Beauty is an inside job.” 

We can hear it said a million times. We can genuinely believe the statement. And yet the desire for external attractiveness remains paramount, both within our society and across cultures. The importance placed upon aesthetics may be due, in large part, to the fact that one’s assessment of one’s own appearance can directly correlate to one’s inner dialogue and self-esteem. This link between the internal and external is a powerful one, and the beauty industry capitalizes on this connection, raking in about $445 billion annually in the U.S. alone.

Now there is a new initiative inspiring major beauty brands to use their immense power for good. During the month of May, Mentari and Beauty for Freedom—two nonprofit organizations that are bettering our world through anti-human-trafficking advocacy and support for trafficking victims—joined forces to co-host an art and self-esteem workshop series for adult survivors in the New York area.

The three-part series featured art classes as well as workshops on makeup, skin care, hair techniques and self-esteem. A team of makeup artists was enlisted to provide makeovers and skin and hair tutorials for each of the women participating, and after each class, participants received a deluxe gift bag, valued at more than $250 each and chock-full of luxury products donated by Sisley Paris, Armani Beauty, Nars, Kiehl’s, Clarins, Clinique, Charlotte Tilbury, SpaceNK and Josie Maran.

A participant eagerly awaits her makeover.
Photo: Jerry Chu

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For the women participating in the workshop, self-esteem remains a work in progress. Abigail, a trafficking survivor and a Mentari client, acknowledged that “when I look in the mirror, sometimes I don’t like what I see.” While she is still working to silence her inner judge, Abigail was grateful for the new products she has acquired.

“I feel like ‘queen for the day’! My skin can sometimes be dry or sensitive, but the creams and moisturizers really made me look more beautiful than I am,” she said.

Shandra Woworuntu, the founder of Mentari and also a trafficking survivor, hopes that her clients will finally be able to see their own beauty and value.

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“Many of our clients come out of slavery and just work to live. We [survivors] seldom take care of ourselves. These workshops make our clients feel that they are beautiful and worthy. I can really see their happiness,” she said.

In addition to makeup, the workshop series (sponsored by Artist & Craftsman Supply in Brooklyn, N.Y.) also had a visual-arts component, pairing 10 professional artist volunteers with 10 Mentari clients to create a collaborative art series. The resulting collaborations will be part of an exhibition that will serve as a fundraiser for both Mentari’s culinary-arts programming and Beauty for Freedom’s global art therapy programming.

Patricia, a trafficking survivor and participant, likened her art-class experience to freedom:

I can be free with the collage that I’m making. I have an image in my head, and it’s coming together as I go. I am a free spirit, so I just go. Moving forward without looking back. That’s what love means to me—to just keep pushing forward.

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At Mentari, the culinary-arts program is one of several courses designed to educate and empower survivors to find jobs out in the real world. “When I was living in a shelter, I received [only] $25 a month for my food, transportation and hygiene,” Woworuntu said. “I created Mentari to offer skills training for survivors, to help them become employed and allow them to live independently.”

After the workshops, Beauty for Freedom artist volunteers shared their unique brand of art therapy and love with child and adolescent survivors in Ghana and India. Past courses have included photography, music and creative writing. While the organization has had a decidedly global focus in previous years, its founder—Ford model and human trafficking activist Monica Watkins—said that their reach has recently expanded to include local advocacy.

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“We wanted to include a large-scale workshop series for survivors of human trafficking in New York City. This partnership with Mentari was a natural fit,” she said.

Both Watkins and Woworuntu hope that the impact of these workshops will provide survivors with a sense of community as they realize that they are not alone in their struggles. In addition, with this series in particular, they’ve introduced self-care and creativity as gateways to self-esteem and a more loving inner dialogue.

Says Woworuntu:

One of the survivors actually told me that this was the first time someone has ever touched her face. People get their makeup done and their pictures taken [all the time], but our clients never do. Imagine if all survivors of human trafficking could have the kind of experience that Beauty for Freedom provides. This is true healing.

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Workshop participant Sharlena after her makeover
Photo: Sam Nandez