I always knew I was different, even as a young kid.
My name is Mirian Njoh, I am a stylist, model, photographer, and blogger, but I am also known for my albinism. I was born in Monrovia, Liberia to a Liberian mom and Nigerian dad. Because of the Liberian Civil War, our family left when I was very young and moved to Detroit for a better life. Not long thereafter, my parents separated, leaving my mother to make a new life in an unknown place for my 3 sisters and me.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Even before I understood what albinism was, I understood its effect, and it made me aware that I was different. My mother told me stories of how, when I was very young, I knew when people were staring at me, and made sure I’d let them know. As I grew older, I became even more aware of my differences. At recess, I was the only kid that had to wear a hat to protect my skin from the sun. And I also had a very protective mother always reminding me to “stay in the shade”. Well how am I supposed to be a kid, when I can’t go play with other kids? I was always aware of my differences. For instance, I’m visually impaired, a condition that often accompanies albinism. I literally graduated from school never being able to read 90% of the shit on the board! It’s miraculous that I did so with A’s and B’s. But I learned to memorize at a very young age. I memorized what the teacher said as she talked. No goofing off for me in the class. I had to pay attention, because if I didn’t get it audibly, I surely couldn’t read it off the chalkboard. And that was my world — navigating albinism. To be a normal kid, I had to learn my limitations. And that’s how I began to understand albinism, in a negative way — what I couldn’t do, what I couldn’t see — in comparison to my peers. It wasn’t “oh you’re unique, you’re special”, it was, “you have to have books, with large print and special fonts.”
Believe it or not, I wasn’t openly teased in school, after all it was my environment and the kids all knew me. It was the subtle things that made me feel like I didn’t belong — being chosen last for group activities or not being asked to the school dance. It was the whispers and comments from total strangers, the stares. Is she black? Or white? I’m sure at some point, I’ve even been called the usual suspects, like ghost, Casper, etc.
But my biggest bully was someone I couldn’t escape. It was myself. My own voice of not being happy with myself, not being able to do what others could, feeling ugly or not looking like anyone else, including my own family. I was my biggest negative force! I was insecure, with low self-esteem and even lower self-confidence. I would stand in the mirror and just cry. . A LOT. I hated my reflection. My eyes were too far apart, acne, braces, nose too big, lips too (and this was before big lips were “in”). I was trapped in this body I didn’t want to be in. All of my differences were associated with negative things, and I had a hard time accepting myself.
To get through the tough times, creativity was my escape, more specifically, writing. I loved writing! Give me a Five Star notebook, Mead, Post its, napkins, and I would give you a manuscript. At the age of 10, I was reading Stephen King and R.L. Stine novels and writing psychological thrillers. I was the only kid I knew that wanted to be a horror novelist. I’m not sure exactly what attracted me to this particular writing genre at such a young age but looking back now I think penning dark tales where bad things happened and villains got away free was a manifestation of the way I viewed the world around me. Writing was my release. So it found its way into poetry and songs while my most intimate thoughts found their way into my journal.
As a kid all you want to do is blend in, and I was no different. In high school, I hung out with the outcasts — think emos, rockers, skaters, etc — the misfits. That’s how I saw myself. A misfit. But it still wasn’t a perfect fit. I hung with dropouts, yet I was an A student. I hung with weed heads, but I’ve never smoked a day in my life. That’s me — the dichotomy. Some people loved their teenage years; it was a peak for them. Not me. They were a struggle. I felt tormented. And my internal bully manifested itself into depression, anxiety, and stress within me. It was an everyday battle to like myself, or not hate myself so much. I always felt…less than. And I couldn’t talk about it. My life felt out of control. But from the outside, you would never know.
THE POWER OF CHANGE
Not really wanting to, I moved to Toronto because the rest of my family was relocating and I couldn’t stay back in Michigan by myself. But my life changed when I came here. One day, I was standing in a subway station on one of the hottest days of the year, feeling particularly gross and sweaty after a long day of work. Suddenly someone approached me and asked if I’d ever thought of modeling. That was a first. EVER. Then, oddly, it began to happen more frequently, people seemingly intrigued by my look — but in a good way — wanting to work with me specifically because of it. My differences in Detroit became my glories in Toronto! They became my opportunities. Apparently, a larger city, with a larger creative industry was the stage I needed. There became an interest in me in a way I had never experienced before. I was never the “cute girl” growing up. No one ever said, “You’re beautiful”. Now, I’m seen as interesting and unique. And that was the push I needed: the positive reinforcement to see myself in a different light, to see the value in my differences. I began to see the power in my albinism.
And that’s what I’m learning, how powerful it is to be different. It can be your biggest strength. Before I saw it as a crutch, a hindrance. But now, I see my differences help me stand out. People I may have met a year ago, remember me. I stand out. And that’s something I’ve begun to recognize is one of my greatest strengths. There’s truly only one of me walking around and there’s no mistaking it! That’s quite powerful. I realize I was hungry for validation. I needed it. And as I began to get it, it helped me see myself as uniquely different.
And with power comes responsibility. I take the things that make me stand apart and use them to my benefit. I use my differences to leverage everything else that comes with me. “Now that I have your attention, let me tell you something powerful, show you what I stand for.” My blog, for instance, I use as a platform to share my experience as a young woman with albinism navigating the fashion industry and other areas of life while exploring my creativity. I let down my typically private exterior and openly invite my readers to join me on my journey. I share my story and my ideas so that others who identify with me can see that they’re not alone and feel inspired to be their most authentic selves as I also strive to do. In addition I am currently expanding my blog’s scope to include the stories of other young tastemakers in the industry as another way for my readers to connect and be inspired. I seek to be that representation for young girls and boys like me that just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re less than. Your unique perspective can be your greatest asset.
Life is growth. Self-love is a journey, and one that requires nurturing continuously. I’m still growing, but I’ve come a long way from where I was at 16. I now see more of my internal value, with or without the validation of others. I now take myself as a full package. I know what I have to offer is powerful. The fashion world can be finicky and I am far from the cookie cutter example of a fashion model but I still found my way onto the Toronto Fashion Week runway, something I never would’ve fathomed at 16. Designers wanting to work with me? Photographers wanting to shoot me? There is a place for me. I bring value.
MY BIGGEST ADVICE
There’s an African proverb my mother used to say that goes, “100 years is not forever.” And that simply means, you can go through really hard times, situations that seem as if they may never end, but things do change. They will not remain forever.
All I needed was a little positive reinforcement. Now, every time I get it, I run with it. And there’s no going back for me. So if you’re not getting that reinforcement in your environment, seek to connect with other like-minded people. Keep refining yourself; and keep seeking until you get it. Take it from me. There are people like you out there that know your struggle and understand where you’re coming from. Search for them. Learn from them. FIND YOUR TRIBE!
And don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s okay if you don’t have it “all figured out”. Change paths if you have to until you discover what suits you best; keep working to be your best self. I know on Instagram, all you see are glossy, “like-filled” lives. But the truth is we’re all just trying to figure it out and that’s just part of life. You’re not alone. There are 7 billion people on this planet, all trying to navigate their surroundings — trying to figure it out. If you’re feeling stuck, have faith that you will come out on the other side. Just keep at it. Resilience is key. Oftentimes the people who succeed are simply the ones who refused to give up.
Mirian Njoh X UDD
And you thought it was just you.
“There are 7 billion people on this planet ... all trying to figure it out."
— M Njoh
As simple as this statement is, it’s a game changer! It’s universally true. We often become enchanted by the glossy lives of others (myself included). But we must remind ourselves that what we see is merely what is presented. This presentation rarely includes those vulnerable, behind-the-scene moments of doubt, fear, weakness, insecurities and disappointments. But they’re there.
From Oprah to Elon Musk to your favorite Kardashian, each and every one is trying to figure it out — life, love, what’s next — whatever “it” may be. And how do you figure it out? I think Oprah said it best at her talk at Stanford University. When faced with a challenge, she simply asks herself what’s the next right move. Apparently this is stellar advice, since she’s used it to attain obscene success.
We all have behind-the-scene moments, but the people who succeed are simply the ones who refuse to give up — they keep navigating — like Mirian Njoh.
Mirian Njoh is a force. Not only has she discovered the power in being uniquely her, she learned to leverage those differences to inspire and educate others on albinism. She is aware of the criticisms and persecution Albinos face around the world, especially in African countries. She thus chooses to be a beacon of hope for young girls like her around the world. She is passionate about sharing her experiences and becoming the role model she sought as a child. Mirian is strong, and could’ve taken many paths in life, but she chose the one marked LEGACY. No mistake, there is only one Mirian Njoh, and there’s no stopping this beauty.
Now your turn. How do you navigate your surroundings? Any tips you can pass along that might help the UDD community? Let us know in the comments.