Do Only White Models Get to be “Ugly?”

by Guest Contributor Alex Jung, originally published at Fashion Mole

Laura Stone

Fashion is having a Lara Stone moment – again. She is the face for Tom Ford’s new beauty line, meaning her exclusive for Calvin Klein has come to an end . No matter – she is still the face of Calvin Klein’s Fall/Winter campaign and its new underwear line, Naked Glamour. Stone is a unique face in fashion. While she can look pretty and soft, she has granite cheekbones, a protruding brow and a gap between her front teeth that give her a harder, more masculine edge. She also has breasts (a no-no in high fashion) and a clumsy walk. Still, her uniqueness has catapulted her to the top of fashion. In 2009, W called her the “most-wanted face” in fashion. In Interview magazine, Marc Jacobs writes that she brims with “feral attitude and personality and sexuality.” Stone, on the cover of August’s French Vogue, is an editorial favorite. That marked her seventh cover; former French Vogue editor, Carine Roitfeld put Stone on six covers, and even dedicated an entire issue to her. It’s easy to see why. Stone epitomizes the Roitfeld woman: tough, sexy, and a little freaky.

Lara Stone is part of an increasingly visible portion of high fashion – odd, gawky, and sometimes, downright busted. In a post entitled, “What is Beauty?” Photographer Garance Doré was taken by Nina Porter, then the face of Burberry. Porter’s grey eyes, short hair, and scrunched features look more appropriate in Middle Earth than on a catwalk. Doré believes that Porter, and other models like her, are an indication of evolving fashion standards. Others include Daphne Groeneveld, Lindsey Wixson, and Saskia de Brauw. They have awesomely odd features that makes them look distinctive, interesting, and alluring.

Saskia for Versace F/W 11 (left) and Saskia on the cover of French Vogue (right)

Nevertheless, the “blank canvases” – like Anja Rubik and Angela Lindvall – still exist. It is also true that any skilled Photoshopper can turn any of these eccentric beauties into a blank canvas. Compare the two images above: de Brauw’s Versace ad with her March cover of French Vogue. Still, the band of weird, tattooed, sometimes androgynous, sometimes masculine models are pushing the boundaries of fashion. They are moving fashion more towards the idea of individual beauty, and often, designers and editors use them to give their images personality and edge.

While fashion’s expanding idea of beauty is something to celebrate, it’s important to ask: why all of these “pretty-ugly” models white?

From left to right: Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn, and Liu Wen
top models of color

The current top models of color are, by contrast, very beautiful. Flawless, really. Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, Liu Wen, et. al. all have the features of a classically beautiful model: small face, high nose bridge, symmetrical proportions. They don’t have jutting facial bones or bug eyes. And while it may sound contrarian to lament their fresh and clean looks, it is to point out that standards of beauty for models of color have remained almost static since the days of Beverly Johnson.

How can beauty standards for models of color evolve when it is a struggle to simply put one on the cover of a magazine? Fashion has a schizophrenic relationship with race. Either there are few to no models on the runway (as is often the case at Calvin Klein, Versace, and Jil Sander) or fashion wants to make a dramatic point about using models of color, as when Lanvin sent black models down the runway en masse to close its Spring 2011 show, or Vogue Italia’s now infamous “black issue” or V magazine’s recent “Asian” issue. They want you to know that they are celebrating diversity. Simply put, being of color is enough to set a model apart. So while funky features can be a boon to a white model, they become a hindrance for a model of color. Their ethnicity is enough personality. Why add gapped teeth?

Similar standards seem to apply to “plus size” models. Representative “plus-size” model, Crystal Renn has a conventionally beautiful face. She is also the only one who has really broken into the higher echelons of fashion – a rise that coincided with a noticeable weight loss. As for the other “plus size” models, they, too, are never allowed to forget that fashion deems them big. Fashion editorials enjoy undressing them to remind people of just how big they are while slapping a bad pun like “A Life in Full” (Kate Dillon in American Vogue) or “Curves Ahead” (V Magazine) over their photos. It’s important to note that most of these women, too, are generally white. For a model of color, having a busty figure, would be yet another hurdle to overcome.

The one exception to this standard was probably Alek Wek – the Sudanese-born model – who rose in the nineties with a shaved head and full cheeks. Wek has since moved on to charity work, but her look has created the “exotic, dark-skinned African with a shaved head” type. Two rising African models – Ajak Deng and Grace Bol – fit the look (so much so that the latter says people sometimes confuse her with Wek); they also just so happen to also be Sudanese in origin. Perhaps it is only through these problematic “categories” that models of color will begin to achieve the diversity that their white counterparts so enjoy.

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  • Jeze01

    It had me wondering why models like Sessilee Lopez is not as successful as the other top Black models. She doesnt look like your typical pretty face model like Chanel Iman, jourdann/ Joan or “AFRICAN” like Ajak or Atui. Sessilee has an edgy look, bad teeth (like many other White models). If she was a White girl, the fashion industry would have seen something special about her look.

    People in the fashion industry choose whatever they want to see. This why people should never use the standard of beauty in the fashion industry as a yardstick in reality. That world- fashion world- is just filled with fantasies/ idealism.

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  • Anonymous

    It’s an extension of the French term used in fashion “joile-laide”; “pretty-ugly.” Beauty, as we often explore here, is highly subjective and not something that is easily quantified – but there is merit to looking at who can be considered “attractive” and “beautiful” and what that means racially.

    • PatrickInBeijing

      Thanks for explaining that!  I had never heard of the term, nor of its usage in the fashion industry.  It’s very interesting.  I certainly agree with the idea that “attractive” and “beautiful” and what that means racially should be explored.  It is one of the reasons I avidly read Racialicious, you guys do a great job of exploring it.  I learn a lot, and am happy to add “joile-laide” to my French vocabulary. 

      • Anonymous

        No prob.

        I’ve always actually loved that term, because to me, it epitomizes just what you said above – everyone has elements of beauty, and it’s interesting to find the inherent beauty or in what people call “ugly.” Especially when you consider how objective beauty is – I see a lot of folks on tumblr blogging about “the perfect body” but everyone defines it so differently, it’s interesting to see the varied opinions.

      • Anonymous

        Exactly, and the way in which black women are even evaluated is so distorted.  So people act as though we all look one way, and then they denigrate those features, even though we are quite varied in how we all look.
        So the point is that there are just a handful of ways that black models or black women can look in order to be considered attractive(and nose jobs seem to be pretty common if comparing old vs. new photos), so there is little chance that you’ll get to be one of those “interesting-looking” models.
        A few make it, but not many.  I’m not sure of her name, but there is a Latina (??) model who had a small role in X-Men 3 who I think of as “jolie-laide” although a lot of it is her edgy, kind of masculine vibe.
        I think Lauren Hutton is jolie-laide.  I’m not sure many minority models would be allowed to work with noticeable gaps in their teeth.

  • XiXi_Top

    Nice article.

    How do latinas fit into this?
    I understand that latino is NOT a race but that doesn’t mean that skin privilege doesn’t exist.
    I mean the only “ugly” latina that are major players I can think of is Omahyra Mota (light-skinned + more of an actress/musician now).

    I think you see a lot of quirky looking female models of color in “commercial” ads. 
    I wonder if ^^ is like being a character actor in Hollywood…like, they’re paid workers/steady earners but under the radar??  I sort of doubt it though b/c runway and blue chip ads are what make models their papers.

  • Digital Coyote

    I think it’s tied up in the thought that PoC must be spectacularly attractive to get noticed.  Even when they are,  they’ll still be labeled with the “…for a (group)” tag.  No one ever says the same about white people, so there’s really no equivalent penalty for them because the standards are different.  Being “ugly” but still getting the same treatment as someone “conventionally” beautiful in the fashion world is the power of privilege. 

  • Digital Coyote

    I think it’s tied up in the thought that PoC must be spectacularly attractive to get noticed.  Even when they are,  they’ll still be labeled with the “…for a (group)” tag.  No one ever says the same about white people, so there’s really no equivalent penalty for them because the standards are different.  Being “ugly” but still getting the same treatment as someone “conventionally” beautiful in the fashion world is the power of privilege. 

  • Aman

    This happens with male models as well; check out red models new yorks blog. They have an unusually high number of POC models and all are very classically attractive, but a fair few of their white models are very odd looking in comparison. 

  • Jazmin thelovelyjazmin

    I think this happens because white models are a dime a dozen. If one can pull of the “pretty/ugly” look in a successful and noticeable way, it makes her special. Whereas, because there are so few of them at the top, minority models already seem “special.” They already have a look that is recognizable and coveted.

    I don’t know much about fashion, but I do know that this issue can’t be talked about without mentioning Grace Jones.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not sure I consider Grace Jones to be ugly.  Her style is edgy, she is super tall and dark-skinned, she has always done odd things with her hair,  and she is unapologetically black.  But I personally would not give her the “ugly” label so much as a woman who plays up another side of herself. 

      I’m not sure how much I even trust our American eyes to judge since we get so much European is better shoved down our throats. 

  • Val

    I think this happens on Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model as well. Many of the White models on the show seem really odd choices as model candidates. But the White models are complimented for their less than standard model looks. Where as the Black models who are not standard model types are torn to shreds by the judges for not looking like the standard. 

    I think the answer as to why this happens is pretty simple. White models are judged as individuals. So a different looking White model is unique and interesting. A Black model is seen as a Black model and so unique doesn’t quite work when you are judging her based on her being  Black.

    So in this way modelling isn’t really that different from real life.

  • Alex

    I cringe at this question: “While fashion’s expanding idea of beauty is something to celebrate, it’s important to ask: why all of these “pretty-ugly” models white?” 

    Why? Because I believe that fashion is currently about what White people want to see, and how they wish to view non-White people on the runaway if they are allowed on it.

    I am 90% sure that the difference is stark when the people on top in the fashion industry who choose models are Black. 

  • Victoria_abraham1

    The problem is that women of colour only recently came to be seen as beautiful by the fashion industry and even now, being recognized as beautiful for a woman of colour is an ongoing battle.  When you rarely have the privilege of being marketably beautiful, you certainly do not have the privilege of being marketably “ugly.”

  • SamanthaPink

    I think the connection you made was very interesting.  Maybe more research should be done on this?