Rants, Feelings & Opinions

10 Models Challenging the Standards of Conventional Beauty

September 4, 2015
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Michel Ghanem counts down the top 10 models who are redefining beauty.

The fashion industry has a very well-documented history of casting models who—more or less—look the exact same. Flip through the pages of any major high fashion magazine and you will witness a concoction of sharp cheekbones, abnormally thin legs, and white skin (lots, and lots, of white skin). Luckily, the last decade has seen a slight increase in the celebration for models who defy these conventions.

I’m not saying there isn’t a space for thin, white models—Caroline Trentini has a current monopoly on Vogue editorials, anyways—but there is a need for the industry to look at being more intersectional with their casting. By intersectional, I mean including those who are most marginalized in our society. Models of colour, trans models, bodies size six and up—and hopefully, models representing all of the above.

In 1998, cultural theorist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard declared that the body itself is an item of fashion, consumed like anything trendy in our world. He practically suggested that bodies of different sizes, types, and colours, can go in and out of fashion from season to season—just like a Prada handbag or Pantone hue.

Personally, I refuse to settle for that line of thinking. I’m no cultural theorist (yet), but within my amateur observations of models who enter and exit the industry, I have noticed a tendency for dialogue, and a movement towards diversification. Dialogue surrounding the models and their physical features, whether positive or offensive, is helping society expand their mindset on what is considered beautiful. And besides, Anna Wintour declared that trends are dead and a thing of the past. So take that, cultural theory!

Luckily, key figures in the industry stand strong for their views on diversity. Naomi Campbell, for example, has voiced her support for trans models on the runways, and even hosts a WhatsApp group for her “model babies” to offer support and solidarity to younger models of colour.

During an MSNBC segment on Tess Holliday’s People magazine cover (#8 on my list), Janet Mock brilliantly pointed out that “pop culture is its most powerful when those most marginalized and misunderstood can see reflections of themselves—when they’re celebrated, when they’re framed as the heroes and agents of their own stories and images.”

10: Lara Stone

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When Lara Stone broke out in the industry in 2006, she was already being written about as the “anti-model” by New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. Apparently, a size four model with a gap in her teeth and big breasts was odd enough to be considered an alien to the industry at the time. Stone pushed forward in her career, and became one of the highest paying models in the world, snatching jobs left and right and monopolized models.com’s #1 spot for at least an entire year.

Stone has been celebrated for her body for nearly a decade, and in my opinion, carved out the space for models like Kate Upton to fill. She helped the industry deviate away from the obsession with “doll-faced” girls like Sasha Pivovarova, Gemma Ward, or Heather Marks in the mid 2000s. Even post-pregnancy, Stone’s career is as prevalent as ever.

9: Imaan Hammam

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Anna Wintour, who mentioned Hammam in her editor’s letter the first time she appeared in Vogue, isn’t the only one obsessed with the Dutch beauty as of late. Of Moroccan and Egyptian descent, she is showing up everywhere in the industry, and is notably recognized for wearing her hair naturally.

She told Glamour in May 2015 that within the five years since her modelling debut, it wasn’t until her first Vogue appearance last year that she was allowed to wear her hair naturally (it takes up to 3 hours to straighten her hair). If you’re not in love yet, watch the up-and-coming supermodel dance around New York City in all of her curly goodness—I promise, it will change your mind.

8: Tess Holliday

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#EffYourBeautyStandards, Holliday told the world via Instagram. The body-positivity advocate covered People magazine’s body issue in May 2015—an issue usually dedicated to informing its readers on the best ways to achieve a “sexy summer bikini body.” The model became the first of her size to join a modelling agency (Milk Model Management).

In a segment on Holliday’s breakout for MSNBC’s So POPular!, Janet Mock said: “Our culture is so ingrained with myths that shame, silent, and pathologize fat people. We’re told that fat is bad and unhealthy, and weight loss is healthy and worthy of continual praise. We believe these messages because they’re framed as the norm, and totally ubiquitous.” Although Holliday hasn’t been booking high fashion campaigns or showing up in the Pirelli calendar, her impact to pop culture is definitely worth noting.

7: Bhumika Arora

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How many Indian supermodels can you recall seeing in the fashion industry? Like, where are they? India is nearly the most populated country in the world, outranking the United States by many millions, and yet, Indian representation in fashion is scarce at best. The Indian-born model is signed with The Society Management, and is hopefully a sign of things to come for Indian representation in the industry.

Arora’s breakout at 27 is even more rare to see. The striking beauty was awarded Model of the Year at Vogue India’s Beauty Awards 2015, has shown up all over the runways, and booked editorials in major publications. With a face like hers, it would be a missed opportunity not to utilize her in beauty campaigns (at the very least).

6: Joan Smalls

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Smalls is no doubt one of the most successful black models of our time, booking enough work to rival Naomi Campbell’s portfolio. She is an icon of this generation, and appeared on the cover of Vogue’s September 2014 issue alongside Cara Delevingne and Karlie Kloss, or “The Insta Girls.” Oh, and she’s the only model ever to have licked Beyonce (that we know of).

She is the modern definition of supermodel, and has used her platform to speak out against the industry’s narrow-minded beauty standards. “There are people in the industry who are advocates, who support diversity. And there are people who do not, I get it. Beauty is universal. These doors have to open,” she explained in Elle.

5: Liu Wen

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Wen is a trailblazer for Chinese representation in the fashion world. She was the first East Asian model to walk the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, appear in Forbes’s annual highest-paid model list in 2013, and become a spokesmodel for Estee Lauder.

She is arguably the first asian supermodel ever, and has accumulated a massive online following (1.1 million Instagram followers). Although her career has slowed down significantly in the last year, she still remains iconic in my books.

4: Chantelle Winnie

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Canadian-born Chantelle Winnie came to prominence on the 21st season of America’s Next Top Model, and has been recognized for her vitiligo; a chronic skin condition responsible for loss of pigmentation (most likely in patches).

Winnie has expressed the verbal harassment that came with her condition in her youth, but has used the condition to her advantage—from Drake’s Instagram to Glamour, and Complex. As Eve Barlow wrote in The Guardian, “Her skin condition has made her career and [she has] become a symbol for diversification and progression.”

3: Hari Nef

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In May 2015, Hari Nef became the first transgender model to join IMG’s modelling roster, modelling home of Gigi Hadid, Gisele Bundchen, Chanel Iman, Karlie Kloss—only to name a few. The recent Columbia alumna walked a few shows at NYFW, and was recently interviewed by Vogue (who described her as a Tumblr-age Chloe Sevigny).

In between shooting for Dazed, i-D, and Paper, she will also appear on the second season of Amazon’s Transparent—all in her first few months of prominence. Nef spoke to Style.com about transgender success in the industry, and said she’s “happy to see trans aesthetics take root within an industry that thrives on its power to define what or who is beautiful and aspiriational.”

2: Candice Huffine

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Candice Huffine had a very slow start as a model. The American “plus size” beauty began modelling 15 years ago, and broke out after only 10 years in the industry. After meeting renowned stylist Edward Enninful on the set of a V magazine photoshoot in 2010, the size 13 model nabbed Vogue Italia, W, the Pirelli Calendar, Vogue.com, and more.

Most importantly, she is definitely a Carine Roitfeld favorite. Huffine shows up regularly in CR Fashion Book, and often makes appearances at her exclusive events.

1. Andreija Pejic

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Pejic is currently creating an autobiographical film about her life and transition as a trans model, and it will surely be an incredible story. The Australian model spent her earliest years surviving Eastern European turmoil during the Bosnian War, ultimately emigrating to Australia. After being scouted at 17, she began walking in 2011 for Jean Paul Gaultier, appearing in both menswear and womenswear collections. From there, the fascination with her gender and appearance only became more intense.

Resembling a Nordic Jessica Stam, Pejic has accumulated an extensive portfolio, and has been the center of many controversies. She was simultaneously one of the most discussed male and female model, and helped the industry understand (or at the very least, question) the complexities that come with the concept of gender.

Michel Ghanem is a fashion-obsessed Canadian student and journalist. You can keep up with him on Tumblr, here.  

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