Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cellulite, armpit hair and stretch marks: Talking body positivity

Neon Moon lingerie non bra logo photographer Michelle Long blog

I am an unapologetic feminist and an unapologetic lover of the Middle East. So when I came across a Twitter account for a company whose founder represented both, I jumped at the chance to learn more.

25-year-old Hayat Rachi is the CEO of Neon Moon, a feminist lingerie company that's based in Britain. It manufactures bras that don't body shame their flat chested wearers by including padding and is made from a material that takes on the shape of its user, instead of the other way around. Equally as important as the bras and the underwear are the models, who don't pose for the male gaze and look nothing like Gisele Bundchen nor Adriana Lima. In fact, one woman who modelled for Neon Moon garnered a lot of attention recently when she was photoshopped by Project Harpoon.

So with the power of social media and Skype, Hayat and I were able to talk, and I was able to learn more about her, her start up, and her passion for women to feel amazing about their bodies.

founder of feminist lingerie brand Neon Moon Hayat Rachi blog

I wanted to start off with your childhood. So you identity as being both British and Moroccan. How strong are you ties back to Morocco?

Very strong. Ever since I was young, during the summer holidays we'd go back to Morocco to see my family. I sometimes go back to see my friends. I guess going back is a way for me to go back to being a Moroccan, and is a way for me to be in touch with my heritage.

When you say that you go back to being Moroccan, does that mean that where you grew up in the UK didn't have many Moroccan families or community?

Yeah there were. I was surrounded by my family, not so much friends because the schools that I went to were just completely diversified. People were from different countries, backgrounds, and ethnicities. I wasn't part of a Moroccan clique growing up so when I go back to Morocco it's like, "Oh yeah this is where I come from, oh yeah people here look like me and I look like them." It's pretty cool.

What has the reaction been to your company back in Morocco?

Um, they don't really get it. I think it's because of cultural differences. In Morocco, even though it's very progressive, compared to other Arab countries... I would say that my family don't understand the concept of feminism and of women being as strong as a man, especially with their religious and cultural background. But here in the UK they definitely do get it.

Do you hope to ship Neon Moon to Morocco one day?

Yeah definitely! I would say that it's more needed in Morocco than here, because Moroccans might not be open to the concept of women being empowered and body positive. Their bodies might actually be viewed as being more of a hindrance or something to be ashamed of and not something to be proud and positive about. So I would say that once Neon Moon can be stocked in international countries, I'd love for Morocco to be one of the first.

So I was talking about your company to my friends yesterday and one of them brought up the point that mainstream lingerie brands can be empowering to women if it makes them feel sexy to wear lace for example, underneath their clothes. So what would you say to women who say that it's all about your mindset and not what you wear?

I would say that's great. The lingerie market has a wealth of options, it's completely saturated. So I think that if you've found a brand that works for you, that's great. But Neon Moon has always been an alternative brand for people who do not affiliate with the brands out there, or who do not like to be body shamed by certain brands and that could be for just a woman, or a man, or it could be a transgender woman or any other person who doesn't fit the narrow gender categories. Or even people who are LGBTIQA+ who do not feel affiliated with any brand, who do not feel body positive in any brand or that any brand says, "Your self-esteem matters. Your mind matters as well as your body and your boobs." And that wants to see a change outside of the very narrow standards of beauty that's unfortunately, thin, white, with perky boobs and bums. Someone who's flawless and photo shopped. They might want to see someone who has stretch marks, acne, cellulite, something that really does resonate with them. I'm such an advocate for people who have the options that they're content with, but Neon Moon is a brand for people like me, for people who have never affiliated with a brand other than Neon Moon.

tac-tac! bra coucou! knicker photographed by Fitria Tjandra blog

You've said in more than one interview that you didn't grow up with much. How do you think your socio-economic background affected how you viewed lingerie?

Um well when it comes to lingerie... I always used to buy cheap, because I couldn't afford anything above, probably 50 pounds. So when I did start to read up on where clothes were being made and especially on the Rana Plaza collapse, which was a factory that killed over 1000 workers who made clothes for big brands in the UK, it shocked me. And you know I told myself, just because I was born in the UK, it doesn't give me the right to say, "A black or a brown person abroad - their death is meaningless to me." So I started to think, OK even if I am of like, limited means myself and I always have been, should I still be buying cheap when I probably know that they're being made in sweat shops? Or do I kinda bring this issues to the plate and say, "No guys, you shouldn't be asking me to  lower my prices, it should be about whose hands and sweat and blood are going into these products." Being poor has given me the insight into how people are willing to risk their lives for a bit of money. I think that it's important to bring a transparent nature to fashion and to this industry which is notorious for using factories abroad that may not be up to the standards that they should.

Yeah and I've seen how you've emphasized how this brand is made in Britain. But the products are all produced using bamboo fabric, where do you get this material from?

Their sourced from Europe they all come with the certificates, the OEKO-TEX certificates. That was very important for me to source. I guess I went to the route where it wasn't man made products, they're not really in tune with a people's body anyways. But also it's a material that you can't distinguish what's gone into it. As a start up, it's been an incredible cost. I could have just made the lingerie from any flimsy crap, made it at a minimal cost, gone to these factories abroad and drove down the costs from 1 pound to 90p, and you can actually do that. But I did it in the way that's more in tune to 2015 and what feminism is about these days, where we take into consideration people who don't live in the Western world.

How did you become a feminist?

I've always been one. I guess I never put a name to it, probably because of peer pressure growing up and stuff. I've always been a person who wants to see the best in others, wants to see my friends succeed, and not really pit myself against others in the form of jealousy or anything. I think growing up and becoming more body positive and actually being more awake to what society is telling me, in that my big nose is not OK, my small boobs are not OK, my stretch marks are not OK. and actually saying, "No, I'm OK, I'm healthy, I love my body." I don't understand why society is telling me to go fix myself. Once that realization happened I wanted to find others who might have that issue and actually bring them back from the cusp of fixing themselves and getting that surgery, which is what I wanted to do, if I had the money. Now I've realized I don't need fixing and I want others to see that through Neon Moon as well.

Would you consider yourself an intersectional feminist?

Oh definitely. If you're not intersectional, you're not really a feminist. Everyone should read up on it because it goes beyond "white feminism." It encompasses everything, it's inclusive of all, regardless of your race, sex, whatever you call yourself.

What was your religious upbringing? How did that play into your worldview?

It was Muslim. I thought it was good, I have no regrets with my past. My parents always wanted the best for me, otherwise they wouldn't have come to the UK and sought a better life for me and my brother. My parents are very loving and open and they were surprised in my teen years when I said that I don't affiliate with my religion anymore. But with my family I'm very lucky they don't see it as dishonoring them, but honoring myself, which is so important.

I know that you interned at ElleUK and worked at a London PR firm that that managed lingerie brands. Did you have to learn how to sew when you began this brand or did you know how to beforehand?

No I still don't know how to sew, I don't know how to sew a button on to my coat if it goes missing and I have to replace it. I have no fashion or lingerie background, other thank being hands on and working on it. When it came to samples, I literally had drawings and went to people who could make them, and used as much dialogue as I've ever used to describe what I wanted.

Were you ever criticized for not knowing how to sew?

Yeah yeah. I've had a lot of flack from not only lingerie brands and their designers, but lingerie bloggers too. It's been weird, because obviously on the back of that I've had a lot of support, but I've had a lot of hate. I never expected Neon Moon to go viral. That's come with a lot of good and bad. With the bad comes questions like, "Who's she? What's your background? What university have you been to?" They love that last question. They ask if I've been to one university that a lot of lingerie designers have been to. They've asked who I've worked for and they're not designer brands. So they look down on me and on Neon Moon. But that's great because I fuel on negativity. I'm not that stubborn though. If these haters were to come to me later and say that they love Neon Moon, I'd say great. This industry is born on the backs of people who have lived and breathed lingerie for hundreds of years and that's why I'm thankful. Neon Moon is disruptive to the industry and very bold in its statement, but I work with a factory that's equally as down to earth and they look beyond my age and experience. They know what I'm about. At the end of the day there's nothing more that I can do than make Neon Moon supporters happy.

chartreuse yellow coucou knicker Neon Moon feminist lingerie blog

I understand that The Prince's Trust provided both mentoring services and funding for Neon Moon, but you also launched a Kickstarter projectWhat role then did Kickstarter have in funding your company?

So The Prince's Trust is a year long enterprise program for anyone who wants to create a brand or start-up. They do it all for free, they have workshops running the whole year and you can't trade for the whole year until they approve everything. At the start of the year I wanted their funds, because you can ask for 4,000 pounds in funding. By going to all of these workshops and seminars, I learned so much on how to start a business. They gave me a 250 pound "Will It Work?" grant. This enabled me to pay for my samples in order to test the market. Luckily that was the only money I needed from them because I didn't ask for the 4,000 pound loan. I had gone to Kickstarter in March of this year, a whole month before the launch panel. I made enough that I didn't need it. So when I went to the panel I only asked for the mentoring services, which will last for the next two years, which is incredible. I think it's a great opportunity if you don't have the means to go to Kickstarter.

I recently read an article on "The Ascendency of the 'Awkard Older Sister'", where female celebrities like Amy Poehler act as mentors to young women by giving advice on their websites or on YouTube. Do you see yourself becoming a mentor one day?

Down the road definitely. If I have the opportunity to have a mentee, that would be incredible. But I would be ignorant to say that I could do that now. Obviously Neon Moon has done really well, it's exceeded all the expectations that I have. I'm still learning and growing and receiving feedback from Neon Moon supporters. I'd love to give back to the Prince's Trust and mentees. Luckily on social media, it does feel like a family. People love to comment on the Facebook and Twitter, and interact with one another. When it comes to one on one I'd love to do that.

Do you have a younger sister?

No I don't. I have a younger brother. He's 20.

Do you feel like he's adopted a more positive view of feminism that's shied away from the stereotypical, negative one?

Um, this is the thing. I would say it depends on the person's friends, outlook, whether they're willing to be informed. In today's society, this have progressed, but people are still willing to define feminists as hairy lesbians. On the other side of the coin, there are people who say feminism works well and that it's needed by communities across the globe. It's really tough, because on Twitter, I get tweeted from users who say they love Neon Moon, then two seconds later I get hate messages and death threats, saying Neon Moon is crap, and feminism is crap. Not everyone is open to feminism, but with more celebrities talking about it, and Neon Moon talking about it, it's talking a greater leap towards equality.

I want to focus on hate tweets. I've received some on my account and sometimes I dread opening up my notifications because I'm scared of receiving something harmful. I've had someone send me drawings of beheaded feminists and several other people 'favorited' it. I know some people choose to mute or block others and make their account private as a form of self care. How do you deal with negativity?

I call it out. When I started out with Neon Moon and it was on Kickstarter, there were several articles that were bashing it. It was a shock to me. This was before the death and hate tweets. I went to my mum and I asked her what I should do. She said that with revolutionizing anything, there's going to be bad and good. Do you want to be a brand that acts like nothing happens? Or do you put it in the spotlight and question it for everyone to see? So that's what I try to do.

What criteria did you have in mind for the models you chose for your photo shoot?

Well firstly I wanted diversity. I've never been able to affiliate with any of the models used by any other lingerie brands. I wanted the models to represent what people look like so I included a woman of colour and a woman with long, ginger hair. I wanted them to resonate with people around the world who don't feel represented. And also a few weeks before the photo shoot, I asked them to stop shaving. Lingerie brands only ever show hairless women, whereas most women have body hair. And people have really resonated with the photos. They see unretouched women sitting and conversing, happy and unashamed of their bodies.

You said on Twitter that racism was rife in the industry, and you were referring to one of the women who modelled your clothing. Did you ever feel like race acted as a mark against you? Did you ever feel like people looked down on you, not just because of your education, work experience, and age, but your race as well?

You know what, I've never really thought of that. But I did talk to lingerie bloggers who are also women of colour and they feel like there aren't a lot of women of colour within the industry itself, in both front and back of house. Which is really weird and I don't understand why that is the case. Because of that in it's own, with not a lot of women of colour being in the industry, people don't think that they should be inclusive and push diversity. But because I have worked with a PR industry, I saw that they overlooked models that were women of colour. Being on that side of seeing it, will there ever be a time that an Arab girl or a Black girl can identify with a model? And not even race, but body types, will there be a time when a someone with a different body type is represented? Lingerie brands just retouch everything away.

Neon Moon bof bra coucou knicker photographer Fitria Tjandra blog

Did you ever think of modelling the lingerie yourself?

Yeah. So I've always been told that you shouldn't make someone else do something that you're not willing to do. One of the knicker shots is one of my bum and the underarm photo is mine. I had more bodyhair than the models anyway. Not only does it show that you can be the boss of your own business and that you're body positive, but also it should be a case that I am passionate about my brand. I'm very happy that people can learn about my insecurities, which I'm open about.

models wearing Neon Moon body positive feminist lingerie blog

I've seen you use the words briefs and knickers on your website. What's the difference?

Growing up in Britain we use the term knickers quite loosely. But I noticed that internationally, people don't know what knickers are, they identify with briefs more. I'm just trying to keep it as internationally friendly as possible. I'm trying to stick to something that everyone understands!

And isn't that the point? That we should stick to something that understands us, to clothing that accepts our soft arms and pale skin? Because in the end, if the clothing can accept our bodies, then maybe so can we.


  1. I enjoyed this Nadine. Important topics, that need to be discussed.

    1. Thank you Patty! I appreciate you taking the time to check out my blog.