a phrase drummed into our ears from a young age. It's up to represent our community, but sometimes we're forced to limit our self-expression, because of stigma, pressure, or judgement, or maybe just because your family cares too much about what Aunty Sarojini, Uncle Raju, and their cousins might say about you.
However, 19-year-old, Zuleika Marie Gomez thinks that's absolutely ridiculous.
Her raw, unapologetic, gritty sense of beauty smashes any pretense of the quiet, good girl she's expected to be. Her dressing sense might make your mother gasp, but she doesn't care. As she often says, her tattoos and piercings do not make her a thug, just as another woman's shawl and bindi do not make her a saint.
As the only child in her family, Zuleika started up a skincare business at the tender age of 13. Her entrepreneurial visions did not receive the green light from her family at first, as she was still a student, and they worried she would not be able to manage a business or put her profits to good use. But Zuleika defied expectations. Unicorn Lab, her 100% vegan and chemical free skincare business, exploded across on social media, most notably Instagram, the traditional domain of wealthy, white female influencers.
All of a sudden, Zuleika started receiving attention as a young entrepreneur. She started building her brand, helping her family become accepting of the new but nonetheless legitimate career of social media influencing. She started participating in photo shoots, flaunting her melanin in ingenious and creative ways.
Now, as a social media influencer with 47.8k followers on Instagram, Zuleika takes her responsibilities as a cultural worker, creator, and role model very seriously. She's raw and open about her struggles as an entrepreneur, including her ongoing evolution with mental health issues and depression. She frequently speaks out about toxicity and positive social circles, using her own life experiences as a lesson for others. For example, she describes how her own life once spiraled out of her control when she was in an unhealthy friend group, leading her to consider taking her own life. Zuleika believes that surrounding herself with positive people and seeking help were the key to regaining control of her mental health. Although she's often been told that depression is incurable, Zuleika believes that when it comes to mental health, you're your own strongest champion.
Zuleika also uses her platform to empower and amplify women from all walks of life and she finds her mother, Mary Easaw-John, the Chief Dietitian of The National Heart Institute Malaysia as her inspiration in life. If you take a close look at her social media accounts, Zuleika is unapologetically genuine, decrying the use of Photoshop, filters, and anything else that's used to make women feel less than they are. In each post, she speaks truths from the perspective of a woman of color, discussing topics like women rights, slut shaming, body positivity and female stereotypes.
Most essentially, Zuleika lives by one central truth: nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. So, to all the Aunty Sarojinis and Uncle Rajus that I may or may not have met before; let a woman curate her life her own way. Let her enjoy her own body as art. Let her express herself. This is not a plea, by the way. It’s an order.