Wednesday 21 August 2019

Who's perfect? Why Ireland needs to change its notions of who is beautiful

In a nipped, tucked and heavily filtered world, beauty is the buzzword of the moment. Our reporter chats with three people who give their individual take on what it means to be beautiful and how it feels not to fit society’s aesthetic ideal

Ellen, left, wears: Dress, Self-Portrait, Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island. Paddy, centre, wears: three-piece suit; shirt, all Paul Smith, Brown Thomas. Niamh, right, wears: Dress, Maje, Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island
Ellen, left, wears: Dress, Self-Portrait, Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island. Paddy, centre, wears: three-piece suit; shirt, all Paul Smith, Brown Thomas. Niamh, right, wears: Dress, Maje, Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island
Jacket; T-shirt, both Paul Smith; jeans Jacob Cohen, all Brown Thomas
Dress, Maje
Dress, Alice & Olivia, Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island

Elle Gordon

There is different and there is different.

The  first type chops her hair when everyone else  is wearing extensions; she disowns the  high-street for vintage finds, while the rest of us swan around in our good blazers. She chances her arm and writes to him or her first on Tinder, a breezy 'what harm?' swirling in her wake. Different goes out and leaves her phone in her bag... all night. This is  all different, just enough to elicit an 'oh really?' It's pleasant not following the crowd. We celebrate different.

Then there is different. I mean really different. The kind of different that takes ownership of a room but unintentionally. The different that causes a double take, a side-eye, a long pause. What is this different? This is disability. This group of different is frequently touted as a minority group. Words like 'vulnerable' fly around, and I agree they have their place. We can get caught up and forget that, for so many people with disabilities, their lives are taken up completing the ordinary, everyday tasks of life. These are people who are consumers, fathers, mothers, students, sisters, brothers, employees or employers. The list goes on. People; just people.

One billion of these different people live in this world. Eating, sleeping, breathing, starting conversations, finishing books, getting lost in movies, falling in love, living. Why do their differences have to be made to feel so different? Different body shapes, sizes, ways of walking, perhaps ways of talking and ways of getting around.

Something that really struck a chord with me was a campaign a few years ago which used in-store mannequins that reflected disabilities. Each body type was modelled on a real-life person who had a disability. The campaign was called 'Who is perfect?' Who is perfect? What a powerful question. The answer is simple: nobody.

So why is it that our perception of the aspirational, the beautiful, and the perfect has not changed? Can we, as consumers, be part of an evolution to include people with disabilities as part of the mainstream idea of beauty?

I love fashion, and I always will, but never have I attended a fashion show, looked over at the models lined up or appearing on this season's billboard and had that moment of victory that I hope to have. Perhaps just one model who makes me stop and think, 'Oh look, she has...' and then get on with my day. That would be the place to get to - casual inclusion. Not 'us or them'; but 'we'.

We are a generation of change. We are embracing difference. Our body types have extended beyond 'skinny or what else is there?' We are now celebrating the fact that women and men come in all different shapes and sizes. The BoPo - body positivity - movement is testament to this. Its message of 'love the skin you're in' extends across the world. Models such as Ashley Graham and Iskra Lawrence have successfully changed perception of the kind of body type that is 'acceptable' in a bikini, and are encouraging others to do the same.

Not important

What about people with disabilities? Where are they? Why aren't they just as frequently visible in ad campaigns and billboards? Are they not a representation of what it is to be human? Can they not be just as beautiful as anyone we see featured in campaigns?

In the beauty and fashion industries, it would appear disability is not important. Advertisers have gleaned that you will buy the product if a beautiful human tells you to. What if the beautiful human was a wheelchair user, holding a cane, or missing a limb? People with disabilities have been largely ignored. One billion consumers who just do not need to see a representation of themselves?

We are beginning to see some positive changes. Tess Daly is a beauty blogger who has spinal muscular atrophy. She has amassed thousands of followers on her YouTube channel and, more recently, featured in a campaign. It wasn't a disability campaign - the focus was the clothes, and she was modelling them, all the while being an absolute badass. She is determined to be a representative of the differently-abled. She is a game-changer in terms of challenging what a model should look like.

Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy, is signed to Bella Hadid's agency, IMG Models. She featured in Beyonce's ad campaign for her Formation merchandise in 2016. Model Winnie Harlow has also embraced her perceived imperfections and used them to ensure she stood out from the crowd. She is a hugely in-demand model, who has the rare skin condition vitiligo. Winnie has appeared in campaigns all over the world and yet, her dream is to be cast as the face of a make-up brand.

Winnie is starting to see positive change - speaking to a UK publication, she said: "All the girls in the industry are really all about making different the norm. Everyone really wants that to stop being a movement and start being normal. It shouldn't be a movement when someone casts a bunch of black girls, or a girl who isn't the typical size, or someone with freckles. It should be an everyday thing."

I would like to see a world where the campaigns that are churning out the message of 'all body shapes are beautiful' would include, without fuss, a person with a disability. A world where an in-depth trawl of the internet wasn't required to find examples of the fashion industry and disability. I'd like to see what we have achieved with gay pride, replicated with disability - disability pride.

Coco Chanel once said: "To be irreplaceable one must always be a little bit different". To make disability part of the narrative of being a human and discard any shame or 'otherness' that people are relieved they themselves have escaped. Life happens, good and bad; for everyone, your lot is your lot. I want to see the mindset change, to see a celebration of all our bodies, imperfections at the fore. Give 'everybody' more weight than it has ever had before.

This wish for change makes me think of a hashtag Netflix ran earlier in the year - #FirstTimeISawMe. Its focus was diversity and representation on screen, asking actors of colour to recall the first time they saw someone who looked like they did, on screen.

It made me think: when have I seen anyone who looks like me in the same context? The answer was loud and clear: never. I have no #FirstTimeISawMe me to share. That is, not yet. I am hopeful, if we can collectively continue to fuel this conversation, change will occur with other brands following in the footsteps of the few that are blazing trails.

I spoke to some people who are killing it in terms of breaking down perceptions of what having a disability means. People who have woven their disability into their lives and careers; not as something to be ashamed of or hidden away, but something that is simply there. They are humans who have taken ownership of their differences, which result in them being wonderfully unique people. We chatted about whether or not a change of our perception of beauty is on the horizon. Can different become the norm?

Paddy Smyth

Social-media influencer with cerebral palsy

Jacket; T-shirt, both Paul Smith; jeans Jacob Cohen, all Brown Thomas

The world we live in now, it's picture-perfect. Everyone wants to showcase

such a beautiful life. We're so obsessed with how we look and with our body image, that something like a disability or something that is slightly different isn't looked upon as beautiful. It's not something that everyone else aspires to be. People pity you before they even know you.

I think it's a really slow change. It's all about education and teaching people not to feel awkward around a person with a disability. I don't blame people for thinking that way - it's just the way society perceives disability. They automatically write them off as, 'they won't be able to do anything'. You have to break that barrier down yourself.

It's difficult; it's really difficult to be confident in a society where the ideals of what the perfect body is are quite regimented. You're not the norm, you're the minority. People don't look at my crutches and say, 'Oh wow, you're beautiful'. All they see, and all I see, is the pity face of the 'ugh, isn't he great' kind of look. You have to make people see past that. I know it's kind of cringe, but see the beauty within. Mainstream campaigns don't extend to disability, because we're still trying to break that barrier. All they see is your disadvantage, or what they think is your disadvantage.

I think, for the fashion industry, it has been years upon years of doing the opposite. It's like gay rights. I call it innocent ignorance. People don't know how to react to disability - whether they should be really nice, or bring up your disability, or whether they should help you with everything.

If I don't want someone to open the door for me, people will think I'm being rude, but I can do it myself. It's a weird concept, because it's making me feel like a lesser person because they're being overbearing, and it makes me feel that I have to explain what my disability is.

It is like being gay years ago, as it always had to be addressed first. If you were gay, that's all you were. It's the same thing when it comes to disability. In terms of the fashion industry, someone could say, 'I don't find him attractive because he's disabled'. But we can orchestrate change. Instagram @paddyysmyth

Ellen Keane

Paralympian swimmer and amputee

Dress, Alice & Olivia, Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island

I used to be so terrified to go out in public, because people would stare. It wasn't normal to see a young girl with one arm. Perhaps when people thought of disabilities, they thought of blind people, deaf people, and people in wheelchairs.

A girl with one arm was so weird, in a sense. I never really gave myself a chance to put myself out there and see what society would do. The more I hid my arm, the worse it got. But there was no one out there, that I could see, who was just walking around with no cares in the world and just having disability on display. I didn't know that it was OK to put it out there.

I would literally go everywhere with my sleeves rolled down, trying to appear normal. It was so horrible. I was trying to change who I was, and not accepting who I was. Then one day I said: 'You know what? I'm not living my life, I just need to roll up my sleeve and get it out there'.

I don't see why disability can't be beautiful. If you're a confident person, you can make your disability beautiful. That's the thing I've always said. When I was younger, I always wanted an arm, but now I love the fact that I don't have an arm, because I'm going to stand out more than anyone in the room.

I think it's up to us, the people with the disabilities. We're the ones who are hiding. We're the ones who are not putting ourselves forward. That's what gay rights did and the LGBT community, and they're everywhere. They're loud and proud, but you don't really see a disabled person doing the same. You don't really see a disabled person who's putting themselves out there. I think that's where it needs to start.

I've been to so many disability events - Dublin city is really inaccessible for people with wheelchairs. I think that people from the outside think that people with disabilities complain a lot, and they're not seen as happy people. When they meet a happy disabled person, it can be a bit, 'Oh you're great, aren't you', and I don't want to be seen as 'great'. I'm just living my life.

In terms of representation, I think it's our problem and we have to change it. I think one day soon we might see someone with a disability on the cover of a magazine like Vogue. In 1974, Beverly Johnson was the first woman of colour to appear on the cover of Vogue. There was no longer a racial issue, and I think for us it's an 'ableist' issue, and we need to get different disabilities out there. Instagram @keane_ellen

Niamh O'Donoghue

Multimedia journalist with scoliosis

Dress, Maje

Fashion is important to me. It is my armour. It gives me a new level of confidence, and it's a way for me to put the illness and disability behind me. Of course, there are days when I feel absolutely miserable, but when I put on good pants or a jacket, I just feel like a confident, powerful woman. That's what I want to portray, not that I have had x-amount of surgeries.

Yes, campaigns targeting people with disabilities would be amazing to see - gorgeous. I think, working in the media industry, I see that there is a particular image to sell, and there is uniformity to having a beautiful model with a beautiful face. You have to see the whole package. Then you see body-confidence campaigns. I would love to see the industry become much more inclusive of disability. It is becoming better than when we were younger. We're conscious now if models are too skinny or too unhealthy, and ageism is becoming irrelevant. We have models like Lauren Hutton for Calvin Klein. She's an amazing 73-year-old supermodel. So they're definitely diversifying.

But when it comes to the topic of beauty, who gets to say what's beautiful and what's not? I think it comes down to 'what makes a real woman?' Do we have a pulse? Do we have a personality? I mean, all those things to me are what make and define a person. Not an industry whose beauty standards can be really outdated.

When I was growing up in school, I would have loved somebody to tailor for me a T-shirt to fit on my body. Unfortunately I fall into a category where less than 2pc have this particular disfigurement.

Brands would be taking a huge risk targeting a campaign to people with disabilities. When people have disabilities, it's very personal. It's not too easy to say, 'OK that's a size six for that person, and that's a size eight for someone else'. If we could look at disability the way we do Winnie Harlow.

Or, for instance, DJ Jewell. It's great to see the way that the industry has started to champion albinism. I don't like using the word ugly. I don't believe in it, but he is not a handsome man, and it works. People love him. I'm not sure I get it, but it's amazing. It's an example of showing diversity, but imagine if we could get that for every brand.

We are slowly backing the minority, and it's beautiful to see. I think in the age of social media, we are all supposed to be spreading awareness, positivity and self-love. There's always going to be that desire to be something else or to have the smaller nose or the bigger boobs, and I think it's a very personal thing. I think diversity is something that they're afraid to fully integrate towards, so it will take time before people can see that there are so many different types of bodies out there, and to celebrate them. It can only do positive things.

Instagram @niamh_cupl

Photography by David Conachy

Styling by Elle Gordon

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