Fashion & Beauty Director Julee Wilson on Representation, Partnership, and Equality

I find myself unsurprised when Julee Wilson says she went to a Quaker boarding school. I grew up going to Quaker school as well, and while I’m not a Quaker, a lot of it resonates, namely the belief that everyone is capable of accessing “the light within.” There are no priests or ministers — the light, or God, is equal. And when she talks about men, about blackness, and about her family and her work, it’s clear that she’s embodied this idea from the beginning.

Wilson, the Fashion and Beauty director at Essence, also grew up in a Mormon household, though she says her parents were “very fluid in their Mormonism,” and emphasized Christian values of kindness and love. They were also the kind of parents to encourage their children in all their interests. “I think I had a good example in my father of being someone who showed what advocacy looks like when it comes to being a man,” she said. Her older brother has special needs, and her father worked to get him into great schools. Wilson herself was interested in sports, and he made sure no programs would discriminate against her. “It was very much ‘I want you to be the best person you can be in this world, not just because you’re a girl and it’s going to be harder for you. No, you’re going to be great, because you are!’”

As a Black woman, Wilson found herself in the pages of Essence long before she worked there. “It was always nice that black beauty and black achievement and black excellence was celebrated consistently there,” she said. “I didn’t have to do the mental gymnastics of figuring out what my worth was in other publications.” And at her job, she combines all the labels she’s worn over her life — storyteller, girly girl, tough girl, woke — in order to make sure black women can keep seeing themselves.

It’s an important task. “Black women are the least likely to be believed, and to be supported in the way that they deserve,” she says. She points to a recent New York Times article about the maternal mortality rate for educated black women is terrifyingly high, partially because doctors don’t believe black women when they say they are in pain. “We’re almost seen as these beings that can withstand so much. Like our pain threshold is higher than everyone else’s,” she said. “I feel for my sisters and I feel for the fact that our fight is the same as our white counterparts, but it’s heightened, in a way that it’s hard for people to understand unless you’re walking around in our skin.”

In spite of this, Wilson sounds optimistic about the state of men in 2019. “I think men are feeling more empowered to come out and state their feminism, in a sense, and proudly say that they stand by equal rights and are ashamed of the nonsense in the news, and everything that’s going on,” she said. And more men, like her husband, are willing to not just take an equitable role in the home, but also not think twice about it. She speaks of their partnership as an actual partnership, not one with assigned roles and tasks, but one in which equal responsibility has been assumed from day one. Which, unfortunately, is a rarity. Studies have found that women still wind up doing more housework than men in heterosexual households, regardless if one or both are working. But Wilson says knowing that they’re both there to do what they can allows the whole family to thrive. “There’s no resentment, he’s holding down the household when I’m running around traveling. He’s there to make sure that everything runs smoothly, but also doesn’t make me feel guilty.”

Wilson also hopes that the next generation of men can follow this trend, starting with her 4-year-old son, who is just starting to get curious about things like race and gender. “I’m letting him be who he wants to be,” she says. Right now, that means he’s obsessed with Power Rangers and trucks, but also that he mimics mommy by painting his nails, and that his favorite color is pink. “I’m not like ‘Oh my god, take that off that’s for girls!’” she says. “I just let him express himself. And I’m so grateful for that because I’ve seen family units that try to mold their child into the gender role that society has deemed acceptable.”

She hopes this sort of open and equal household can help her son be the kind of man she thinks the world needs more of — kind, nonjudgmental, and compassionate. “He’s definitely going to get messaging that doesn’t align with how we feel,” she says. “I think it’s important sometimes to hear things that aren’t good or aren’t the way things should be so that you can understand why it’s so important to be on the right side of things. It just strengthens your convictions. I don’t welcome the nonsense, but I feel like the nonsense will show him how beautiful the light is.”

Jaya Saxena is a writer and editor living in Queens. Her work has appeared in GQ, Elle, The New York Times, and more. Her grandmother had to remind her to light a candle for Diwali.

Photographs by Paola Kudacki