A Wider Lens: Top Models on Beauty’s Past, Present, and Future

Fashion is constantly evolving—and so are the beauty standards that define it. Here, industry stars and experts examine the current landscape.

Written by Jenny Comita

When Anok Yai started working as a model, she had a truly majestic head of hair: a cloud of bouncy corkscrews that, when fully unfurled, stretched nearly to her waist. In the photo that catapulted her into the fashion world—a 2017 snap by photographer Steven Hall of the then 19-year-old college student—her tresses effervesce in the golden-hour light, crowning her high, sculpted cheekbones. When one looks at the image today, it’s not at all surprising that the morning after Hall posted it on Instagram, top agencies were practically banging down Yai’s door. What’s harder to wrap one’s head around is that once the New Hampshire–raised daughter of South Sudanese refugees moved to New York and started booking big jobs, her enviable curls were suddenly considered a nuisance. Whenever she arrived backstage before a show or on set for a shoot, she was inevitably met with a flat iron. “And I just let them straighten my hair because I didn’t know that I could say no,” says Yai today. The consequences? “Within six months, I lost 10 or 15 inches of length,” she says. “People thought I’d cut my hair, but it had actually broken off.” After a few more months of stylists tugging, pulling, and heat-blasting her tresses into submission, she says, “I just came to a breaking point. I told my agents that I could do a show with my afro, with cornrows, or not at all.” The response: serious resistance.

“Designers would say, ‘Oh, your hair’s distracting from the clothes,’ ” remembers Yai. “But I stood my ground, and eventually it became a normal thing. A few seasons went by, and other Black models started noticing, and it inspired them to stand up for themselves too. Now, at every show, any girl can have an afro.”

Yai’s story should, of course, be celebrated as its own hard-won triumph, but it’s also notable for how closely it parallels a wider narrative unfolding in fashion. After decades of clinging to the very narrowest, most Eurocentric definition of beauty—in essence, and with very few exceptions, tall, thin, white, young, cisgender—the industry seems to be, at last, embracing a more inclusive and varied ideal. Now, on catwalks and covers, as well as in major campaigns, you’ll see not only Black women rocking their natural hair, but also transgender and nonbinary models, sizes that stretch well into the double digits, and seriously gorgeous humans in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. According to the Fashion Spot, a site that tracks runway demographics, the fall 2022 women’s ready-to-wear shows in New York, Paris, Milan, and London were the most racially diverse season on record, with models of color constituting 48.6 percent of total appearances. New York Fashion Week, in particular, made strides, with nonwhite models totaling 54.9 percent, up from a measly 20 percent in 2015. Across all four Fashion Weeks, there were also 59 castings of transgender models and 103 appearances by models considered plus-size.

But as in Yai’s case, progress hasn’t happened without a push. And the current step forward actually comes on the stiletto heels of a major step back. In the 1970s and ’80s, in the wake of civil rights advances and the Black Is Beautiful movement, the catwalk was a reasonably diverse place. Although African-American women were only very rarely featured in major mainstream ad campaigns, there were plenty of nonwhite faces on the runways, particularly in Europe, where designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler always made a point of casting a variety of skin tones and ethnicities. But before the turn of the millennium, things started to change. In Iman’s description, fashion shows became “like the blonde leading the blonde.” By that point, she had retired from modeling and launched her groundbreaking beauty line, so, she says, she wasn’t paying the closest attention to who was or wasn’t, say, opening a Versace show. But around 2013, she read a story about the disappearance of Black models. “And at that point, my best friend, Bethann Hardison [herself a modeling legend]; myself; and Naomi [Campbell] decided that we needed to check what was going on. And what we saw was completely jarring. When it came to Black models, it wasn’t just less, it was a total absence.”

The reason behind what some referred to as “fashion’s whiteout”? Looking back at it now, it appears to have been the convergence of a few different cultural and industry-specific shifts. First, the former Soviet bloc countries started to open up, which meant that Eastern European models could travel to the West; there was also a rush of cash-laden oligarchs with a newfound lust for Chanel shoes and Birkin bags. Designers needed to appeal to their tastes, and as Iman bluntly points out, “there are no Black Eastern Europeans.” At the same time, there was a touch of supermodel backlash in the air. In the ’90s, Naomi, Linda, and Cindy became household names, more well-known than the designers who dressed them. Following the logic of fashion, the pendulum then had to swing the other way: Rather than cast famous women who attracted as much attention as the clothes, designers assembled armies of very similar-looking models. No one stood out, and the focus remained squarely on silhouettes and hemlines. “The entire modeling world became all about the white Eastern European girls,” says veteran casting director James Scully.

Clearly, this was not going to fly. “Once we figured out what was going on, Bethann, Naomi, and I started talking to the press, writing letters to the CFDA and designers in Europe, and making it really public,” says Iman. Slowly, they started to see signs of change—but there was no quick fix. For some Black models, this new diversity didn’t always feel authentic. “Some of the most influential luxury brands are still quite conservative. When they do celebrate diversity, it’s often tucked under some special initiative that’s maybe tied to a philanthropic campaign. It creates a differentiation that lets you know: This isn’t the kind of body that we normally celebrate, but here’s a statement that we want to make,” says Kimberly Jenkins, an assistant professor of fashion studies at Toronto Metropolitan University and an industry consultant who founded the Fashion and Race Database, a platform that examines the impact of race in the fashion world. “So some Black models are understandably apprehensive with brands that have a track record of not being inclusive and now all of a sudden are grasping at them.”

That sort of behavior has been harder to get away with since 2020. “With Black Lives Matter, people started talking about the ills of whatever business they were in, and fashion is at the forefront of that,” says Iman. And thanks to social media, models now had a means of making their voices heard. Calls for change came from outside the industry, as well. “Gen Z became consumers,” says Scully. “This is a generation that is very open to diversity of sexuality, gender, color—and they were like, If I’m not seeing myself represented, I’m not buying your clothes, I’m not looking at your magazine.” Jenkins echoes the sentiment: “People are learning that they can vote with their dollars, and they’re connecting to say that.”

It’s impossible, in fact, to overstate the role that social media has played and continues to play in changing fashion’s beauty ideals; social platforms essentially allow anyone to be a model and each of us to choose which version of beautiful we want to look at. As recently as a decade ago, we were limited to print, film, and television for sartorial inspiration; now self-styled influencers of every stripe are constantly at our fingertips. “Whatever form of beauty you want to see, you can find it on social media, and I think that’s pretty much the only beautiful thing about social media,” says Bella Hadid, who played the Instagram game to perfection at the outset of her career but has also spoken up recently about the platform’s negative impact on her mental health. But even with the advent of filters—which, of course, create their own unattainable ideals—there’s no denying that Instagram and TikTok have democratized the concept of beauty. “You can see so many different types of faces and bodies now,” says Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard University psychologist and researcher whose 1999 book, Survival of the Prettiest, delves into the biological basis of beauty. “We’re seeing more of what people look like. In the past, we just had magazines where everyone was uniformly ‘perfect.’ ”

One obvious result of this wider lens has been a generational sea change in how we view body size. Walk past any American high school at dismissal time, for instance, and you’ll likely see a parade of size 16-and-up teens in crop tops or short shorts, proudly flaunting the same sort of curves that a decade ago were far more likely to be hidden under baggy T-shirts. “People used to be ostracized for wearing something revealing if they had a larger body. Now those same people are fashion influencers,” says journalist Kari Molvar, whose 2021 book, The New Beauty, charts the evolution of beauty in the fashion world and beyond. Perhaps that’s why major brands have welcomed larger sizes. “I’ve been surprised to see the curvy body being as present as it has been,” says Lauren Downing Peters, a fashion history professor at Columbia College Chicago whose book Fashion Before Plus-Size: Bodies, Bias, and the Birth of an Industry will be published by Bloomsbury in 2023. Peters, too, sees the Internet as a huge driver of body positivity. These days, plus-size goddesses are Fashion Week fixtures; at size 16, Precious Lee is headed for supermodel status. “For me to be on the cover of a September issue clears up any confusion about the progression of the modeling industry,” says Lee. “There is no more beautiful woman, skinny or plus-size,” says Iman of Lee. “The girl is gorgeous, a glamazon.”

Which brings us to the original glamazons. Those storied supes of the ’90s—Shalom, Amber, Christy, Naomi, et al.—are back on covers and catwalks in force. And lest you think it’s all about nostalgia, consider that Maye Musk (yes, Elon’s mom) is walking in the Dolce & Gabbana show and fronting the 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in her 70s. The new rules, it seems, demand not just beauty at any size but beauty at every stage. “There weren’t women really modeling at my age a decade ago,” says Valletta, now 48, who returned to the profession full-time eight years ago, after an extended stint in Hollywood. “In the past, every once in a while you’d see a model in her 40s, but it was kind of tokenism. This isn’t tokenism; I’m getting huge jobs.” And if Musk is any indication, Valletta could still be doing so three decades from now.

It’s worth noting, of course, that this isn’t the first time we’ve collectively changed our mind about what’s beautiful. The definition of pretty is constantly shifting across time and space—as a walk through any historical art museum will demonstrate (consider a Rubens, for instance, next to a Degas). And seemingly every generation likes to think it has mounted a revolution in this realm. In the ’90s, following the reign of statuesque femmes fatales like Crawford and Campbell, Kate Moss was considered an utter departure because she was —gasp!—a waify five feet seven. It was as if no one had ever heard of Twiggy, who had caused a sensation with her supposedly boyish figure three decades before. So is the new diversity here to stay, or is it just another fashion trend masquerading as social change?

One factor to take into account is the fair amount of scientific investigation into what we, as humans, think is beautiful and why. According to psychologists, as counterintuitive as it might sound, we’re drawn to people who rank as average. More specifically, when researchers create artificial faces on a computer by blending photos to make a composite, the “average” image is consistently rated most attractive. It follows that, as our population continues to become, on the whole, browner, older, and larger-bodied—as demographic projections suggest—the “average” should continue to reflect that change.

But, of course, fashion’s definition of beauty hasn’t always lined up with dominant opinions in the culture at large. Consider the fact that Kate Moss and Pamela Anderson hit peak popularity at roughly the same time. And, says Molvar, when it comes to beauty ideals, social media has really upended everything. “When you look back, those little shifts in standards were incremental and took decades or even a century,” she says. “But now the digital explosion is very rapidly altering what we perceive as beautiful. What’s considered cool on TikTok truly changes on a daily basis.” Will the “slim-thick” Kardashian body still be the most wanted silhouette a decade from now? Sadly, for the thousands of women who’ve gone under the knife to emulate it in the past few years, there is no way of knowing. In life, but especially in fashion, the only constant is change.