Rehana Browne writes…
“I want to tell the world – do not see us in a weak light and see that even we can go out and do things,” said Resha Querishi moments before she stepped out onto the catwalk at New York Fashion Week earlier this month.
Two years ago, Querishi was attacked with acid by her sister’s estranged husband and his friends. On 8 September 2016, the 19 year old from Mumbai took part in #IAmNYFW, a campaign which aims to promote diversity in fashion.
Also this season, Adele Bellis and Laxmi took to the catwalk at a charity gala ahead of London Fashion Week. Like Querishi, both women sustained facial scarring and other injuries from acid attacks.
For the fashion world, the public display of a person that looks different is very rarely done. According to The Fashion Spot, 80% of the models that took part in the London, New York, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks last year were white. A model with a facial difference is virtually unheard of. So why does casting in fashion rarely deviate from the standard? Is it because fashion is not interested in selling real life? Or is it because advertising relies on a principle of aspiration? And at what cost are we accepting this aesthetic “norm” as a kind of a universal human identity?
This aesthetic “norm” is nonsensical. Everyone wants to see representations of themselves in fashion. Whilst fashion should appeal to the masses at some level, it should also represent individuals. It should celebrate physical difference and in turn inspire creativity, encourage diversity and establish equality.
One journalist labelled the women’s appearances on the catwalk “symbolic opportunism” and accused organisers of using disfigurement as a “selling point”. However, would the same be said about a show with plus size models or non-Caucasian models? Probably not, as the show would be seen to be including “real people”. So does this mean that a person with a disfigurement is not a “real person”?
The question of “how can you normalise a physical difference when you make all the effort to highlight it?” was also raised but one can also ask “how can society understand disfigurement when you make all the effort to hide it?” Also, what is “normal” and why is it so desirable? In any case, we should be aiming to embrace diversity because of its intrinsic value and inextricable link to equality, not as a means to “normalise” a particular physical feature.
Some thought that the acid-attack crime had been given a “soft-focus halo” through fashion, thus reducing the severity of the crime. However, reports of the show included hard-hitting facts and impactful statistics on acid attacks in India and the UK that would not otherwise have been published.
Laxmi told reporters “The world will automatically turn you into a victim and victimise you. I would say instead of having a mentality that makes you feel like a victim, become a fighter and become a voice for the people who are going through these things. So you can strengthen those who are going through violence.”
Aside from a few examples, such as Paralympic sprinter Aimee Mullins modelling for Alexander McQueen back in 1998, for decades, the overwhelming message from the fashion world has been clear: if you look different you are not worth looking at. You may ask why exclusion from a world renowned for its superficiality and flightiness is anything other than insignificant?
The answer is largely found in the fact that models set trends. They make it “OK” to look a certain way. In 1966, Twiggy made it cool to be streamlined and androgynous and in 2011, Cara Delevigne make thick eyebrows the must – have accessory. By having models with unusual appearances we are saying that it’s fine to be different. In fact, it’s more than fine. Being different is to be unique and it is this that makes us human.
There were murmurings in the media that having acid attack survivors on the catwalk was a tokenistic move, a kind of aesthetic flourish on the part of the organisers. Some argued that these shows were an example of fashion being used inappropriately, to make a statement on human rights. However, since fashion is a reflection of social, economic, political and cultural changes, it is widely understood that fashion goes beyond aesthetic values and a designer’s fashion show is an expressive tool used to deliver a message about society. Therefore, raising the serious issue of gender-based violence through acid attacks at two of the fashion capitals of the world during Fashion Week seems appropriate.
Over the years, we have seen a move towards a more diverse landscape within the fashion industry. In 2015, Andreja Pejic was the first transgender model to appear in Vogue and in 2016, Ashley Graham became the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Models with disabilities have been used in campaigns for American brand Target this year. Successful models Winnie Harlow and Shaun Ross, prove that having a condition such as vitiligo or albinism does not have to be life-limiting.
When Reshmi, Adele and Laxmi appeared at Fashion Week this month, they were not only sending a message of courage and empowerment. Crucially, they threw the matter of face equality into sharp focus.
One journalist asked how a physical difference could be “normalised” if it was being highlighted so dramatically. But what is “normal” and why is it something that we aspire to be? In any case, we should not be looking to embrace diversity with the aim to “normalise”, rather we should do so because it is intrinsically valuable and crucial to building a fair and equal society.
Fashion is an exaggerated magnification of what the majority of society desires, believes and understands. The reason that we see such a lack of diversity in the industry is for the very same reason that a child with an unusual appearance is bullied at school or an adult with a facial disfigurement is rejected on an online dating site. It is a manifestation of our unconscious beliefs and attitudes which can unfortunately result in prejudice and discrimination.
Despite recent efforts, the world of fashion remains a largely discriminatory industry and one where there is a significant stigma attached to “looking different.” This month, we witnessed two international departures from the dogmatic notions of what constitutes beauty in the form of three women taking to the catwalk. Whilst any move towards diversity and equality should be celebrated, this was just a drop in the ocean of a gigantic and hugely influential global industry which reflects a much more general and widespread issue of discrimination.
Fashion is a powerful tool and one that can be employed to make a change for the better. Let’s hope that it continues to be employed in the goal to stamp out appearance-related discrimination and create a society that fully accepts and values a person with a visible difference. Last year, model Hari Nef said that “diversity is everything. Inclusion leads to understanding, demystification, destigmitisation. Fashion has the power to glorify bodies and identities – to include them in a narrative of luxury and beauty”.
Rehana Browne is the Communications Officer at Changing Faces. Viewpoint represents the views of its authors only and not necessarily the policies or views of Changing Faces, its staff or trustees.
This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of Viewpoint, Changing Faces’ monthly email for supporters. Sign up here.