Beauty norms are being challenged, brands are embracing diversity and the best news is: everyone is beautiful

Sometimes we need to be reminded that it’s okay to be just the way you are,’ says Palesa Kgasane. The Cape Town-based creative is talking about her starring role in a recent campaign for online retailer Superbalist, which celebrated inclusive forms of love and was made up of a diverse cast.

The online campaign, which included the likes of artist duo FAKA and writer Buhle Ngaba, went viral earlier this year and challenged gender and beauty “norms”, disregarding the stereotype of love and romance, which is often depicted as white, cisgender and heterosexual.

The campaign aimed to encourage individuality, says Palesa, who works in fashion and identifies as a black womxn and queer. ‘It was powerful in showing how multifaceted love can be, across spectrums of race and sexuality.’ The online store is just one of many brands that have become more inclusive in their marketing – consumers are now presented with images and campaigns that represent every kind of human, superseding what we have previously been fed as the ‘beauty ideals’ (white, tall, skinny and so on).

It’s not only Superbalist pushing the boundaries; we are seeing more runways and fashion spreads celebrating people of colour and models with albinism; thin and fuller figures; short and tall; young and old; people with disabilities and individuals who don’t conform to male and female binaries. We have social media to thank in part for this welcomed rise in diversity, with users increasingly debunking norms in fashion and beauty, and having conversations about the new normal.

Looking back, the most noticeable shift began in 2014, when many a model defied what was then considered beautiful and inspirational: Canadian Chantelle Brown Young (better known as Winnie Harlow), who has vitiligo (a condition that causes the loss of skin colour in patches), appeared on America’s Next Top Model and went on to land many big campaigns and grace various magazine covers; Shaun Ross, a model with albinism, walked a number of catwalks including that of Alexander McQueen, followed by roles in music videos for Lana Del Ray and Beyoncé; and plus-sized model Ashley Graham landed the cover of Elle Quebec, catapulting her to stardom and into the company of supermodels like Gisele Bündchen and Heidi Klum.

But beauty is not only skin deep. Trans model Tracey Norman, who was once rejected for being herself, made a comeback to runways in 2016. ‘In recent years, rapid if overdue progress has been made in the realm of trans rights and trans visibility. Now trans models such as Andreja Peji, Carmen Carrera, Lea T and Hari Nef walk runways and secure campaigns for major fashion labels,’ Hermione Hoby notes in a column for Guardian.com. ‘Forty years ago, however, the word “trans” barely existed and prejudice was such that the idea of a trans model being “out” was unthinkable, even horrifying, to a far less enlightened world.’

Tumelo Mojapelo, head of content at forecasting agency Flux Trends, has picked up on beauty brands that push boundaries and don’t adhere to gender conformity, such as CoverGirl and Maybelline. The brands recently made male-identifying Instagram make-up gurus Manny Gutierrez and James Charles their first-ever male ambassadors respectively. ‘These brands illustrate their support of people alienated from mainstream representation in society because of who they are,’ says Tumelo.

The campaigns also resonate with Generation Z (Gen Z) – a demographic born between the mid-nineties and 2010, and which ‘is more gender fluid than previous generations,’ says Tumelo, who points to researcher and writer David Green’s observation that consumer culture trends are inspired by Gen Z.

A few fashion houses have followed in beauty brands’ footsteps, defying rigid gender codes. ‘Gucci and Louis Vuitton are engaging with gender fluidity through their gender-fluid fashion campaigns. Louis Vuitton last year cast musician Jaden Smith as the face of its womenswear collection campaign while Gucci folded mens and womenswear collections together for a fashion show last year,’ says Tumelo.

And speaking of Gucci, which in the past has been criticised for its whitewashed runways, the brand this year unveiled an all-black-model, pre-fall campaign – a first in its nearly century-long existence. Meanwhile, Dimepiece and Céline challenged ageist beauty conventions by including 80-plus-year-old models – Instagram star Baddie Winkle and author Joan Didion respectively – in their campaigns. And 80-year-old actor, artist and grandfather Wang Deshun added swagger and style to the catwalks during China Fashion Week 2016.

Credit: Dimepiece

Despite some major fashion and beauty campaigns radically going against the grain, the industry still has a long way to go to be truly inclusive.

Full-time model Sanele Xaba believes that South Africa’s fashion scene is yet to fully grasp diversity but says it is slowly changing. ‘I’m the first male model with albinism in South Africa,’ says Cape Town-based Sanele, who has featured in local and international campaigns for brands such as Adidas and Puma. ‘I started modelling at 15, and it’s been an amazing journey to see how the fashion industry has opened its doors to change and is embracing diversity as a whole.’ Founder of outreach programme Rolled Sleeves, which educates schoolchildren about skin conditions such as albinism, and vitiligo, Sanele says that being a black model is tough but coupled with albinism it’s twice as hard. He recounts casting calls for campaigns seeking black male models and the looks he gets upon arrival. ‘Having a different look means you have to work twice as hard in the world of fashion.’

Credit: Simon Deiner/SDR Photo

As Sanele’s modelling career soars – walking runways, travelling abroad and featuring in fashion editorials – he hopes to land more commercial work. ‘I want to be able to do a Coca-Cola or Castle ad too, not only high fashion and art. Mainstream representation can help challenge the misconceptions people might have about albinism.’

Initiatives such as the All Women Project – a campaign started by plus-size models Charli Howard and Clémentine Desseaux – push for the visibility of diverse sets of women in fashion by celebrating them. And emerging UK brand Birdsong’s #AsWeAre campaign seeks to push back on photoshopping models and challenges unrealistic industry ideals; we might see more fashion and beauty campaigns embracing diversity.

credit: All Women Project

While there is still work to be done, it is refreshing to see these changes in the industry – the new ‘normal’ is being embraced: imperfect is perfect, and beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

by Stefanie Jason