Are beauty and fashion industries doing enough in the name of diversity and inclusivity? Rohma Theunissen investigates
The female form has been the subject of scrutiny and admiration since before ancient times, when poets marveled at the litheness of a slim ankle, or the rounds of a deity’s bosom. As time has passed, the bold commoditisation of women’s appearance continues centuries later, to exert societal pressure to conform to a set notion of beauty ideals which have shifted drastically from decade to decade. As evidenced by numerous studies and anecdotal evidence – who doesn’t have a story about unwanted attention zeroed in on their physical features? – girls and women have been subjected to unwarranted commentary on their appearance, from those who know and love them as well as those who don’t.
With the advent of inescapable social media, modern-day beauty ideals are more unrealistic than ever before. The ‘Kardashian-Jenner’ effect has popularised a facial structure and body shape that is virtually impossible to attain without the help of a skilled cosmetic surgeon. Add on filters, photoshop and airbrushing tools for unrealistic images that would make any otherwise healthy and confident woman feel unsure of her appearance. These are the images that women are being exposed to for hours on end every single day; with the average time spent on social media ranging anywhere between three to nine hours a day depending on their age group. In a world where women are outperforming their male counterparts when given equal opportunities at school, university and work, the concept of beauty ideals is starting to feel highly antiquated.
So when the body positivity movement started to gain momentum, the excitement was palpable. A new form of female beauty started to emerge; celebrating a universally inclusive standard of beauty that didn’t discriminate. And it was about time. The movement is finally starting to change the manner in which the fashion and beauty industries operate; instilling the updated definition of beauty to replace the exclusionary existing one. The Victoria’s Secret fashion show, arguably the most-watched fashion spectacle in the world with 9.2 million viewers at its peak in 2014, was cancelled in 2019. The show, which first aired in 1995, was renowned for its rigorous selection methods with the likes of Bella Hadid, Heidi Klum and Gigi Hadid openly talking about the excruciating diet and workout programs they adopted to ‘get in shape’ for the high-profile shows.
In the very year that the Victoria’s Secret fashion show was cancelled, Rihanna took her revolutionary fashion agenda to New York Fashion Week with her Savage x Fenty show which embraced the beauty of the everyday women. The lingerie presentation showcased a diverse new beauty ideal, with women of all ages, colours, shapes and sizes dazzling the fashion and entertainment world with their confidence. The result? International appreciation for the superstar’s visionary approach for the debut of her LVMH-backed fashion brand.
In the North American and European markets, models including Ashley Graham, Winnie Harlow, Halima Aden and Rebekah Marine are diversifying the traditional fashion model stereotype, albeit within a conventionally attractive scope. The reverberations of the movement have been felt worldwide, including in the Middle East.
Tunisian born Ameni Esseibi, became the Arab world’s first plus-size model when she finally signed on with three of Dubaibmodelling agencies in September 2018 after a year of persistence. The model’s vision consequently paid off when US-based, size-inclusive luxury e-tailer 11 Honoré picked up Ameni to front their Middle East launch campaign.
Meanwhile in Morroco, model Tilila Oulhaj has become the face of Marrakech’s authentic fashion movement; her inimitable cool girl style heightened only by her striking freckles. In Saudi Arabia, up-and-coming model Shahad Salman has been internationally recognised for her unique vitiligo markings which have the industry-at-large comparing her to one of vitiligo’s most iconic global ambassadors, Winnie Harlow.
Beauty mogul Huda Kattan utilised her billion-dollar brand to create a dedicated campaign to celebrate imperfect beauty. The Huda Beauty campaign, developed in tandem with Pakistani artist Sara Shakeel, highlighted the models’ perceived imperfections instead of concealing them by decorating them with glitter. The campaign went viral, amassing global attention with influencers clamouring to showcase their ‘imperfections’ on social media with the use of glitter – marking the first instance in which audiences of millions were allowed glimpses of their typically hidden stretch marks, birth marks and natural ‘flaws’.
Dubai-based journalist Danae Mercer has been another advocate for the advancement of the body positivity movement in the Middle East. The remarkably fit 33-year-old has recently opened up her social media accounts to give an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes look at how she uses photo trickery, angles and poses to create content for her feed. Documenting everything from her stretch marks and spider veins to her bloating and cellulite, Danae is bringing about a welcomed sense of realness to social media by drawing attention to the normalcy of imperfections and how influencers disguise them for social media.
But is this enough given that all these examples are still ticking off a list of “desirable” physical traits, with the models with striking vitiligo always being thin, and plus-sized models showcasing clear skin and nipped in waists? Whilst there is a long way to go, it is encouraging to see that we are on the right track. Body positivity should not be a mere movement, but rather the norm – one that promotes health, wellbeing, self-love and gratitude above all else. Fashion has always been, first and foremost, a documentation of the underlying societal moods and themes within any period in history. Therefore, at a time where women are shattering glass ceilings in every aspect of society, why is it that fashion is holding back? It’s time to reset, regroup and pave the way for a decade of female empowerment which will serve to lift women up higher than ever before.
As seen in the March 2020 issue of Emirates Woman.