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The Changing Face of Unconventional Beauty

Read my new CultNoise magazine article on alternative ideas of beauty. In this article I talk about inner beauty, “unconventional” looking models (including Shaun Ross who retweeted the article!) and how the fashion/modelling industry is changing attitudes and ideas of what makes someone beautiful:

When I was growing up, the generally accepted idea of “beauty” was attached to the image of the standard Barbie-doll. Being skinny, having long (preferably blonde) hair, blue eyes, tanned skin and a clear complexion was what I understood as the definition of being beautiful. As a child in a school of (at the time) all white children, I knew very little about other races and cultures. I didn’t know much about certain disabilities and health conditions or alternative ideas of beauty.

It was only when I started secondary school and became more aware and educated in social issues, religions, cultures and biological conditions that I began to realise that perhaps beauty doesn’t have to be defined within a limited, rigid set of characteristics. I started to think that perhaps beauty shouldn’t be viewed as something that is only possessed by people who look a specific way. Maybe beauty could instead be looked at as a kind of social construct that is subjective to each individual; meaning that everyone is beautiful, inside and out, in one way or another.

In recent years, the media and the fashion industry have been becoming a lot more accepting and broad-minded when it comes to perceptions of beauty. It seems that fashion labels are no longer looking for models who are traditionally “pretty” and instead, looking to recruit models who look different, distinctive and interesting. The great thing about this new wave in attitude and ideas is that it opens the way for “alternative” and “unconventional” models and creatives to take the main stage. Here are just a few individuals who are making waves and changing the definition of “beautiful”:

Chantelle Brown-Young (Winnie Harlow)

Chantelle Brown-Young, professionally known as Winnie Harlow, is a Canadian model and spokes-model who is best known for participating in the fifteenth season of America’s Next Top Model. One of the qualities that sets Brown-Young apart from other models is her prominent form of the skin condition Vitiligo which she developed when she was around four-years-old. Vitiligo is a long-term condition that causes pale, white patches to develop on the skin due to the lack of a chemical called melanin. Vitiligo can affect any area of the skin, but most commonly occurs on skin exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck and hands. By raising awareness of Vitiligo and wearing it proudly on her skin, Brown-Young is changing attitudes and promoting acceptance in the fashion industry; proving that you can have a health condition that affects your physical appearance and still be beautiful.

People sometimes ask when I learned to love myself. But that was not the issue. I didn’t have a problem with myself or my skin. I had a problem with the way people treated me because of my skin. They tried to define me. I had to relearn how to love myself by forgetting the opinions of everyone else and focusing on my opinion of myself. Today, my motto is: You only have one life. Live it for yourself, not for anyone else. Do what the fuck you want! – Chantelle Brown-Young, Cosmopolitan

Shaun Ross

Similarly to Winnie Harlow, Shaun Ross is also changing perceptions of beauty in relation to skin conditions. Ross is an African-American fashion model, best known for being the first ever male albino model. Albinism affects the production of melanin, the pigment that produces colour in the skin, eyes and hair. People with albinism often have problems with their eye sight, nystagmus (involuntary eye movements) and photophobia (sensitivity to bright light). As well as being a model, Ross is also a talented actor and dancer (you may have spotted Ross flaunting his striking good looks in the music videos for ‘Pretty Hurts’ by Beyoncé, and ‘E.T.’ by Katy Perry ft. Kanye West). After overcoming bullying in his childhood when he was called names including “Casper” and “Powder”, Ross was determined to turn the negativity thrown at him over the years into something positive; into something that would inspire others by redefining the meaning of beauty in the high fashion world. After breaking into the world of modelling, Ross is now one of the biggest names in the industry and has modelled for huge labels including Alexander McQueen and Givenchy – proving unequivocally that beauty is for the beholder to define for themselves. Ross’s unique, statement look has become so iconic that he is one of the most sought after models; not only for fashion designers and labels but in popular culture and the media too.

To me, beauty is a preference. Being pretty does hurt because you have to go through the judgment of what other people think pretty is. There are a lot of people in this world who think people with albinism are extremely beautiful. For a person like me, who’s been ostracized his entire life, to now be doing this with Beyoncé, who the whole world thinks is beautiful, was actually really cool. – Shaun Ross talking about the ‘Pretty Hurts’ music video, Out Magazine

Madeline Stuart

Madeline Stuart is an 18-year-old model from Brisbane, Australia who was born with Down’s syndrome – a common genetic condition which typically causes learning disabilities and characteristic physical features. As with many people with Down’s syndrome, Stuart struggled with her weight for most of her life until 2014 when she decided to get fit and healthy and chase her dream of becoming a model. Stuart set out to raise awareness of her condition and to change the way people think and discriminate against the disability. Through gaining attention on social media, Stuart decided to spread the word and educate others on Down’s syndrome; letting everyone know that she believes that Down’s syndrome is a blessing and something to be celebrated. After months of working to challenge the stigma and raise awareness of Down’s syndrome, Stuart is now officially an international fashion model after being signed to fashion label everMaya for which she will be fronting a campaign for female-owned and Guatemalan-made accessories. By refusing to let her condition define who she is, Stuart has shown that while Down’s syndrome can be debilitating, people with the condition can still achieve their goals and make a difference in the world.

A lot of people look at me and feel sorry for me because they see Maddy and think it is such a big job, which it can be, but I walk up the street and I actually feel sad for people who will never experience the unconditional love of someone like Maddy. I think it is time people realised that people with Down syndrome can be sexy and beautiful and should be celebrated. – Rosanne Stuart (Madeline’s mother), Daily Mail

Liara Cyis Ikyrian (Labonya Siddiqui)

Liara Cyis Ikyrian was badly burned by a paraffin lamp which exploded when she was just eight-years-old; leaving her with permanent scarring on her lower face and upper body. After several years of fighting post-traumatic stress disorder and concealing her scars with heavy clothing and scarves in order to hide from bullies, Ikyrian decided to stop feeling sorry for herself and to follow her aspiration of becoming a model. Following Ikyrian’s courageous and inspirational story of overcoming her traumatic experience and her insecurities that resulted from it, Ikyrian was spotted by high street fashion giant Next and chosen to be a model for the company and was honoured with the opportunity to model at the opening of a new store in Burnley, Lancashire in December 2012.

By overcoming a horrific incident which caused scarring that Ikyrian will have for the rest of her life, Ikyrian is encouraging and inspiring burn survivors around the world and showing that her “God-given tattoos” are part of her and part of what make her beautiful.

These models, each equally inspiring and brave in their own way, are proof that despite some remaining cynical and ignorant attitudes – the majority of people in our society are becoming more accepting, loving and understanding of the differences of others.

In order to achieve true beauty that goes beyond the surface of our skin, we need to re-examine the definition of the word “beautiful” to incorporate not only physical beauty but the beauty of the mind. If we redefine what we interpret as beautiful and realise that it is within our flaws and scars and health conditions and tattoos and differences that our true beauty lies.

Beauty doesn’t just have to be described as someone who is skinny and has a “pretty” face. For me, someone with beauty is someone who is fair, kind and tolerant; someone who is not judgemental, cruel or negative but instead loving, accepting and empathetic of those who appear on the surface to be different.

Featured image courtesy of Jota Hache Ce via Flickr


  1. This was a fascinating article, and quite uplifting. I wish the greatest success to everyone you featured and I hope they all have long and successful careers.

    I did notice, though, that all of the models, although not conventionally beautiful, do have very striking features. I’m looking forward to the day when society evolves to the point where middle-aged men with a slight podge and a face like a potato become lusted after sex-symbols around the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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