Sarah Dubbeldam ’05, a former catalog model for brands like Target and Crocs, wanted to promote positive body images and lifestyle habits for women. She founded Darling Media, and flagship publication Darling magazine, which in the last ten years has led a sea change in the way women are depicted in advertising and fashion photography.
“God created us all to look different,” Dubbeldam says. “This narrow definition of a look that’s beautiful needs to be broadened, and Darling has been part of doing that in the culture. I’m proud of that.”
Today, the wife and mother of two young children lives in Glendale, CA with her fellow-entrepreneur husband and juggles mom-and-work-life the way many of Darling’s readers do.
“I really enjoy my days,” she says. “They are filled with overseeing the brand and mission from a high level while also balancing a lot of stuff with the kids.”
Calling Out Strengths
Dubbeldam hails from Sisters, Oregon, a town of around 800 people, and came to CUI to study theatre, with the intention of becoming an art director and building sets for movies. She then switched her major to studio art with an emphasis in secondary education.
“I loved Concordia,” she says. “My friends and I had the best time. I had amazing professors, especially in the literature classes. I truly enjoyed writing and discovering my style and my voice. That helped me call out my strengths and prepared me to communicate and write.”
She worked as a writing tutor on campus, ran track and learned time management and “how to be excellent” during her four years at CUI.
“It was so formative to me, and really positive,” she says. “I was grateful to be there and wanted to get everything I could out of it. I met with my professors a lot after class.”
After graduating, she took an internship at Sony Pictures, then went to an open call at a top modeling agency, to earn extra money. Soon she was catalog modeling for Crocs, Bass Pro, Kohl’s, Target and other large stores and brands. She appeared also in Super Bowl commercials and on billboards.
“I was considered successful in that spot, but I wasn’t happy,” she says. “I struggled with depression and anxiety.”
Part of the cause was the way women are treated by some in the fashion industry: Photo-Shopped to fit a plasticky, unreal version of beauty, and monitored closely for how they look. She recalls meetings in her agency's building in West Hollywood where her modeling agents looked her up and down and asked questions like, “A big brand is interested in booking you but it looks like you’ve gained a little weight on your thighs. We’d like to know what your workout plan is. What’s your routine lately? Are you feeling healthy?”
“It’s just a nice way to say you look fat,” says Dubbeldam. “I was extremely thin, and I thought this negativity might not affect me because I was a Christian, but the focus constantly on how you look — going into a room and seeing forty other women that look exactly like you: 5’9”, blond women with curly hair and green eyes — made me realize I was missing out on my purpose and not doing something deep enough. It’s great to act and model, but the spirit under it is really negative and threw me into a spiral of purposelessness.”
Darling is the voice of a friend and a mentor to those who feel alone. It’s saying, here’s a different way to think and live.
She and fellow Concordia alumna Kelli (Lane) Redfield ’05 began to dream of creating something different, to change the way women were portrayed in fashion photography and advertisements — and to reduce the collateral damage everyday women suffer when they hate their own appearance because of what pop culture defines as the perfect look. Over-sexualization of women to sell everything from hamburgers to laundry detergent promotes “a really narrow definition of beauty that isn’t what God intended for us,” she says.
Those conversations became Darling, “an idea from God,” Dubbeldam calls it. In their pages, no one would be Photoshopped; rather the brand would dignify a broader ideal of beauty.
Darling’s Kickstarter campaign — pegged at a mere $15,000 — caught fire as one of the first female brands on that money-raising platform. Already blogging its vision of the world, in 2012 Darling magazine launched in print. By the fourth issue they were being sold in Anthropologie, a popular women’s clothing store. They also obtained the handle @darling on Instagram and grew their following quickly. Their mission statement (see at the end of the article) has become a widely popular declaration, and is the vision behind all the lifestyle products they now sell.
Today, Darling’s platform reaches half a million people per week. They are on issue 26 of the magazine and have developed a line of lifestyle products based on the brand: candles, greeting cards, puzzles, mirror decals, and a
“Darling Box” that offers a Darling Dinner experience in a box with products, décor and content for creating meaningful gatherings.
Just as important, from day one, Darling set a new standard for representing women. Dubbeldam booked models she knew from the industry, but did not retouch the photos. She also created an atmosphere of respect.
“I knew what it was like to go in and be photographed,” she says. “I was going to talk to them, have our team be loving to them, to see them for more than how they look. It was really redemptive.”
Darling also declined to partner with brands that were over-sexualized or which promoted anti-aging products. Not only that, but every issue of Darling can be left on a coffee table for anyone to flip through, without moral hazard.
“It’s safe for kids, and we’re the only magazine in the industry like that,” Dubbeldam says. The moxie to carry out the vision came in part from her mom and dad, who are entrepreneurs as well.
“My parents were champions for me being a strong, independent thinker,” Dubbeldam says. “I always see the world on a macro level: ‘Wow, these systems are really broken or this whole industry needs a change,’ and seek to find hopeful solutions. I read books about William Wilberforce and others, people who change the way things function. It’s actually possible. It takes one person and others get on board. I was inspired by that idea.”
The lens of everything we produce is to honor God and his view of women.
Over the years, Darling has become a surrogate mentor for women who need a strong voice in their lives.
“Darling is the voice of a friend and a mentor to those who feel alone,” Dubbeldam says.
“It’s saying, here’s a different way to think and live in a really dark world. For a lot of girls, we’re like their mom or guidance counselor. They are looking for answers and we have hope and perspective to meet people in the place they need them.”
Joanna Gaines was the featured interview in Darling’s latest issue, and Vogue Greece recently produced its first unretouched cover. Sarah and their editor had a friendly exchange to mark the significant occasion. Major department stores, too, are choosing to stop retouching their catalog and poster models.
“Sarah is able to balance the grief of seeing how our culture is broken and how the concept of women and femininity has suffered in our culture, with hope and a vision for how that can meaningfully improve,” says Virginia Hawkins, Dubbeldam’s business partner and Darling Media’s COO. “She’s not a hand-wringer. She a creator and a visionary, and she leads with hope to compel others to join her mission.”
Sarah and her husband, Steve, own two companies and are passionate about Christians starting businesses which affect culture in a redemptive way.
“It takes a lot of grit and knowing what your passion is, and doing it for the right reasons,” Dubbeldam says.
Faith underlies her mission, in life and with Darling. “I live my life following Jesus and the Word. That dictates all my decisions and perspectives,” she says. “You won’t find heavy-handed Christian language [in Darling magazine], but the lens of everything we produce seeks to honor God and his view of women. We believe you can be one hundred percent fashionable and beautiful while being modest, respectable, and strong at the same time.”
To check out Darling’s products, content, and events, visit www.darlingmagazine.org and @darling on Instagram.
Darling, you are a work of art.
You have the ability to fully display beauty apart from vanity, influence apart from manipulation, style apart from materialism, kindness apart from passivity, strength apart from competition & dignity without degradation.
You are a catalyst to transform the world around you through your wit, wisdom, character & courage—all the while creating beauty & embodying love.
You are not only interesting, but original, not only good enough, but exceptional—not just here, but here for a purpose.