"My unusual appearance is connected to an inborn disorder which doctors can’t precisely diagnose" Katerina Adams on challenging perceptions of beauty
Everyone wants to be beautiful. We’re all familiar with this feeling. From a very young age, we crave acceptance and admiration. We often think of beauty as an ability to conform to the existing ideal — but in the 21st-century beauty is much more political than that. True beauty today comes from being different and proud, from changing the status quo through radical self-acceptance. This is exactly the case for 24-year-old Russian model Katerina Adams. Katerina was born with a rare genetic disorder resulting in a frail physique, thinning hair and no nipples. Being different was a difficult journey, but now Katerina’s modelling career is on the rise. In a new project, photographer Masha Demianova transforms Katerina into figures from classical art nudes — a subversive move which challenges ideals.
“I think I am an alien planted in this world,” Katerina deadpans. “My unusual appearance is connected to an inborn disorder which doctors can’t precisely diagnose. Some say it’s Rothmund–Thomson syndrome, some that it’s Ectodermal dysplasia — but those two conditions can’t usually co-exist in one person. I have damaged skin, teeth, nails, hair and breasts. My skin is dry, I’m very short and skinny, my nails are brittle, my hair thin and nipples are not formed properly. I was born with no brows nor eyelashes — my eyelashes are tiny and grow inwards. Also after my baby teeth fell out I didn’t get the new ones, so my front teeth are prosthetics.”
Born and raised in the city of Arkhangelsk in the North of Russia, Katerina has fond memories of its stunning forests and sea views. Her childhood, however, was not always easy. “At first, I had no idea that I was different, and I hardly ever looked in the mirror. But I realised it when I started school: kids can be very cruel and they let me know straight away that I was different and therefore couldn’t be with them,” Katerina remembers.
Struggling to accept herself the way she was, Katerina used beauty products to look at least a little bit like the girl society demanded her to be. “I wanted to look like everyone else, so I painted on brows with a brow pencil and used false eyelashes, but the brows never looked even and the lashes would unglue, so I told my parents that I wouldn’t go to school anymore. In the end, I got permanent make-up on my eyes and eyebrows which I still have now. But even that didn’t help me to fit in, and I was bullied constantly. My school years were the worst years of my life, and only after graduating did I start feeling a bit better.”
Growing up with a mum who was a photographer, Katarina was used to being in front of the camera from a very young age. As a teenager, she found a liberating space for self-expression online: first as a blogger on Russian social network VK, and then on Instagram. “I love being in front of the camera not because I adore myself, but because it’s a way to raise my self-esteem. Instagram gives me the freedom to express my personality. I love getting positive feedback online from people I’ve never met. I also love coming up with looks, searching for locations for shoots and making it happen,” Katerina says. “After I started posting pictures of myself online, I got approached by a few model agencies, but they were all put off by my height which is only 150 cm. I was really upset, as I really wanted to challenge all the stereotypes about modelling.”
Katerina’s life changed dramatically when she got in touch with Avdotja Alexandrova, the founder of Russian independent agency Lumpen, a true game-changer in the representation of the new generation of Russian youth. With its models walking for Gucci, Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons, Lumpen has always been focused on unusual faces and street cast kids with outsider charm who have never truly fitted the mainstream beauty mould. Katerina admits that Lumpen gave her a lot of confidence and encouraged her to be more accepting towards her appearance, particularly when it comes to her thinning hair and missing nipples.
In recent years, female nipples have been at the centre of political debate around the censorship of female bodies online. On Instagram, we constantly see nipples obscured by emojis or stickers. Tumblr announced a ban on all adult content from December 17th, referring to “female-presenting nipples” as a marker of images which are going to be flagged as inappropriate and pornographic. But what happens when you have no nipples at all?
“One would think that I never get any issues, but you know what, not having nipples doesn’t always work. I also get blocked or my images classified as child pornography even though I’m 24. I think the politics of Instagram is just very unfair,” Katerina says.
In the shifting world we live today, it’s not easy to find your own meaning of beauty — and there’s always going to be plenty of people who try to marginalise and condemn those who don’t fit the prescribed norm. But Katerina’s is an inspiring story of fearless self-determination and strength. “Beauty for me is looking natural, just the way you are. You have to love your flaws and defects — and they’ll love you in return and will make you happy. Love your sickness and it’s going to be your best friend,” she says. “Every morning I try to look in the mirror and tell myself how beautiful and unique I am.”