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Can you imagine a hijab on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit special cover? Well, somebody could:Halima Aden’s debut with a burkini (burqa+bikini, yes, portmanteau, anyone?) broke stereotypes and rewrote multiple fashion guidelines in the 2019 issue. Other than a few places like France, which has a stuck up definition of ‘secularism’, every other major country seems to have accepted the burkini into the fold. (no magazine pun intended). In fact, burkinis are a common sight among lifeguards in Australia.

This all probably started in  1997 when Alek Wek, a Sudanese model, appeared on the cover of Elle magazine thanks to a French creative director (irony, yes!) Gilles Bensimon. Alek rocked a Giorgio Armani suit and her intense presence closely followed by her distinctly African curves did the rest to capture the attention of any onlooker. 

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Since the issue came out, every perception of beauty has been questioned. People have been accepted the way they are – Plus size models are here, bald women are featured on covers and women are wearing their wrinkles and greys with pride, showing it off to the world.

The conventional perception of beauty

A symmetric face, generous bosom and a narrow waist with a skin tone that was ‘acceptable’ by the local cultural values was the conventional definition of beauty for a long, long time. Catherine Deneuve and Princess Grace and a handful of others were the ones who lived up to the said standards. The rest of the women were just somebody’s wife or nameless housewives who lived to cook, clean and look after their families.

The case of Lauren Hutton is sufficient to tell people how a wee bit swerve from the said perception could cause months and days of harassment (scoffs? No, call it as you see it!) at the hands of the press. Her teeth were an itty bitty bit apart and boy, did she have to endure all the crap that was printed in the tabloids and said in interviews about whether or not she was beautiful. How these socialites got to decide who is beautiful and who is not is anybody’s guess.

Till the time people fought for it, demanded it, broadcasted and shared it on the all-pervasive social media, women who did not adhere to these ridiculous beauty standards were not only shunned, their issues were considered non-existent.

The early African American Supermodels

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Beverly Johnson, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell were the early African American models to break the mould so to speak and get featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated or Vogue among other fashion magazines. However, other than the obvious difference in skin tone, they adhered to every other beauty standard set by the couch casting boss men of the 60s.

And then came Elle

It should have been ‘and then came Alek’ but that doesn’t rhyme with ‘and then came Polly’! Jokes aside, the jagged outline of Alek Wek with her honest-to-goodness smile and endearing African features made her an instant celebrity not just because it ruffled the general rules of beauty but also because it would be the start of broadening the spectrum of what ‘beauty’ actually meant. Her sinewy legs were not conventionally beautiful for the African crowd as well but she still got featured on the cover and that is why this issue is celebrated for setting the tone for those who would continue to broaden the perception of beauty.

The role of YouTubers and Influencers

The incredible content ecosystem for the beauty consumer is unprecedented. The Internet has helped break more glass ceilings and stereotypes than the rest of similar tools combined. In a survey taken by Google and Facebook, it was found that 26% of the viewers watching the content of YouTubers and influencers logged on to an online beauty store and bought beauty products online, then and there. This not only shows that the modern day women and men have icons who might not be adhering to the yesteryear beauty standards. This is a promising sign.

Many YouTubers and Influencers are plus sized, sinewy, thin, bald, wearing zany hairstyles and tattoos – free expressionists of the first order, in other words. There are para-athletes, athletes, women achievers in various industries especially the male dominated ones like finance and healthcare who are gaining centrestage thanks to their videos, their Instagram accounts and YouTube channels. These women are inspiring millions out there by making them believe that beauty is more than skin deep; beauty is more about feeling good about yourself through achievements and what not!

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The persistent issue of neckbeards

If there is one thing that is persistent in the world of beauty and fashion, it is that neckbeards keep popping up from everywhere like molds. These neckbeards hide behind handles on twitter, facebook, reddit or quora and post their comments bravely under the cover of anonymity. Flat nose, sinewy legs, crooked teeth, insufficient bosom, nothing is beneath them and so it keeps coming up. Developing a thicker skin to their insults and cowardly comments is something that they don’t teach you when you start modelling; but it’s something that is the need of the hour for models, nay, for popular figures everywhere who are trying to make a difference.

What does the future hold for ‘beauty’

People are still going to go to salons, get their eyebrows shaped, get their manicure, pedicure and bikini waxes on and off, whenever required. However, women will still be accepted whatever be their looks – plus sized, thin, curvy, everyone will find acceptance from the snobs and critics. The only logical thing that needs to be seen – will men also be appreciated for what they are doing? There are men with paunches, there are bald men, there are men who don’t work out, who are ‘plus sized’ if you will and yes, thanks to patriarchy, men still shoulder much of the family responsibilities, 5 out of 10 times the guy may buckle under pressure and not focus on his physique. Does this mean he gets a break, from being judged? No! He is expected to be fit, he is expected to go to the gym, he is expected to have a head full of hair while managing everything that is thrown at him. In other words, the term ‘beauty’ will be spoken about more in relevance to men and men will start fighting for said acceptance like their female counterparts did not long ago. 

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