The 2017 fall runways during fashion month may have been the industry's most diverse and inclusive yet, but there is no doubt fashion still has to make significant strides when it comes to representation — and that includes the Canadian fashion industry, too.
For many, there is an understanding that beauty is a celebration of individuality and differences, yet we don't see these things being praised enough. So finally, one Canadian fashion magazine decided it was time to share the stories of the diverse Canadian models changing the face of beauty in our country. And they did it in a big way.
In their April 2017, Glow magazine featured Bali Kaur Bassi on their cover, making her the first Punjabi model to front a Canadian fashion magazine.
Born and raised in Toronto, Bassi is a first-generation Canadian. Growing up, she watched "Canada’s Next Top Model" and Fashion Television religiously, but never thought it would be possible for her, the daughter of conservative parents from a small village in Punjab, India, to make it in an industry with decidedly different standards of beauty.
"I hardly ever saw that represented in the mainstream media," the model says in an interview via email with HuffPost Canada. "I remember whenever my siblings and I saw someone Indian on TV, we would run to see them. It makes me so proud to see more Punjabis represented in the media now."
Bassi found out she landed the cover of the glossy on Instagram after being tagged by Glow on the site. She says the feeling was surreal, especially after discovering she was the first Punjabi model to front a major Canadian fashion publication. Considering Canada is home to the largest Sikh population outside India (the practitioners of which mostly come from Punjab), this seemed especially noteworthy.
"Having such an established Punjabi community in Canada, I thought, 'We must have been represented earlier!'" Bassi says. "There have been a couple of Punjabi personalities on covers, but I couldn’t find a Punjabi model on a major publication."
"It feels like I’m sharing my success with my community, which makes it even more special. I’ve been receiving a lot of love from people on social media saying that they’re proud and I’m the face of brown girl empowerment in Canada," she continues.
Bassi notes that growing up, she was told to stay out of the sun, because her Indian community had an obsession with Eurocentric features, like fair skin.
"We’re made to feel that our unique features are inadequate and that we should strive towards something else, something that isn’t natural to who we are," Bassi says of growing up Indian.
Racism was something Bassi was "sheltered from" during her childhood, and she credits that to her diverse Toronto neighbourhood.
"I grew up in Rexdale before moving to Brampton in my teenage years. Rexdale is a district in Toronto that has a large immigrant South Asian, Caribbean and African population," she notes.
But she does recall that her parents experienced blatant racism when they first arrived in Canada, and her first dose of discrimination came in university.
"My friends and I were leaving her apartment, when people off the balcony started throwing eggs at us and calling us 'pakis.' I was shocked that this was happening in a country that prides itself as multicultural," the model says. "Although I haven’t experienced many blatant racist remarks since then, I know it still exists."
Racial controversies is certainly something with which the fashion industry is familiar. During Paris Fashion Week, black models took to the streets outside the Balenciaga show, which had featured very few models of colours, with signs that read "Black Models Matter" in French.
"With xenophobia on the rise, it’s important that people and companies in positions of influence spread messages of love and acceptance," Bassi says. "I hope .. soon it will become normal to see diversity in the fashion industry."
"There have also been a lot of Indian models breaking barriers. Models like Bhumika Arora and Pooja Morr, actually inspired me to model and to live out my dreams. I hardly saw Indian models growing up and never thought it was a possibility for me. This is why representation is so important. I hope to inspire a whole new generation of girls."
Since landing the Glow cover, Bassi has set out out to speak about her experience as a visible minority in Canada, the current political atmosphere and why representation is needed.
"Beauty to me means embracing your individuality. There isn’t just one set standard of beauty, it comes in many different forms. I feel honoured to be called 'One of the faces that are changing the beauty industry' by Glow magazine," she says. "I only started modeling professionally recently because for a long time I thought I didn't fit into the ideal of beauty that was wanted in the fashion industry. I was insecure about the things that made me unique but now I embrace them."
When she's not modelling, Bassi works with Syrian refugees abroad, volunteering for NGO Khalsa Aid.
"It’s based on the Sikh principle of Seva, which translates to 'selfless service,'" Bassi explains. "Last year I travelled to a refugee camp in Greece to help provide emergency supplies and support. Even though they had lost everything in the war and had no certainty about their future, the refugees were some of the most generous and compassionate people I have met."
Recently I travelled to Chios, Greece to volunteer apart of a relief team to help refugees. What I've seen, I will never forget. It's frustrating to see how families displaced from war are treated. These people are not economic migrants. They fled their homes because they had no other option. I spent a lot of time at one of the camps and got to know the stories of the people living there. I haven't stopped thinking of them and hope to spread their stories and raise donations until I'm able to visit them again. In the following posts I will be sharing images from my stay there. 💛 #syria #chios #greece #refugeeswelcome #refugeecrisis #khalsaaid
"After hearing their heroic stories of escaping war-torn Syria, I was inspired to continue helping them when I got back to Canada. I’m currently in the process of organizing a fundraiser, with the proceeds going to refugees."
Just like British actor Riz Ahmed's now iconic speech in front of Britain's House of Commons and the Culture Minister about the importance of diversity in media, Bassi is out to spread the same message.
"Models, like politicians and actors, help shape a national story as well. I want to use my recent success to inspire other women to live out their dreams," she says. "It makes me so proud to see more Punjabis represented in the media now."
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