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PHOTOGRAPHY SAMULI KARALA, courtesy of Radical Beauty Project

Being more radical about inclusivity in the beauty industry

We learn about some of the most underrepresented groups within the beauty industry and the spokespeople spearheading the next phase of diversity, representation and ‘incidental inclusiveness’ on their behalf

In the past five years, there has been a significant rise in attention to inclusivity and the authentic representation of people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community and racial diversity within the beauty industry. Alongside this shift and sign of progress, a new breed of brands designed to fit the needs of people living with a disability have emerged ranging from Grace, Guide Beauty, Shisheido’s tactile and cloud vision operated Braille Nail. Activists, models, organisations and experts such as Sinead Burke, Emily Yates, Jillian Mercado, Emily Davison of The Fashioneyesta, Stephanie Thomas of Cur8able, Radical Beauty, Drag Syndrome, and Lottie Jackson, to name a few, have finally been given a seat at the table. 

Jackson, a fashion journalist who has a generalised muscle-weakness disability, has become a rising voice for disabled people and beauty lovers at large. Her articles on the rise of disability beauty brands and how her disability doesn’t define her show that in an age where we are admittedly still figuring things out, we really need to once and for all engage with the disability culture and people living with an impairment as a universal approach to design, fashion, beauty, and not as a singled-out opportunity or trend. We should move towards “incidental inclusiveness” which promotes the idea that it is not remarkable to be inclusive, it is a standard practice, as outlined by authors and educators Steve Anthony and Gail Ellis

The style industry has the power to change culture and change perceptions. In past years, although people with disabilities, who represent 15 per cent of the world population according to the World Health Organisation, have gained ground in terms of representation, there’s been too much of a tokenistic and sometimes even fetishising approach, seen as a “one to watch” trend and “a commercial opportunity”. And although progress must be celebrated, surface engagement and the co-opting of deeply rooted issues can only take us so far, and if anything, can cause PR nightmares with brands being completely tone deaf, which in turn has led to uncomfortable but crucial discussions and efforts

Personally, I have shied away from jumping on the “this is an emerging trend” bandwagon as a forecaster and futurist simply because, in my own way, I’m part of the “club” as my father sometimes puts it. My soon to be 30-year-old brother has Down Syndrome. I also worked with disabled children and teenagers for several months in the slums of Morogoro Tanzania for the Amani Centre, providing support in fundraising and income generating craft activities. I often present the case for “Total Inclusivity” as part of the future of the style industry. Back in 2016 I interviewed Stephanie Thomas who had been an inspiring client of mine and then I stalled, it was too personal. Fast track to today and this piece examines how far we may or may not have come, by sharing the candid views of some of the leaders in this space and how they feel they are perceived by society.

Stephanie Thomas, who was born a congenital amputee missing digits on her right hand and feet works as a Disability Fashion Stylist in Los Angeles and has gained international recognition. She has become one of BoF’s 500s and is the founder of Cur8able, a social enterprise providing styling solutions for the disabled. She explains that “at the end of the day it is about education and empowerment. We are rarely taught that disability represents a culture. In the industry they used to say “we love what you do but we just have to get rid of that disability word”. But it is important and it gives us rights. It provides access for many points of care and support.” This shows the complexities of advocating for diversity whilst using clear language.

Stephanie continues by explaining she wants to look at major beauty ads and see herself within campaigns that accurately feature disabled models without hiding their assistive technology, and definitely not as “inspiration porn”, a term coined by comedian and journalist Stella Young. She explains it is dangerous every time you tell her she’s an inspiration for simply existing in the world which devalues my normal as “other”. Thomas also talks about the negative impact of the “super crip” label,  a term Dr. Sami Schalk and herself have analysed in her upcoming book as “a stereotypical representation of disability that appears in contemporary culture.” They quote Joseph Shapiro, who defines the supercrip as an “inspirational disabled person glorified and lavishly lauded in the press and on television”. Thomas emphasises: “I don’t have anything to overcome, my body is exactly the way it should be and my beauty is beautiful”.

“At the end of the day it is about education and empowerment. We are rarely taught that disability represents a culture. But it is important and it gives us rights. It provides access for many points of care and support” – Stephanie Thomas, founder of Cur8able

Emily Yates, who is an accessibility consultant, journalist and works for Enhance the UK, is a full-time manual chair user born with cerebral palsy. She expressed the need for progress: “We are either seen as childlike, fetishised, or benefits scroungers. We don’t want special treatment and the fact you are a wheelchair user clouds the fact that you’re capable. When it comes to access and inclusion we are quite good at looking at the built environment and physical access. But we still need to grow with social access and beauty comes into that. I could go into the most physically accessible venue as possible but if people treat me as a second-class citizen and I am seen as less beautiful than anyone else that’s still a problem. If we are not seeing people as beautiful in their own way we are not valuing them as a person in society.”

Yates has used the fact that she is a wheelchair user as a fashion accessory and always wears a popping lip colour to match the design of her wheelchair’s bright pattern as part of her personal aesthetic. She explains “as a society we are still stuck in a mindset of needing to provide a service to people with a disability, of feeling sorry for them but we should be providing opportunities. We understand they are vulnerable but we don’t understand they are strong and we can learn from them. In terms of beauty yes maybe I am different but it makes me just as beautiful.”

Beauty as a part of our physicality and means of sexual attraction also comes into play. Enhance the UK helped Yates with her self-confidence. She was very worried about losing her virginity and whether she would be seen as a sexual being. In regards specifically to people living with Down Syndrome, when I first discovered Culture Device and Drag Syndrome, it was eye-opening and made me realise my own limited thinking. My brother has had the same girlfriend for eight years and is very confident in his sexuality as a cisgender man. But it had never occurred to me that people with Down Syndrome could have a variety of gender preferences.

In a very frank conversation with Daniel Vais, founder of the Radical Beauty project and Drag Syndrome, he explained that the problem is they are not looked at as human: “one of my artists said it’s really hard to be someone with Down Syndrome because nobody accepts me and then nobody accepts my sexuality. They are monster-ising me because I’m gay.” Vais shared emails he receives from people who want to perform in drag but are not allowed by their carers. Legally he cannot do anything but it’s difficult knowing basic human rights and freedoms are not being met when “they’re told it’s evil and perverted”. 

Vais sees his job as showing how people with Down Syndrome belong in contemporary culture. They have dreams like any other artist. This is why Culture Device created their interpretation of The Rite at the Royal Opera house and have performed at the Tate modern and the Southbank Centre. His mission is to put them in these places so the world can see that they are incredible artists that belong in world leading cultural institutions. “It’s not about disability it’s about equality in the Arts. In fact, I want to be redundant someday, when people like me won’t need to push the agenda and my job won’t exist.” Similarly, Rapper Chika Oranika explained at the Business of Fashion’s 500 Symposium, “to really understand what inclusivity means, we have to, in a way, stop talking about it”.

Trish Daswaney, founder of makeup accessory brand and non-for-profit Kohl Kreatives explained that for her it has never been about one’s gender preference or ability and it is something people struggle to understand. Kohl Kreatives works with the trans community to provide people with a safe space. This stems from a very personal place as Daswaney was bullied as a child and uses makeup as therapy. Kohl Kreatives also works with people with a disability and has partnered with MS society UK as Daswaney insists makeup is an essential part of life.

Most people who live with disabilities are doing something people haven’t done yet, they understand what adversity means too. It is an underestimated pool of strength society does not take full advantage of. Vais explains “We want to use injections to look beautiful but people with Down Syndrome see beauty in everyone. Their creativity is so palpable that they should teach creativity at schools and universities.” In all of his passion and advocacy, Vais admits “If I don’t get sponsorship the project is stuck, that’s why I hope a brand will step in soon so that these kinds of projects can manifest themselves.”

As a population we run the risk of blindly chasing a genetically ‘perfect” goal of human appearance, which is something I touch upon when I discuss transhumanism. The scientific and medical fields are working hard to make the everlasting human, the “designer baby”. Are we ignoring the need for us to be a diverse human race? Is the pursuit of perfectionism essentially flawed in its implied denial of anything “other” or different or unique, as Frank Stephens' testifies in his speech on Down Syndrome?

In countries such as Iceland and Denmark, Down Syndrome people are being erased from society, spurring outcries and a controversial campaign called Endangered Syndrome. Vais explained “we are protecting the Rhinos but why isn’t there anyone trying to save people with Down Syndrome from extinction?”. As for me, when my brother was born, one of the first options that was presented to my father and stepmother was adoption. We were shaped by our society when he came into our lives and then he transformed us. Vais shared “I have spoken to a lot of parents and the mothers say that when they gave birth the first thing the doctor or the nurse said was “I am so sorry” and that scar lasts forever. It’s wrong.” In response to this Daswaney of Kohl Kreatives thinks “Science, tech and ethics are always competing with each other, they develop faster than ethics. I embrace change but we need to have a focus on diversity. Creating someone that is perfect is dangerous. This is not the lottery, we need to be careful and focus on people being special and unique.”

The notion of diversity and total inclusivity, in the beauty industry more specifically, is more important than ever for our collective creativity. According to Vais of Radical Beauty “99 per cent of the people that I work with have never been photographed before but it takes them two seconds and the photographers are in awe, they’re behaving like Kate Moss.” He collaborates with leading teams and modelling agencies such as Zebedee. “From the photographer to the hair and make-up people, the experience that they get working with them is life changing. Every photographer says it’s one of the best shoots they’ve ever done.” Vais went on to explain “There are a lot of women with Down syndrome that are really in love with make-up and use it on a daily basis and the beauty industry has to respect them as consumers.” 

“By interacting more with people living with a disability, we can work towards a future where ‘diversity’ is not a commercial opportunity, a specific purpose driven department or campaign, but an everyday practice... There’s nothing ground-breaking and “on trend” about inclusivity”

One of Daswaney’s (of Kohl Kreatives) concerns is that brands who have or are producing products for “niches” are at risk of isolating that chosen demographic simply by proxy of singling them out. Stephanie Thomas founder of DFSS, which stands for the Disability Fashion Styling System™ hopes for a brighter future, where clothing for people with disabilities will be more intuitive and more universal. 

By interacting more with people living with a disability, we can work towards a future where “diversity” is not a commercial opportunity, a specific purpose driven department or campaign, but an everyday practice. As we untangle our “othering” habits, we can evolve towards a style industry that doesn’t label people apart and reflects a fundamental integration of what universality means. This starts with a deeper and systemic inclusion of the voices of people living with disabilities, and an understanding there’s nothing ground-breaking and “on-trend” about inclusivity.