Sudanese model Alek Wek knows what it feels like to be hungry. So do many of her fellow models. But the difference is, Alek never chose to be hungry as a child growing up in Southern Sudan, while many in the modeling world choose to be hungry to maintain a certain weight.
Wek has walked the runway for Chanel, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein to name a few, but her upbringing certainly wasn’t one where fashion took the main stage. She put together a hunger diary for Newsweek and talked about her childhood before she left for London at age 14 as a refugee. As a child she and her family stayed in their home and survived on the food grown in their yard: vegetables, grains and peanuts. As Wek wrote, “To leave home meant the risk of rape, or kidnapping, or death.”
When she moved to London and was discovered by the fashion world, the newly minted model found a very different kind of relationship with food. She wrote, “In this world, I found, many people were hungry too, but for different reasons. They wanted their bodies to look a certain way, whether their bodies were meant to or not. They chose not to eat.”
Now living in the USA, Wek notes yet another strange way that people consume food. One of excess. The model wrote, “Today, I live in the U.S., where restaurants serve huge portions on even huger platters, and people are tempted to eat too much. Many live to eat, instead of the other way around. In restaurants in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I always ask for a doggie bag, to bring the leftovers home. My ex-boyfriend suggested more than once that I cut this out, as he found it embarrassing. (Perhaps that’s why he is no longer my boyfriend.) I told him, ‘What’s embarrassing is that I should have so much more than others.’”
These three very different perspectives on food make the model a great person to be able to talk about food issues and hunger around the world. As an advocate for the United Nations’ refugee agency, Wek is now visiting school children in her community to talk about famine and get kids to start “thinking globally.” She hopes to start skyping with youth around the world to tell her story and talk about hunger.