It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, within the majority of mainstream Western commercial media, those who are considered “beautiful” are usually those who fulfill certain prerequisites, i.e. being thin, Caucasian, able-bodied, etc.
However, within the realm of alternative modeling, a branch of the modeling industry that features individuals who do not conform to mainstream beauty standards, there are models who show that beauty does not conform to a specific, exclusive image.
One prominent example of someone who is redefining the face of beauty is an acclaimed African-American fashion model, Winnie Harlow.
As one of many finalists of the twenty-first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, Winnie Harlow gained prominent attention as a model with vitiligo, a skin condition characterized by depigmentation of certain areas of the skin, creating discolored patches in different areas of the body.
Following the show, Harlow became the official brand representative for Desigual as well as modeling for other clothing brands and fashion magazines. In various interviews, Harlow described how growing up she had been a victim of bullying, suffering verbal and physical abuse from the stigma attached to vitiligo, pushing her to drop out of high school.
Now as a prominent model, Winnie Harlow uses her platform to act as a public advocate for vitiligo, inspiring those with her skin condition and women of color, including young Instagram model, April Star, who quoted Winnie Harlow as her role model for helping to teach her how to embrace her own skin.
Another model changing the fashion game is Dominican American model Jillian Mercado.
An active wheelchair model diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy at a young age, Jillian Mercado did not grow up with seeing any models in magazine or advertising that looked like her, searching for wheelchair models on Google and seeing zero results.
Years later, Jillian Mercado has changed that, modeling for designer brands like Diesel, appearing on Beyoncé‘s official website, promoting merchandise for the Formation fashion campaign, and appearing in editorial features for Glamour and Cosmopolitan. As one of the currently few professional models with a physical disability, Jillian Mercado actively challenges ableist stereotypes through her dedication to transforming her field of trade, quoting in an interview with Glamour Magazine,
“If you feel like the world is getting you down, you should be the person to change it.”
In addition to challenging beauty norms related to skin and disability, alternative models are challenging the modeling industry in terms of gender performance and identity.
For instance, self-proclaimed Gender capitalist, defined as “someone who takes advantage of opportunities given to people based on their perceived sex or gender,” fashion model, Rain Dove, has based their success on their androgynous appearance.
In an interview with Bustle, Dove discusses how because of their gender-bending look, they disregard the gender binary of “male” or “female” within fashion to create an individual, unique look,
“When I’m a gender capitalist in the fashion world, I basically can go to any casting that I want to, as long as somebody likes my face.”
As of now, mainstream media is still in the process of achieving full inclusive representation. However, models such as Winnie Harlow, Jillian Mercado, and Rain Dove are bringing alternative beauty to the public eye.
As women of color, models like Winnie Harlow and Jillian Mercado are challenging racialized Eurocentric beauty standards, while challenging the stigma attached to their bodies in the public discourse. Others like Rain Dove bring awareness to the LGBTQ+ community, showcasing how fashion is essentially genderless and how gender is a societal construct. Advocating for body positivity and self-acceptance, alternative beauty opens new modes of thought, challenges traditional standards of beauty, and shows that beauty can be universal.