“Alternative” Modeling: Another Space For Cis, White Women
We’ve heard of “alternative” modeling before: It is a phenomenon rejecting the narrow standards of beauty impressed upon us by mainstream media and celebrates the unique and experimental looks of women across the world. Or so we think.
What are the parameters where “alternative” beauty ends and “normal” beauty begins? Is there even a line, or is it just a self-described ideal to which any women can ascribe themselves?
A look at the popular and controversial SuicideGirls website, which espouses appreciation of “alternative” women by posting photos submitted by tattooed and pierced women, may illustrate the overall example we have come to associate with alternative modeling. A multitude of tattoos, edgy piercings, bold hair colors and eccentric outfits (if there’s any clothing at all) have become synonymous with this alternative modeling subculture.
Magazines like Inked Girls also emphasize and explore the unique beauty held by tatted and pierced women, which is seemingly much more relatable than the towering, size zero teen supermodels bounding down catwalks in international fashion shows.
Yet communities created by SuicideGirls and similar websites can be narrow in their beauty standards as well. Look at any “alternative” magazines, websites or modeling agencies, and the main image you will see is thin, white, and biologically-female.
What about women of color, women not “petite” enough to fit into size zero to size three pants, women born biologically male, or, even more excluded, women with disabilities?
The truth is, alternative modeling as it has come to be known, is a rapidly growing industry not as “extreme” as it once was. Tattooed women have become sex symbols, holding a powerful position in an industry revolving around one’s physique and beauty.
The world of alternative modeling can be sexist, racially exclusive, and worse yet, ableist. In its exclusion of individuals with physical circumstances different than those we consider able-bodied, a definition questionable in itself, the fashion industry and subculture describing itself as accepting and tolerant still does not feature models whose appearance falls outside of the boundaries of acceptability (i.e., “alternative” in their sense of the word) very often.
Women like British singer and fashionista Viktoria Modesta combat both mainstream ideals of beauty as well as subtle, exclusive expectations established in alt modeling. Why are women with supposed disabilities such as an amputated leg, as is the case with Modesta, not appreciated more than as “inspirational” story material?
The fashion industry has long been prejudiced against individuals with supposed disabilities, largely accepting women as icons on a case-by-case basis.
Lea T. and Andrej Pejic are both transgender supermodels defying gender divisions. Both have walked in ultra-glamorous fashion shows and posed for high-end magazine editorials, with collective experience with Givenchy, Rick Owens, Jeremy Scott, and magazines such as LOVE, i-D, and W, respectively.
Will models such as Lea T. and Andrej Pejic be just a passing trend, or will fashion insiders such as magazine editors, model agencies, and fashion designers take these young women seriously for seasons to come?
Only time will tell, but if the last season’s fall/winter shows are to be examined, the issues of exclusion may be a larger challenge to overcome.
According to a Jezebel article using data compiled by StyleMinutes blog contributor Kate Rushing, 87.6% of models for the fall/winter 2013 fashion shows were white. While 63 African-American models and 59 Asian models were employed for 479 fashion shows that took place in the fashion capitals of New York, Paris, Milan and London, even fewer Hispanic models and Middle Eastern models (this was a category chosen by Rushing) walked for the fashion shows.
Although there are some issues with Rushing’s methodology (also discussed by Jezebel), the data provided nonetheless examines the issues of racism in high fashion.
Fashion shows like Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld or Marc Jacobs’ Louis Vuitton can be edgy, even alternative, in their use of tongue-in-cheek and subversive sexual connotations. But as powerhouses of the high-fashion scene, inclusive they are not. Haute couture and high-fashion can be just as restrictive in their use of alternative imagery or models as any tattoo magazine or photo-based website.
What once was truly alternative, conflicting with societal norms and expectations of feminine beauty standards, has become common and accepted. Women like Rihanna and Megan Fox proudly display their tattoos on the covers of nationwide magazines, watering down the cultural sensitivity surrounding visible tattoos. If such body modifications are almost mundane now, what truly makes a model — or any women, for that matter — alternative?
When I was still in high school, I’m sure I thought the concept of “alternative” modeling was innovative and unique in its acceptance of those on the edges of society’s beauty ideals. Yet the more I looked at the archetypes of alt modeling, I realized how similar this supposed fringe group was to the traditionally sexist, racially-exclusive, cis-female world of high fashion.
At the end of the day, those of us who have tattoos or don’t, who wear quirky clothes or buy our clothes at the mall, rock shiny piercings or wear more mundane jewelry, and other “barriers” separating us alternative folks from the normal ones, are really all the same if we fall into a few categories: white, skinny, and female.
Without tattoos, what makes these women any different from the gazelle-legged models striking poses during fashion week? Not much. The racial, sexist or body-critical issues many other women — models or not — must face are more realistically challenging when they do not fall into this privileged category.
Maybe soon such divisions will not have to exist. Until so, sites like Jezebel will continue to chart the ethnic diversity of fashion shows, alternative websites will continue to find a very confined perspective through which to view “alternative” women, and equal representation in the media will continue to elude us.
Written by Kevynn Gomez