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The Ugly Truth About the Beauty Business

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At 14, I modelled briefly and dreamed of becoming a designer or photographer, but my aversion to the world of fashion -- with its unattainable standards of perfection -- ultimately pushed me in another direction.

But I must confess: I'm still somewhat of a beauty junkie. The addiction hit me at an early age. As a girl, I taped images of models from magazines to my bedroom wall. I would gape at the models' bodies like a teenage boy as I fell asleep, hoping to wake up with their perfect silhouettes.

When I heard the rallying cry of feminism in college, I decided it was impossible to marry my love of fashion with my fixation on what Naomi Wolf called The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. So I opted out. I put a photo of Gloria Steinem on my wall, and traded my Cosmopolitans for Simone de Beauvoir.

Last week, The Daily What published a story that appeared in my Facebook feed fives times. I could not help but gawk: two images, before and after photoshop, featuring supermodel Karlie Kloss in a 2012 issue of Numéro. In the before shot, Kloss' ribs remind me of a third world victim of malnourishment. The image made me sick. This not just a fashion or feminist issue, my friends, it's a matter of public health.

The truth is that the beauty business can be ugly.

We live in an era when fashion photo editors shave inches off the hips and thighs of size 2 models. These same editors plump up models' super skinny frames when their destructive eating habits go too far. A former Cosmopolitan editor, Leah Hardy, recently released an exposé about the fashion industry's dirty little secret of photoshopping models to mask extreme thinness. And we thought airbrushing to eliminate weight was the lowest we could sink.

Fashion has always glamorized illusion. Cindy Crawford once quipped that she wished she looked like "Cindy Crawford." The reality is that no woman looks like the airbrushed embodiments of perfection we see in glossy magazines. Even the supermodels can't measure up to the distorted standards! As women continue to rise to the top of the corporate ladder, expected adherence to standards of physical perfection are not waning -- they are intensifying.

I have been grappling with images of female flawlessness since I reached puberty. I am not alone. The emotional, cognitive and societal pressure of these standards can be devastating, even dangerous.

Ten years ago, fresh out of graduate school, brimming with idealism, I chose social justice over fashion, impact over aesthetics. Looking back, I believe this dualistic, over-simplification was too extreme. I realized recently that fashion and feminism are not archenemies. They can coexist. Beauty does not have to be ugly. We can leverage it for the public good.

That's when the stars aligned to create Sapphô by Kim Smiley. My business model harnesses fashion to create meaningful employment opportunities for marginalized women. We partner with local nonprofits, train women to create our one-of-a-kind designs, and pay our employees a Living Wage to lift them to self-sufficiency. It's a beautiful, virtuous circle.

The best part is that we are not alone. Fashion is increasingly taking social action. Most people have heard of Toms, but what about Feed, A Peace Treaty and SoleRebels? These companies are not simply using social value as a marketing mechanism -- they are deploying it to transform the way we shop and think. Suddenly, materialism matters.

While we work to transform the fashion industry from the inside out (from sweat shop to social enterprise), a few designers are also advocating to change it from the outside in: disrupting unattainable standards of beauty.

As the poet Maya Angelou wrote, most of us are not "built to suit a fashion model's size," but we are still "phenomenal." My heart always knew this to be true, but my eyes confirm it every time I walk outside my home and see potential Sapphô models everywhere I turn. In this spirit, my company uses real women -- my next door neighbors, colleagues and clients -- as models.

People have called my social marketing strategy "brave." I see it differently: I'm recalibrating beauty norms that are unhealthy; setting twisted cultural expectations straight. The reality is that there is so much beauty around us. We only need open our eyes to reframe what we have been indoctrinated to believe is beautiful.

Like the ancient Greek poet Sappho (after whom my company is named), I revere women. Rubenesque. Skinny. Tall. Short. Old. Young. Hourglass. Pear. Every woman. But when I contemplate fashion's cult of perfection and the rise of eating disorders and so-called "fat-shaming," I think beauty standards have become a form of tyranny. I will not perpetuate the vicious cycle by trashing an industry which glorifies extreme thinness without offering a different vision.

I believe that it's time to give the narrative around beauty a facelift.

While many women go on radical diets to look like the images of models we see in magazines (especially around this time of year), we need to be nourishing ourselves with an alternative beauty narrative. The new narrative is not a myth. It's based on the sublime beauty of reality. It comes in every shape and size under the sun. And it's gorgeous.

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