Shettima Webb (center) works with girls of all shapes and sizes at her Model Esteem classes in Pilsen. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
CHICAGO — Inspired by her own journey to self-acceptance, curvy model Shettima Webb is helping girls across the city learn to slay the runway — their own way.
Webb is the founder of Model Esteem, a modeling and performance art program for kids and young adults. With an anti-bullying message, the program focuses on improving self-esteem in young women by empowering them to put their best foot forward.
In her mid-30s, Webb has broken barriers to forge a career as a professional model. She started in the industry at 30 as a plus-sized model. Today, she's walked in New York Fashion Week shows and poses for print ads often.
But as a kid growing up in Chicago's Austin neighborhood, Webb was teased because of her looks and bullied by her classmates. As a result, she suffered from "very low" self-esteem, she said.
"I got teased because of my skin tone, because I was a darker girl. It was very hurtful," Webb remembered. "I constantly felt not good enough."
At age 15, Webb's grandmother Pearl enrolled her in modeling and acting school at Barbizon Modeling, but her lack of confidence caused by the constant bullying kept her from pursuing her dreams.
"When I was younger, I didn't know who I was. And when you don't know who you are, you allow everyone else to dictate who you are, and you take it to heart," Webb said. "It affected me so much more because I didn't know how to fight it off."
Kayla Holloway poses in a Model Esteem class in Pilsen. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
It wasn't until age 30, after navigating motherhood and a job in accounting, that she mustered the courage to give modeling another go. In 2009, Webb entered the Miss Illinois Plus America pageant and won. The accomplishment propelled her to model in fashion shows, including model showcases during New York Fashion Week and for Chicago-based designer House of Duvall.
"Now, I'm signed to three agencies. The girl who had low self-esteem, the girl that people talked about, is now doing print ads, walking the runway," Webb said.
Webb often tells her own story to motivate young girls to pursue their dreams despite the naysayers.
While models have long been held to strict beauty standards — stereotyped as tall, thin, young and with European features — the industry is changing.
In solidarity with the fashion industry's call to end runway racism, German designer Philipp Plein cast only black models in his spring 2014 show. Last spring, designer Zac Posen followed suit, casting mostly black models at his New York Fashion Week show.
In recent decades, top models have smashed the industry's taller-than-tall height restrictions, too, including 5-foot 7 supermodel Kate Moss and fashion model Devon Aoki, who is 5-foot 5.
And this year, full-figured model Ashley Graham made headlines when she was chosen to grace the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition's cover at a size 14.
That makes sense, Webb said, because plus-sized models represent the majority of women in America.
"As women, we aim to relate to other women," Webb said. "You don't have to be afraid to be who you are."
Andriana Hughes (left) and Kayla Holloway (right) are learning how to model at Model Esteem classes. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
Armed with her own success, Webb's now teaching her tricks of the trade to girls of all shapes and sizes — short, tall, curvy, thin and all different races.
Andriana Hughes, a 13-year-old student from Auburn Gresham, has modeled with Webb for two years, performing in shows at the Daley Center and at Teen Fashion Week. At 5-foot 4, Hughes is shorter than most runway models, but she owns her height.
"If you're you, nobody can really change that," Hughes said. "You're original, you're not a copy, you can't be put in a box or a category."
At 5-foot 11, 13-year-old Kayla Holloway from South Deering was eager to put her long legs to work, but she was shy. In the modeling classes, the Morgan Park Academy student has learned how to exude confidence, she said.
"When I started I was very shy," Holloway said. "But I can express myself through my model walk."
Shatiana Henderson, of Garfield Park, and Jackie Estrada, 20, are proud curve models learning to slay the runway in the Model Esteem program. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
Jackie Estrada of Gage Park has explored modeling as a hobby.
"I always wanted to be a model, but because I'm plus size, I always had people discourage me all of the time because of my size," said Estrada, 20. "They would say 'Oh, you're not thin. You don't have the figure to be a model.'"
Estrada's hobby has come to motivate her in her everyday life.
"No matter what your size is, you should love yourself," she said.
If she were bullied today, she said she would respond: " 'I don't care what you think. I'm going to keep on walking, and I'm going to keep on doing what I love.'"
Shatiana Henderson, 24 of Garfield Park, has been teased in grammar school, high school and even today in college.
"I was teased about my teeth, about my height. I wasn't plus size at first, I was really skinny. Now I'm a size 20," Henderson said proudly. "But seeing Shettima, she had so much 'oomph' about her, so much personality and so much courage. I said, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'"
Some of the girls' transformations — as singers, dancers, actresses and models — have brought Webb to tears. Feeling accepted and loved in the classes, their talents flourish, she said.
"They come here, and they have their heads down; they are very shy. And I just watch them evolve and grow into these beautiful flowers," Webb said. "I'm very proud of them."
The 12-week Model Esteem sessions, priced at $25 per three-hour class, meet Saturday afternoons at Monique Bailey's fitness studio, Skyy Level Group Fitness in Pilsen. For more information on Webb's classes, visit Model Esteem online.
Models work on their poses during a Model Esteem class in Pilsen. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
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