Winnie Harlow may be one of the most influential models in the world right now, but don’t call her a role model.
The 22-year-old Mississauga, Ont. native has defied traditional beauty ideals by taking on the fashion industry and not letting her vitiligo (a condition characterized by the depigmentation of skin) get in the way of success. But she still doesn’t see herself as someone to look up to.
"People may choose to see me as that, but it’s not how I identify or label myself,” she says in an interview with HuffPost Canada’s Partner Studio. “A role model is someone who should be copied and emulated, and I don’t believe that people should copy anyone.”
Instead, Winnie says we should be appreciating our individuality.
We should just be who we are and always focus on our uniqueness and our opinion of our self.
“We should just be who we are and always focus on our uniqueness and our opinion of our self,” she says. “And by that I don’t mean that others’ opinions of you aren’t important; simply that your opinion of yourself is far more important.”
Harlow advocates for self-confidence and has become an inspiration for women all over the world. Her face alone is the face of a no-nonsense attitude and influence beyond measure. But getting to that place didn’t come easy. As a kid, Harlow was bullied and called names like “cow” and “zebra” by her peers. The verbal abuse forced her to change schools multiple times, drop out of high school and led to a point in her life where she felt very low.
“My low self-esteem and self-consciousness didn’t necessarily stem from how I saw myself, but how others saw me and my skin condition,” she says. “I made the mistake of thinking that other people’s opinions of me were more important than my opinion of me. It made me believe that my value depended on the opinion of others.”
It’s the same message Dove is trying to combat with their #MyBeautyMySay campaign, a venture Harlow is a spokesmodel for. It's the latest iteration of the “Real Beauty” campaign, but this time around the beauty brand looks at media's trivialization of women and encourages them to celebrate their own unique beauty on their own terms.
A survey conducted by Dove found that women's confidence in their bodies is on a steady decline. Women are told they’re too pretty to be smart and receive compliments and criticisms based on appearance alone.
To call attention to the issue, Dove launched a global interactive campaign with an animated billboard in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square, which broadcasts real-time commentary from media outlets in several English-speaking countries that spotlight a female athlete’s appearance over her achievements. Canadians are encouraged to have a say in this conversation by visiting the real-time online aggregator at Dove.ca/HaveYourSay and to tweet at media outlets directly using #MyBeautyMySay. And while it's a project and brand that Harlow supports, Winnie believes that the conversation is broad and that women are key agents of change.
“The emphasis should be on making sure that we personally teach young girls how beautiful and valued they are…and we should make sure that media reflects that belief,” she says.
“Empowering and positive messages are important, but...you have to believe that message yourself and take it home to your children and your immediate environment. We have the power to force media to show us what we want to see.”
And we want to see more of Harlow. More of people who don’t fit traditional beauty “ideals.” It's exactly what Dove tries to do with the Dove Self-Esteem Project, a global initiative that tries to ensure the next generation is confident and able to reach their full potential.
Harlow’s placement on magazine covers and fashion ads has changed the conversation on what it means to be beautiful and helps us get closer to that goal. Her spot in Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” one of music’s most celebrated pieces of work this year, doesn’t hurt the cause either.
In that respect, Winnie Harlow is more than just a model. She’s redefining what it means to be beautiful and paving the way for others to do the same.
Dove has found that beauty can (and is) an empowering and positive force for women. Yet women’s looks are often commented on in ways that trivialize them. To address this issue, Dove is launching a four-week global interactive campaign online at Dove.ca/HaveYourSay to broadcast real-time commentary from media outlets in several English-speaking countries that spotlight a female athlete’s appearance over her achievements. Canadians are encouraged to have a say in this conversation by visiting the online aggregator and tweeting at media outlets directly using #MyBeautyMySay.