Is fashion still scared of people who are not traditionally ‘pretty’?
Nur Khamis explores the obstacle-filled path of unconventional models and the underrepresentation of individuals lacking Eurocentric features in the fashion industry.
It’s 2019. Fashion is slowly starting to approach diversity. We can’t be sure how genuine it is, but we must appreciate the efforts: you can now see plus-size or older models and almost all races and ethnicities. What do all these people have in common, though? They all look the same. Is the fashion industry scared to bring unconventionality to the catwalks and magazine covers?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, one might say. But science and society have the same idea of what it is: Western features. I’m talking about sculpted jawlines, oval shaped faces, symmetrical features, a slim nose. Eurocentric beauty norms are the standard, and even in the now diverse fashion industry, there’s still a hunt for those who are “lucky” enough to possess them.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the new generation of models – Ashley Graham, Duckie Thot, Winnie Harlow, Halima Aden, Gigi Hadid, Iskra Lawrence. All of them strong, independent women who shine not only through their (traditionally accepted) looks, but their personalities too. Individuality is somewhat valued now – long gone are the days when the catwalk was just an army of robots - models can be themselves.
Those who made it can express themselves, but what about the ones who are struggling or criticized for doing just that, because they don’t fit into the conventional (and let’s be honest, boring) standards set by brands and modelling agencies?
Growing up, I was not considered traditionally beautiful, but rather interesting looking. This might be because, as an ethnically ambiguous person, I did not look like anyone else. Even though I am half Caucasian, the only white features I possess are my pale skin and blue eyes– I inherited my dad’s Middle Eastern looks. With a wide, square shaped face, a bigger, rather bulbous nose, bushy eyebrows, untamed, curly hair and a very unsymmetrical face, you could say I did not fit in society’s beauty norms. The fashion industry was the least diverse place to look at – and the one I looked at the most. My features were different than everyone I’ve ever seen – it was hard to find anyone to identify with. Slim, pale, attractive models on every catwalk and magazine cover – all showing the same small noses and high, defined cheekbones that I was lacking. I wanted to be like them and I wanted to be considered beautiful – and that ruined my self-esteem as a teenager.
A lot of us mixed race individuals experiences this – you are a combination of your parents, two people from two different places and cultures, which makes you unique. You won’t look like anyone else. And by always wishing to look like the norm, you are willing to take away from your own individuality in order to mould into an idea of what you should be. Middle Eastern and African people experience this the most – the very features that define these ethnicities are the ones feared most by the ones with real power in the fashion industry.
With a Botswana father and a mother from Kimberley, Northern Cape, Tee, 22, an architecture student based in Newcastle, grew up in a mostly white community in Lichfield always thinking something was wrong with her. “I think I changed myself over the years to become more like the girls who were all the same because I stood out too much and never felt I was like them. I had no fashion idol to represent me or someone who looked like me. I loved art, fashion and design, but there weren’t many people I could look up to.”
Now there are. One of the biggest models right now is Slick Woods. With her eccentric looks and her I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude, Slick, 22, quickly became one of the most talked about models, and Rihanna's muse. Gaped teeth, shaved head - her beauty is harder to consume and understand – thus explaining the constant hate she got from the beginning of her career. And she’s not the only one. Every model that looks unconventional is called “ugly” at some point – Shaun Ross, the first ever male albino model, Jazzelle Zanaughtti with her shaved eyebrows and androgynous look, or Tibetan-born model Tsunaina known for her Avatar-like features. Each of them break the rules and embrace their own individuality. And that’s exactly what the fashion industry needs – people who are unconditionally themselves and don’t care if they don’t fit in.
These individuals are not only bringing attention to themselves through their looks, but their attitude as well. It’s that powerful confidence to be yourself that scares people, because not everyone is courageous enough to do it. “Most people feel uncomfortable about what makes them different because society imposes what “beautiful” is on us. It’s important to break those ideals down and challenge them” stated photographer and filmmaker, BEX DAY, for I-d magazine in 2018.
Some brands get it – and ASOS is one of them. Last year’s campaigns were a huge step in the right direction. The “Go Play” beauty campaign shows multiple individuals, of all genders, races, sexualities, experimenting with makeup and expressing themselves in the most personal and eccentric ways possible. The “My Style is Never Done” campaign, starring Jazzelle Zanaughtti, focuses on her diverse sense of style. Jazzelle dresses up in multiple looks, some weird and some polished, from a cowboy to a centaur, and she’s having fun by not caring. What do these campaigns say? For short, be yourself.
We need to move on from the idea that models represent an unattainable ideal, a beauty we all want to achieve but cannot, and rather bring them back among us as people who are supposed to represent us. Look at one of the brands that refuses to move forward – Victoria’s Secret. White, aggressively worked out models flaunt on the catwalk every year, with little to no diversity among them. The brand's Chief Marketing Officer, Ed Razek, told Vogue.com last November that the brand would not accept transgender or plus size models because “the show is a fantasy”. Honestly, I’d rather see someone cool, erratic, ‘unconventional’ wear whatever I’m thinking of buying, rather than an unhealthily thin, ‘perfect’ looking model. Why can’t girls who look like me strut on the catwalk? Girls and boys like you?