Be honest: how do these images make you feel? We’re not used to seeing women with scars, burns, alopecia or any “visible difference” represented, let alone celebrated, in the fashion world. A world in which perfection is peddled and beauty standards are at their highest. The pinnacle of this? Fashion month. Four weeks of glossy models in glossy dresses without a “flaw” to speak of. However, fashion designer Steven Tai and photographer Rankin have set out to challenge this. During Tai’s London Fashion Week show, the designer cast a variety of women with visible differences to wear his spring collection.
In collaboration with the charity Changing Faces, the campaign will also see a bold new book, Portrait Positive: Changing The Way You See, published on September 25, which features images of 16 of the women taken by Rankin. The idea for the project came from Stephen Bell, who was born with a rare condition called Syndactyly (fusion of the fingers) on his right hand. Together, Bell, Rankin and Tai aim to promote “Face Equality”, where everyone is treated equally in our looks-obsessed society, regardless of their appearance.
According to a study by the charity, one in four people with a visible difference say they’ve had negative reactions from strangers, with people staring or making comments, and more than half say their appearance has hindered their career.
Brenda Finn, one of the catwalk models (pictured below), suffers from a condition called alopecia universalis. She woke up one day at the age of 14 to find her pillow covered in hair. During her teens, she suffered relentless abuse, which shattered her self-esteem. “At school, I was nicknamed ‘cancer girl’ and the bullying was constant,” she says.
Brenda wore wigs to hide her condition, but sometimes other children would tear off her wig and use it as a football, or torment her by flushing her wig down the toilet. Eventually, she decided to be home-schooled.
“I felt as if I had no control over anything any more,” she recalls. “Older people tended to avoid mentioning my hair loss, worried about upsetting me, but people my own age were often brutal. For the first three years, I couldn’t find a way of dealing with it and became agoraphobic.”
Entering adulthood, Brenda found working with children became her solace. Children simply accepted her difference and she discovered a passion for performing. She has since gone on to lead a successful career as a children’s entertainer, travelling the world. Brenda believes “being unique should be embraced” and was thrilled to join the campaign, modelling for other organisations, too, including Models of Diversity.
"My confidence has rocketed by a zillion miles now I work with my hair loss, instead of hiding away from it,” she says. “Society constructs rules about what makes a person ‘beautiful’, but that’s all it is – a construction, not a reality. I hope to show others that the standard of beauty is not definite – we define it.”
For fellow catwalk model Catrin Pugh, her world was turned upside down five years ago, when a coach crash left her in a coma, with 96% burns to her face and body. Catrin was left with post-traumatic stress disorder, as she battled to learn how to walk again. She has since undergone 200 operations and is now going to university to study physiotherapy, specialising in burns rehabilitation.
“At 19, I went from being a confident, vivacious, young girl to a 96% burns survivor, fighting for my life and identity,” says Catrin. “Before the accident, I thought the way you look played a big part of who you are. Having my appearance altered so dramatically put that into perspective. I realised there’s no ‘perfect’ way to look. Now, I believe a scar can be just as beautiful as any other attribute – it’s about wearing your scars with confidence.”
Raiché Mederick, 25, was left with third-degree burns covering 70% of her face and body, after being in a house fire as a toddler. “Due to the scarring, a few of my fingers and toes were amputated,” she says. “I lost my facial features, my hair, my balance… and, at one stage, I thought I’d lost myself.”
It took her many years to accept herself and feel beautiful. “Having burns is like never having a day off from the prejudice, the stares, the comments, the whispers and the surgery,” she says. “But, despite that, I’ve defied the odds and I’m on a mission to support other burn survivors and prove that there’s life after injury.”
Chloe Root was born with a birthmark covering half her body and two-thirds of her face. One in 30,000 people in the UK have similar birthmarks. She decided to join London Fashion Week to remove the stigma.
“My most important message is that having a ‘disfigurement’ shouldn’t hinder you in life,” she says. “Instead, it should motivate you to prove you won’t let it hold you back.” After university, Chloe plans to start her own business.
In an industry that trades off physical appearance, and during a time when this is at its peak, it’s important that conversations challenging the status quo are had. It’s no secret that beauty opens the door of opportunity in life, but, speaking to these women and seeing them on the catwalk, I’ve realised that it’s confidence that “works the room”. And, of course, that’s something we can all learn, however we look.