Activist Michaela Angela Davis didn’t go looking for her latest cause. It came right to her as her 50th birthday approached.
Rather than hiding from it, she opted to embrace her age, posting “50 Days to 50” on her Tumblr page. She showed it all: the ups and the downs, the good and the bad — not just the I’m-living-my-best-life-and-drinking-a-kombucha-after-a-SoulCycle-class moments. She got a tattoo on her birthday: “And So It Is” across her lower belly.
“I made the decision I would be out about it,” says Davis. “I didn’t want to be one of those ‘Don’t ask my age,’ people. I didn’t want to adopt a feeling of shame around age. Once I turned 50, I was like: ‘Here I am! This is cool!’ ”
An Age-Image Activist
Davis has become an inspiring, authentic face for women over 50. She appears in a new #DisruptAging Refinery29/AARP campaign, which aims to hold a mirror up to the ageist beliefs. Last year, she talked to Allure about loving her 52-year-old body as part of its Dispelling Beauty Myths series and sat on a panel titled “Beat the Clock” at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit — a discussion about age and aging.
Davis has embraced her new role as an age activist with the same no-nonsense gusto that has made her such a power, bringing to this latest cause all of the street cred and wisdom gained over the past three decades.
“I identify as a grown-ass woman, not an old woman,” says 54-year-old Davis, whom the City of New York called a “trailblazer.” “It’s about finding the beauty of your time and expanding it and celebrating it.”
Davis doesn’t measure her life by a number, but rather by experiences. And she’s had more than enough of them to fill several lifetimes. She’s been an actress, fashionista, editor, author and activist, fearlessly fighting for social justice and leveraging high-profile platforms to expand the narratives about what it means to be black and what it means to be a woman.
Now she’s taking on what it means to be a middle-aged woman in a society that places a premium on youth, dispelling the myth that you have to be young to have a voice and to be valued.
“I have all this wisdom, all this emotional balance. I’m at my best mentally and emotionally — I feel so much fire,” she says. “And yet I’m being asked to back off, to disappear or to highlight those things that are attached to youth. I’m not having it.”
A Wake-Up Call
When it comes to image activism, this isn’t Davis’ first rodeo.
Born in Germany, Davis grew up in Washington, DC — affectionately nicknamed the “Chocolate City” by African-American residents because of its large and vibrant black community. A gifted, classically-trained actress, she was a National Arts Scholar at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC.
“I came to New York and got my life,” Davis says. “It was a cultural explosion. It was coming out of the sidewalks, out of the man holes.”
She also got a wake-up call about racial identity. She was the only person of color enrolled in the Tisch School at the time. But with her blond hair and light complexion, she often passed for white. At the time, she was wearing her hair in finger waves, wearing Mao suits and red lipstick a la Annie Lennox.
After others realized she was black, she no longer got the same parts. Rather than getting roles like Hamlet, she was cast as Mama in A Raisin in the Sun. Although it was a great role, she felt pigeonholed.
“I felt duped,” says Davis. “It’s where I first experienced racism and what it did to reduce me. These people were telling me what I should want to be. I felt like this was culturally so inferior to what I felt my next step was going to be.”
Convergence of Music and Fashion
Disillusioned with the program, she left for the fashion world, which offered a creative and cultural scene that excited her and was more what she was looking for in her life.
She apprenticed under the exclusive fashion stylist for legendary photographer Richard Avedon, and became a legend herself as one of the few black women stylists in the 1990s. Her list of celebrity styling clients is long and includes Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé and Prince. She was a frequent style critic on Fuse TV’s Full Frontal Fashion.
Davis’ inspiration came from New York’s underground music scene, which she calls magical.
“There was a convergence of music and fashion that was exciting and astonishing,” says Davis. “You would step into places and see the sheer creativity and passion.”
Finding Her Voice
Davis found her voice in her first editorial position at Essence magazine under the mentorship of the publication’s iconic editor-in-chief Susan Taylor in 1991. “She changed my life,” Davis says of Taylor. “She was the type of editor who loved her reader, the black women. I was taught that school of editing: to love who’s on the other side of your product; that’s who you work for.”
Davis became the magazine’s fashion editor, and its first executive fashion, beauty, and culture editor. She left to become the first fashion director at Vibe.
Over the next few years, she held positions as editor-in-chief of Honey and as a creative consultant for the rebrand of BET, a top-20 cable TV station and the largest black media company in the world. Her writings include such breakthrough anthologies as Everything But The Burden: What White People are Taking From Black Culture.
Taking Back Hip Hop
During that time, Davis became increasingly disillusioned by the patriarchy and misogyny that were taking over the hip-hop culture. The problem, said Davis, is that the image of the black woman portrayed in many hip-hop videos has become the pervasive image of black women, thanks to a customer base dominated by young, affluent, white men. She feared that society as a whole is getting a “sick” image of what black women are all about.
“It seemed like all the women rappers were disappearing and their images got reduced to strippers — that you had to be Foxy Brown or Lil’ Kim to make it,” she says. “Everyone thought young black women were video hos.”
That’s when her activism began. She started expressing her opinions, and CNN was listening.
“They found that I could put context around things really quickly,” she says. “I was an accidental activist, an accidental commentator.”
In 2005 she co-created with Essence the Take Back The Music Campaign, a national conversation about misogyny and misrepresentation of women of color in mainstream hip-hop music videos.
Davis is especially passionate about live community conversations, visiting such universities as Yale, Spelman and Middlebury as well as community centers and cultural institutions. We first met at a natural hair event in Dallas, where she had the audience mesmerized. She is the creator of MAD FREE: Liberating Conversations About Our Image Beauty and Power, a multi-platform conversation project with revolutionary women.
Changing the Narrative
To say Davis has had a huge impact on changing the narratives about beauty, image and power in media would be an understatement. The NAACP of New York distinguished her with the Phenomenal Woman Award at their centennial celebration.
Davis has spent the past three decades in New York. She lives in an airy loft in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, a former paper bag factory with 30-foot ceilings and multi-pane windows surrounded by her books and art. But the neighborhood is changing, and developers have been eyeing her building.
And that’s fine, especially as the pull to move westward — to explore a new area of the country — has grown stronger as she’s spent more time in the Southwest and on the West Coast. She loves the beauty of the land and the silence that’s more conducive to writing.
But no matter where she lands, she doesn’t plan on disappearing anytime soon. She still has a lot to say.
Helping the Next Generation of Women
“I’m at a point where I don’t give any fucks,” she says. “I’m so dope. I feel so much fire.”
Davis especially likes the idea of having cross-generational conversations — women in their 60s connecting with women in their 20s. She would like to be a positive force for her 28-year-old daughter, Elenni Davis-Knight.
“There’s something very powerful about making things better for the people who come behind us,” she says. “I want to create more platforms where we can share information. I don’t want to be another generation of women who doesn’t talk about it with the next.”
Davis says she has no desire to be a middle-aged influencer who fills her Instagram feed with an idealized version of her life. She feels it’s too easy to fall into the trap of trying to look cute and show yourself as it relates to “feeling young.”
“It’s about being honest about who we say we are in the moment, and defining ourselves, and then doing it again and again,” she says.
Menopause is Real
Davis doesn’t want to sugar coat what it means to grow older. “Some of this shit is real,” she says. That shit includes sweating and heart palpitations and some days where you feel like you’re going nuts. “And every fucking thing gets dry!” she says.
“Menopause is real,” she says. “It’s a dynamic time; it’s like being an adolescent in reverse. But the answer is not to not age.”
She likes the way menopause is viewed as a positive by many cultures. In South Africa, for example, menopause means you’ve entered the circle of elders. You’re a “baby elder,” she says.
“You’re not driven by your body or by your children,” Davis says. “If you’re in a relationship, you’re probably mature enough to know what’s bullshit. It’s a freeing place.”
No More Burpees
Taking care of her 54-year-old body is different from when she was in her 30s. Self care, key for her, means eating right and exercising on a regular basis. She is a proponent of Active Resistance Training, (ART), which she learned from creator, trainer Terri Walsh. It is based on four active resistance points that drive motion from the inside out, reducing the reliance on high-impact cardio.
“I don’t want to do burpees and jump on boxes,” says Davis. “I do want to stay mobile and active.”
She plans to live a long life, and has plenty of positive examples of what it looks like to be an older woman. She points to Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters (with her Chanel suits), and “The Notorious RBG.”
And one of her favorite role models is her own mother who, at the age of 79, pulled up roots from her longtime home on the eastern shore of Maryland to live in Sedona, Arizona, where she meditates, levitates and bops around town in her red convertible.
“She’s living her best life at 81,” says Davis. “If we keep paying attention to ourselves, we’ll keep going and growing. That’s what aging really is. It’s growing.”