When the fresh-faced, thin, white models are cast in nearly every fashion and beauty campaign, the result is a very narrow beauty ideal. Naturally, this is disconcerting for anyone whose appearance is outside those tight parameters.
“It was never really easy, just because I was so different,” says model Clémentine Desseaux of growing up outside of beauty norms in her native France. “Deep inside me, I always felt like I was not the problem, it was probably just the people around me. It took me a while, but when I was 21, I decided to move to Miami.”
The physical move became a liberating one that eventually lead to Desseaux kicking off a modeling career, which in turn helped her believe in herself. “I could see that it was actually possible to be considered beautiful, even though I was not told that I was a regular beauty before. It was really comforting, and also it really boosted my confidence.”
Clémentine Desseaux and Barbie Ferreira / Photos: Courtesy of All Woman Project
A maxim Desseaux might follow now is more along the lines of “be the change you want to see,” advice that is not usually taken so literally, but in the visually-driven fashion world it can be a particularly stirring call to action. Thus, Desseaux and fellow model Charli Howard began the All Woman Project—a body-positive campaign and video that aims to promote a broad spectrum of diversity. The duo not only co-art directed the images, they also star in them. The resulting series of visuals (campaign was shot by former models Heather Hazzan and Lily Cummings, while the video was shot by Olimpia Valli Fassi) are soft, clean, and reminiscent of alternative ’90s fashion photography. The pictures in the All Woman Project are not retouched.
In addition to Desseaux and Howard, other women appearing in the campaign include Iskra Lawrence, an English model who created the National Eating Disorders Association’s NEDA Inspires Seal of Approval, which vouches for retouching-free campaigns; Elliott Sailors, the gender fluid model, feminist, and activist for LGBTQ rights and the rights of humanity, who is represented on both women's and men's boards; Denise Bidot, a Puerto Rican and Kuwaiti plus-size model whose daughter also stars in the video; Leaf, a Brooklyn singer, rapper and producer with Fool’s Gold Records, fashion model, and artist; Kamie Crawford, an actress, TV host, model, and Miss Teen USA 2010; Barbie Ferreira, a plus-size model, and the new face of Aerie; Shivani Persad, a Canadian and Trinidadian model who blogs and produces podcasts on diversity issues in modeling; and Victoria Brito, a Brazilian-born model who has appeared in Elle, Vogue, New York Magazine, and Glamour, as well as being the new face of Calvin Klein.
Elliott Sailors and Leaf McLean / Photo: Courtesy of All Woman Project
“The bottom [line] of it is really for the next generation of women to feel empowered growing up. To feel that they have more models that look like them, that are attainable,” Desseaux explained. “When I grew up, I had no one to look at. I was really desperate for some role models that actually looked like me, and were considered beautiful, successful. I grew up thinking that if I didn’t look like them, I would not be happy or deserve the best or be whole as a woman. That was really painful, and I know so many women that grew up the same as me, thinking they would never get the best because they didn’t look like they were supposed to.”
Desseaux believes that, in the past few years, more and more brands have embraced diversity in advertising, and hopes that in the next five years, with initiatives like the All Woman Project, even more strides towards equality can be taken. The important thing is that the change comes from a place of authenticity, and not tokenism. “We just want it to be normal, so everybody else thinks it’s ok to be different and to still be considered beautiful,” she says. “This is slowly happening, but it’s definitely really, really not there yet.” That being said, she acknowledges that not all aspects of diversity have come as far, despite a vocal support for change, specifically racial diversity on the runway.
Kamie Crawford and Elliott Sailors / Photos: Courtesy of All Woman Project
“They’re still really white, and really skinny. That’s just something that’s crazy to me, because that’s a struggle that’s been going on for way longer than the size diversity problem,” she said. “Somehow, diversity in color is still not respected on the runway, and it’s crazy to me.”
Ultimately, Desseaux aims to show brands how easy and effective it is to be inclusive. “We still have so much to do, and it’s not at the level it should be, but it’s a really, really good change,” she said. “I’m hoping that the All Woman Project will also help in that matter of letting the brands know that diversity is great for women, and it’s also a selling point. People are craving it. If we can do it with no budget, why can’t you?”