This story appears in the February 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Sudanese model Alek Wek appeared on the November 1997 cover of the U.S. edition of Elle magazine, in a photograph by French creative director Gilles Bensimon. It was, as is so often the case in the beauty business, a global production.
Wek, with her velvety ebony skin and mere whisper of an Afro, was posed in front of a stark, white screen. Her simple, white Giorgio Armani blazer almost disappeared into the background. Wek, however, was intensely present.
She was standing at an angle but looking directly into the camera with a pleasant smile spread across her face, which wasn’t so much defined by planes and angles as by sweet, broad, distinctly African curves. Wek represented everything that a traditional cover girl was not.
More than 20 years after she was featured on that Elle cover, the definition of beauty has continued to expand, making room for women of color, obese women, women with vitiligo, bald women, women with gray hair and wrinkles. We are moving toward a culture of big-tent beauty. One in which everyone is welcome. Everyone is beautiful. Everyone’s idealized version can be seen in the pages of magazines or on the runways of Paris.
We have become more accepting because people have demanded it, protested for it, and used the bully pulpit of social media to shame beauty’s gatekeepers into opening the doors wider.
Wek was a new vision of beauty—that virtue forever attached to women. It has long been a measure of their social value; it is also a tool to be used and manipulated. A woman should not let her beauty go to waste; that was something people would say back when a woman’s future depended on her marrying well. Her husband’s ambition and potential should be as dazzling as her fine features.
Beauty is, of course, cultural. What one community admires may leave another group of people cold or even repulsed. What one individual finds irresistible elicits a shrug from another. Beauty is personal. But it’s also universal. There are international beauties—those people who have come to represent the standard.
For generations, beauty required a slender build but with a generous bosom and a narrow waist. The jawline was to be defined, the cheekbones high and sharp. The nose angular. The lips full but not distractingly so. The eyes, ideally blue or green, large and bright. Hair was to be long, thick, and flowing—and preferably golden. Symmetry was desired. Youthfulness, that went without saying.
This was the standard from the earliest days of women’s magazines, when beauty was codified and commercialized. The so-called great beauties and swans—women such as actress Catherine Deneuve, socialite C.Z. Guest, or Princess Grace—came closest to this ideal. The further one diverged from this version of perfection, the more exotic a woman became. Diverge too much and a woman was simply considered less attractive—or desirable or valuable. And for some women—black and brown or fat or old ones—beauty seemed impossible in the broader culture.
In the early part of the 1990s, the definition of beauty as it applied to women began to loosen thanks to the arrival of Kate Moss, with her slight figure and vaguely ragamuffin aesthetic. Standing five feet seven inches, she was short for a runway walker. The British teenager was not particularly graceful, and she lacked the noble bearing that gave many other models their regal air. Moss’s star turn in advertisements for Calvin Klein signified a major departure from the long-legged gazelles of years past.
Moss was disruptive to the beauty system, but she was still well within the industry’s comfort zone of defining beauty as a white, European conceit. So too were the youthquake models of the 1960s such as Twiggy, who had the gangly, curveless physique of a 12-year-old boy. The 1970s brought Lauren Hutton, who stirred scandal simply because she had a gap between her teeth.
Even the early black models who broke barriers were relatively safe: women such as Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to appear on the cover of American Vogue, the Somali-born Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks. They had keen features and flowing hair—or wigs or weaves to give the illusion that they did. Iman had a luxuriously long neck that made legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland gasp. Campbell was—and is—all va-va-voom legs and hips, and Banks rose to fame as the girl next door in a polka dot bikini on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Wek was a revelation. Her beauty was something entirely different.
Her tightly coiled hair was sheared close to her scalp. Her seemingly poreless skin was the color of dark chocolate. Her nose was broad; her lips were full. Her legs were impossibly long and incredibly thin. Indeed, her entire body had the stretched-out sinewiness of an African stick figure brought to life.
To eyes that had been trained to understand beauty through the lens of Western culture, Wek was jarring to everyone, and black folks were no exception. Many of them did not consider her beautiful. Even women who might have looked in the mirror and seen the same nearly coal black skin and tightly coiled hair reflected back had trouble reckoning with this Elle cover girl.
Wek was abruptly and urgently transformative. It was as though some great cultural mountain had been scaled by climbing straight up a steep slope, as if there were neither time nor patience for switchbacks. To see Wek celebrated was exhilarating and vertiginous. Everything about her was the opposite of what had come before.
We are in a better place than we were a generation ago, but we have not arrived at utopia. Many of the clubbiest realms of beauty still don’t include larger women, disabled ones, or senior citizens.
But to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what utopia would look like. Is it a world in which everyone gets a tiara and the sash of a beauty queen just for showing up? Or is it one in which the definition of beauty gets stretched so far that it becomes meaningless? Perhaps the way to utopia is by rewriting the definition of the word itself to better reflect how we’ve come to understand it—as something more than an aesthetic pleasure.
We know that beauty has financial value. We want to be around beautiful people because they delight the eye but also because we think they are intrinsically better humans. We’ve been told that attractive people are paid higher salaries. In truth, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s really a combination of beauty, intelligence, charm, and collegiality that serves as a recipe for better pay. Still, beauty is an integral part of the equation.
But on a powerfully emotional level, being perceived as attractive means being welcomed into the cultural conversation. You are part of the audience for advertising and marketing. You are desired. You are seen and accepted. When questions arise about someone’s looks, that’s just another way of asking: How acceptable is she? How relevant is she? Does she matter?
Today suggesting that a person is not gorgeous is to risk social shunning or at least a social media lashing. What kind of monster declares another human being unattractive? To do so is to virtually dismiss that person as worthless. It’s better to lie. Of course you’re beautiful, sweetheart; of course you are.
We have come to equate beauty with humanity. If we don’t see the beauty in another person, we are blind to that person’s humanity. It’s scary how important beauty has become. It goes to the very soulfulness of a person.
Beauty has become so important today that denying that people possess it is akin to denying them oxygen.
There used to be gradations when it came to describing the feminine ideal: homely, jolie laide, attractive, pretty, and ultimately, beautiful. The homely woman managed as best she could. She adjusted to the fact that her looks were not her most distinguishing feature. She was the woman with the terrific personality. Striking women had some characteristic that made them stand out: bountiful lips, an aristocratic nose, a glorious poitrine. A lot of women could be described as attractive. They were at the center of the bell curve. Pretty was another level. Hollywood is filled with pretty people.
Ah, but beautiful! Beautiful was a description that was reserved for special cases, for genetic lottery winners. Beauty could even be a burden because it startled people. It intimidated them. Beauty was exceptional.
But improved plastic surgery, more personalized and effective nutrition, the flowering of the fitness industry, and the rise of selfie filters on smartphones, along with Botox, fillers, and the invention of Spanx, have all combined to help us look better—and get a little bit closer to looking exceptional. Therapists, bloggers, influencers, stylists, and well-meaning friends have raised their voices in a chorus of body-positivity mantras: You go, girl! You slay! Yasss, queen! They are not charged with speaking harsh truths and helping us see ourselves vividly and become better versions of ourselves. Their role is constant uplift, to tell us that we are perfect just as we are.
And the globalization of, well, everything means that somewhere out there is an audience that will appreciate you in all your magnificent … whatever.
We are all beautiful.
In New York, London, Milan, and Paris—the traditional fashion capitals of the world—the beauty codes have changed more dramatically in the past 10 years than in the preceding hundred. Historically, shifts had been by degrees. Changes in aesthetics weren’t linear, and despite fashion’s reputation for rebelliousness, change was slow. Revolutions were measured in a few inches.
Through the years, an angular shape has been celebrated and then a more curvaceous one. The average clothing size of a runway model, representative of the designers’ ideal, shrank from a six to a zero; the pale blondes of Eastern Europe ruled the runway until the sun-kissed blondes from Brazil deposed them. The couture body—lean, hipless, and practically flat-chested—can be seen in the classic portraits by Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Gordon Parks, as well as on the runways of designers such as John Galliano and the late Alexander McQueen. But then Miuccia Prada, who had led the way in promoting a nearly homogeneous catwalk of pale, white, thin models, suddenly embraced an hourglass shape. And then plus-size model Ashley Graham appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 2016, and in 2019 Halima Aden became the first model to wear a hijab in that same magazine, and suddenly everyone is talking about modesty and beauty and fuller figures … and the progress is dizzying.
In the past decade, beauty has moved resolutely forward into territory that was once deemed niche. Nonbinary and transgender are part of the mainstream beauty narrative. As the rights of LGBTQ individuals have been codified in the courts, so have the aesthetics particular to them been absorbed into the beauty dialogue. Transgender models walk the runways and appear in advertising campaigns. They are hailed on the red carpet for their glamour and good taste but also for their physical characteristics. Their bodies are celebrated as aspirational.
The catalyst for our changed understanding of beauty has been a perfect storm of technology, economics, and a generation of consumers with sharpened aesthetic literacy.
The technology is social media in general and Instagram specifically. The fundamental economic factor is the unrelenting competition for market share and the need for individual companies to grow their audience of potential customers for products ranging from designer dresses to lipstick. And the demographics lead, as they always do these days, to millennials, with an assist from baby boomers who plan to go into that good night with six-pack abs.
Social media has changed the way younger consumers relate to fashion. It’s hard to believe, but back in the 1990s, the notion of photographers posting runway imagery online was scandalous. Designers lived in professional terror of having their entire collection posted online, fearing that it would lead to business-killing knockoffs. And while knockoffs and copies continue to frustrate designers, the real revolution brought on by the internet was that consumers were able to see, in nearly real time, the full breadth of the fashion industry’s aesthetic.
In the past, runway productions were insider affairs. They weren’t meant for public consumption, and the people sitting in the audience all spoke the same fashion patois. They understood that runway ideas weren’t meant to be taken literally; they were oblivious to issues of cultural appropriation, racial stereotypes, and all varieties of isms—or they were willing to overlook them. Fashion’s power brokers were carrying on the traditions of the power brokers who’d come before, happily using black and brown people as props in photo shoots that starred white models who had parachuted in for the job.
But an increasingly diverse class of moneyed consumers, a more expansive retail network, and a new media landscape have forced the fashion industry into greater accountability on how it depicts beauty. Clothing and cosmetic brands now take care to reflect the growing numbers of luxury consumers in countries such as India and China by using more Asian models.
Social media has amplified the voices of minority communities—from Harlem to South Central Los Angeles—so that their calls for representation can’t be so easily ignored. And the growth of digital publications and blogs means that every market has become more fluent in the language of aesthetics. A whole new category of power brokers has emerged: influencers. They are young and independent and obsessed with the glamour of fashion. And fashion influencers don’t accept excuses, condescension, or patronizing pleas to be patient, because really, change is forthcoming.
The modern beauty standard in the West has always been rooted in thinness. And when the obesity rates were lower, thin models were only slight exaggerations in the eyes of the general population. But as obesity rates rose, the distance between the reality and the fantasy grew. People were impatient with a fantasy that no longer seemed even remotely accessible.
Fat bloggers warned critics to stop telling them to lose weight and stop suggesting ways for them to camouflage their body. They were perfectly content with their body, thank you very much. They just wanted better clothes. They wanted fashion that came in their size—not with the skirts made longer or the sheath dresses reworked with sleeves.
They weren’t really demanding to be labeled beautiful. They were demanding access to style because they believed they deserved it. In this way, beauty and self-worth were inextricably bound.
Giving full-figured women greater access made economic sense. By adhering to traditional beauty standards, the fashion industry had been leaving money on the table. Designers such as Christian Siriano made a public point of catering to larger customers and, in doing so, were hailed as smart and as capitalist heroes. Now it’s fairly common for even the most rarefied fashion brands to include large models in their runway shows.
But this new way of thinking isn’t just about selling more dresses. If it were only about economics, designers would have long ago expanded their size offerings, because there have always been larger women able and willing to embrace fashion. Big simply wasn’t considered beautiful. Indeed, even Oprah Winfrey went on a diet before she posed for the cover of Vogue in 1998. As recently as 2012, the designer Karl Lagerfeld, who died last year and who himself was 92 pounds overweight at one point, was called to task for saying that pop star Adele was “a little too fat.”
Attitudes are shifting. But the fashion world remains uneasy with large women—no matter how famous or rich. No matter how pretty their face. Elevating them to iconic status is a complicated, psychological hurdle for the arbiters of beauty. They need sleek élan in their symbols of beauty. They need long lines and sharp edges. They need women who can fit into sample sizes.
But instead of operating in a vacuum, they now are operating in a new media environment. Average folks have taken note of whether designers have a diverse cast of models, and if they do not, critics can voice their ire on social media and an angry army of like-minded souls can rise up and demand change. Digital media has made it easier for stories about emaciated and anorexic models to reach the general public, and the public now has a way to shame and pressure the fashion industry to stop hiring these deathly thin women. The Fashion Spot website became a diversity watchdog, regularly issuing reports on the demographic breakdown on the runways. How many models of color? How many plus-size women? How many of them were transgender? How many older models?
One might think that as female designers themselves aged, they would begin to highlight older women in their work. But women in fashion are part of the same cult of youth that they created. They Botox and diet. They swear by raw food and SoulCycle. How often do you see a chubby designer? A gray-haired one? Designers still use the phrase “old lady” to describe clothes that are unattractive. A “matronly” dress is one that is unflattering or out-of-date. The language makes the bias plain. But today women don’t take it as a matter of course. They revolt. Making “old” synonymous with unattractive is simply not going to stand.
The spread of luxury brands into China, Latin America, and Africa has forced designers to consider how best to market to those consumers while avoiding cultural minefields. They have had to navigate skin lightening in parts of Africa, the Lolita-cute culture of Japan, the obsession with double-eyelid surgery in East Asian countries, and prejudices of colorism, well, virtually everywhere. Idealized beauty needs a new definition. Who will sort it out? And what will the definition be?
In the West, the legacy media are now sharing influence with digital media, social media, and a new generation of writers and editors who came of age in a far more multicultural world—a world that has a more fluid view of gender. The millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, is not inclined to assimilate into the dominant culture but to stand proudly apart from it. The new definition of beauty is being written by a selfie generation: people who are the cover stars of their own narrative.
The new beauty isn’t defined by hairstyles or body shape, by age or skin color. Beauty is becoming less a matter of aesthetics and more about self-awareness, personal swagger, and individuality. It’s about chiseled arms and false eyelashes and a lineless forehead. But it’s also defined by rounded bellies, shimmering silver hair, and mundane imperfections. Beauty is a millennial strutting around town in leggings, a crop top, and her belly protruding over her waistband. It is a young man swishing down a runway in over-the-knee boots and thigh-grazing shorts.
Beauty is political correctness, cultural enlightenment, and social justice.
In New York, there’s a fashion collective called Vaquera that mounts runway shows in dilapidated settings with harsh lighting and no glamour. The cast could have piled off the F train after a sleepless night. Their hair is mussed. Their skin looks like it has a thin sheen of overnight grime. They stomp down the runway. The walk could be interpreted as angry, bumbling, or just a little bit hungover.
Masculine-looking models wear princess dresses that hang from the shoulders with all the allure of a shower curtain. Feminine-looking models aggressively speed-walk with a hunched posture and a grim expression. Instead of elongating legs and creating an hourglass silhouette, the clothes make legs look stumpy and the torso thick. Vaquera is among the many companies that call on street casting, which is basically pulling oddball characters from the street and putting them on the runway—essentially declaring them beautiful.
In Paris, the designer John Galliano, like countless other designers, has been blurring gender. He has done so in a way that’s exaggerated and aggressive, which is to say that instead of aiming to craft a dress or a skirt that caters to the lines of a masculine physique, he has simply draped that physique with a dress. The result is not a garment that ostensibly aims to make individuals look their best. It’s a statement about our stubborn assumptions about gender, clothing, and physical beauty.
Not so long ago, the clothing line Universal Standard published an advertising campaign featuring a woman who wears a U.S. size 24. She posed in her skivvies and a pair of white socks. The lighting was flat, her hair slightly frizzed, and her thighs dimpled with cellulite. There was nothing magical or inaccessible about the image. It was exaggerated realism—the opposite of the Victoria’s Secret angel.
Every accepted idea about beauty is being subverted. This is the new normal, and it is shocking. Some might argue that it’s even rather ugly.
As much as people say that they want inclusiveness and regular-looking people—so-called real people—many consumers remain dismayed that this, this is what passes for beauty. They look at a 200-pound woman and, after giving a cursory nod to her confidence, fret about her health—even though they’ve never seen her medical records. That’s a more polite conversation than one that argues against declaring her beautiful. But the mere fact that this Universal Standard model is in the spotlight in her underwear—just as the Victoria’s Secret angels have been and the Maidenform woman was a generation before that—is an act of political protest. It’s not about wanting to be a pinup but about wanting the right for one’s body to exist without negative judgment. As a society, we haven’t acknowledged her right to simply be. But at least the beauty world is giving her a platform on which to make her case.
This isn’t just a demand being made by full-figured women. Older women are insisting on their place in the culture. Black women are demanding that they be allowed to stand in the spotlight with their natural hair.
There’s no neutral ground. The body, the face, the hair have all become political. Beauty is about respect and value and the right to exist without having to alter who you fundamentally are. For a black woman, having her natural hair perceived as beautiful means that her kinky curls are not an indication of her being unprofessional. For a plus-size woman, having her belly rolls included in the conversation about beauty means that she will not be castigated by strangers for consuming dessert in public; she will not have to prove to her employer that she isn’t lazy or without willpower or otherwise lacking in self-control.
When an older woman’s wrinkles are seen as beautiful, it means that she is actually being seen. She isn’t being overlooked as a full human being: sexual, funny, smart, and, more than likely, deeply engaged in the world around her.
To see the beauty in a woman’s rippling muscles is to embrace her strength but also to shun the notion that female beauty is equated with fragility and weakness. Pure physical power is stunning.
“Own who you are,” read a T-shirt on the spring 2020 runway of Balmain in Paris. The brand’s creative director, Olivier Rousteing, is known for his focus on inclusiveness in beauty. He, along with Kim Kardashian, has helped popularize the notion of “slim thick,” the 21st-century description of an hourglass figure with adjustments made for athleticism. “Slim thick” describes a woman with a prominent derriere, breasts, and thighs, but with a slim, toned midsection. It’s a body type that has sold countless waist trainers and has been applied to women such as singer and fashion entrepreneur Rihanna who do not have the lean physique of a marathoner.
Slim thick may be just another body type over which women obsess. But it also gives women license to coin a term to describe their own body, turn it into a hashtag, and start counting the likes. Own who you are.
When I look at photographs of groups of women on vacation, or a mother with her child, I see friendship and loyalty, joy and love. I see people who seem exuberant and confident. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to speak with them, I’d find them intelligent and witty or incredibly charismatic. If I got to know them and like them, I’m sure I’d also describe them as beautiful.
If I were to look at a portrait of my mother, I would see one of the most beautiful people in the world—not because of her cheekbones or her neat figure, but because I know her heart.
As a culture, we give lip service to the notion that what matters is inner beauty when in fact it’s the outer version that carries the real social currency. The new outlook on beauty dares us to declare someone we haven’t met beautiful. It forces us to presume the best about people. It asks us to connect with people in a way that is almost childlike in its openness and ease.
Modern beauty doesn’t ask us to come to the table without judgment. It simply asks us to come presuming that everyone in attendance has a right to be there.
Robin Givhan is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and fashion critic for the Washington Post and author of The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History. Hannah Reyes Morales is a Filipino photographer and National Geographic explorer whose work focuses on resilience and human connection.