Sarah Dubbeldam is the founder, creative director and editor-in-chief of Darling: a magazine and movement committed to the health and happiness of women. Having previously worked as a model, Sarah was exposed to the ugly side of commercial beauty: “Seeing photoshopped images of myself made me think—wow, I can’t wait to do something that is the complete opposite of this.” And she meant it: Darling backs up its beliefs by refusing to retouch the skin or bodies of women featured. Reflecting their mission statement’s view of women, Darling proves to be “not just here, but here for a purpose.”

“Darling started as a Kickstarter campaign in 2012. We recorded a bunch of women reading our mission statement, and knew from the amount of positive feedback we received that we’d struck a chord. It confirmed that there was a need to redefine what feminism looked like for modern women. When our campaign was successful and we realized it was happening, we were like, how do we do this? We pulled together a group of women who contributed to the first issue for free. After our first issue, people started asking about the second. At that point we were still a very small business and didn’t know if we’d be able to keep it alive. It was very boot-strap, very slow. That’s always the thing, right?

You can do something once, but can you keep that momentum?

We had to pull a lot of favors to make that second edition happen. By issue three we got picked up by Anthropologie, and that really pushed us over the edge. I truly believe that print isn’t going to die. While I appreciate the internet, nothing can replace the tangible nature of humanity—our need to connect face to face and touch real things. When we first started, we surveyed 500 women and asked them if they preferred to read magazines in print or digital. 99% said print. You want to hold it, sit down with a cup of coffee, underline things, tear pages out. Particularly when you’re at a computer all day, who wants to go home and stare at a screen for another few hours?

Darling came about during a hard time for me. I was going through anxiety, depression, a difficult breakup, and wanted to provide a safe place—something like a friend or a mentor you can trust. I feel like there’s a lot of shallow advice out there that puts a band-aid on things but doesn’t really solve the problem. We want to have real discussions about what’s going on, and build women’s self-esteem from the inside out. We try to hammer into our readers the importance of getting to know themselves and valuing that, instead of striving to be something they’re not. I feel like the majority of media promotes the opposite, and it’s causing people to miss out on their lives. That typical media imagery is like slow brainwash through repetition. It’s not that we’ve seen a few perfect women, it’s that we’ve seen them over and over and over again. It slowly transforms what we perceive to be reality.

We’re constantly striving for perfection that doesn’t exist.

We want our images to reflect what you see in real life, so we don’t use Photoshop for any of our shoots. In the early stages of Darling we decided to not retouch women’s bodies, but one day in a staff meeting we were debating about retouching skin. The argument was that skin is better some times of the month versus others, so we thought it might be nice to use judgment on those situations. We had just shot a model who had a zit on her face, and we were talking about how it’s just bad luck to have a zit on the day of a shoot. But I looked around the room, and every single one of us (including myself) had some sort of blemish on our faces. And that was our answer—we have to let ourselves be captured on camera any day, not just on a ‘good skin day,’ because that’s what it means to be human. We decided to not touch skin at all.

Knowing that they’re not going to be retouched makes a lot of the models uncomfortable on set. We’ve definitely been in arguments with people, and have had a few issues with celebrities. Even our photographers struggle with our no retouching policy because they want their portfolios to be ‘industry standard,’ which means: only thin, Photoshopped women. They believe in the mission but feel at odds with what their agents want their work to look like. The industry standard is this completely unrealistic ideology. How sad is that? We’re not in a good place in the world. Having experience in the modeling industry only fueled the fire for Darling. It was interesting being held to those expectations. Sometimes my agents would email me and say, ‘It looks like your hip measurement has increased by a half an inch… is there something going on?’ I’d write back and say, ‘I still fit in all my clothes, so I think I’m great. Thanks!’ I mean really… ‘Is there something going on?’

Maybe I’ve been eating more burgers because I like to eat all the time?

It was pretty funny.

I think it’s great that a wider range of bodies are starting to be adopted, but I also think within that, unrealistic expectations still exist. Even though you might have curvy hips, you’re still ‘supposed’ to have a tiny waist, perfect-length legs, ideal boobs and enlarged lips. It’s like all of these ideals are mixed into one person, and it excludes a girl who might, for example, be pear shaped and doesn’t have those idealized proportions. Beauty is so much broader than what is being presented to us. We need to be able to look at a woman and say yes, her body is beautiful, but so is mine. We need to drop those feelings of resentment towards women because of their looks, which includes discrimination against women who are naturally thin. It’s a problem that men are being fed these images also. When they go to seek a woman, they’re looking for that perfect body type. They’ll look at girl and think, she’s not hot enough. Appearance has become 90% of the pie, whereas creativity, intelligence, compassion… all those other qualities that women have are only a sliver. For men to be walking around looking for a product of Photoshop is really damaging.

When it comes to the relationships we have with our bodies, some mental struggles are more deeply rooted than others. Like a woman who was told in the third grade that she has a big nose and still holds onto that. It takes extreme discipline to defeat those self-beliefs. It requires combatting lies by telling ourselves truths over and over again, when those negative messages play in your mind like a record player. You need to interrupt that record player very intentionally and very aggressively. Changing ‘My thighs are too big,’ to ‘My thighs help me walk.’ It’s about reframing the way we think. Lies are really persistent and you can’t be passive—you need to fight them over and over again until the truth starts to become your natural thought. It’s a process of learning to know yourself and what you struggle with. A lot of the time we go through our day feeling down and we don’t really know why. We internalize a lot of passive thought without really realizing it. I don’t think we take enough time to sit down with ourselves and say, how are you doing, self? What are you thinking about? It can help to have a friend who can be accountable. I’ve done this with friends where I’ll ask, what’s your biggest insecurity? It’s crazy to hear what your friends say. You’re like—you really think that about yourself? That’s absolutely not true. I think by saying things out loud, people can help reality check us.

A woman who is comfortable with herself is extremely powerful.

We recently interviewed Tracee Ellis Ross, and she was the most confident, unbelievably beautiful woman. She has done so much internal work in her life—similar to that whole notion of telling yourself truths—and was totally unstoppable and such an inspiration to me. Full of life, goofing off, dancing around being absolutely ridiculous and not caring at all—something that comes from knowing yourself really well. I think you reach a point where you’re like, this is who I am and I’m going to be authentic to that. That translates to a confidence where people are drawn to you like moth to a flame. It’s then that you become a really powerful spirit in the world.”

Sarah’s #OKREALTALK Tips

  • Stop telling yourself lies.
  • Beauty is so much broader than we give it credit for.
  • Self-worth is the ultimate power.

b. 1982

i. @darling

t. @darlingmag

As told to Amy Woodside, July 2015