Marielys Pagan

Redefining Beauty

The Power of Consumers in Shaping the Future of Fashion's Standards

The fashion and beauty sectors have the power to surprise and delight the modern consumer. For years, these industries have shaped the public discourse on everything from pop culture to artistry and even politics. Along the way, however, the very trends meant to capture our fascination have been accused of contributing to a whole host of problems: low self-esteem, poor body image, and even disordered eating. The issue relies in the often narrow definition of beauty, which has frequently been exclusionary above all else.

While this narrow definition represented the status quo for generations, a shift is clearly upon us. No longer satisfied to passively observe trends set by industry leaders, consumers are ready to take the reins. They demand a stronger voice — and if brands don't respond, they'll find their own solutions.

This shift in power represents an exciting opportunity for consumers and brands alike. Those that manage to connect with this new generation of fashion mavens can build stronger relationships and achieve a new level of loyalty. Brands that cling to the status quo, however, may miss out on a large population of passionate consumers — and as their 'traditional' aesthetic and messaging are increasingly viewed in a negative light, they may even drive away the core customer base on which they've long depended.

Change is definitely afoot in the world of fashion and beauty, where diversity increasingly means accepting and, more importantly, embracing beauty in all its forms. We delve into these exciting trends below:

Body Positivity and Inclusive Fashion

For years, a very specific definition of beauty dominated the fashion industry. Campaigns were centered around a singular body type: tall, thin, youthful, and Euro-centric. It's now clear that this narrow version of beauty was detrimental not only to consumers, but also, to the models, celebrities, and influencers responsible for portraying these beauty ideals.

Thankfully, we're in the midst of a beauty revolution driven largely by the many dissatisfied consumers who, for far too long, felt underappreciated and underserved. Brands that have embraced this more inclusive take on beauty have been handsomely rewarded by a wildly enthusiastic and loyal customer base.

A survey commissioned by The Pull Agency reveals that, while just 7 percent of consumers desire ads featuring aspirationally beautiful models, nearly three-quarters feel that brands should emphasize body positivity by featuring a diverse range of models.

Nike, for example, has made a clear impression on Gen Z consumers, who cite values of diversity and inclusion as among their top reasons for committing to the athletic brand. Years before other brands adopted body-positive practices, Nike led the charge by working with plus-size model Paloma Elsesser and even introducing plus-size mannequins (left).

The Growing Body
Neutrality Movement

Most people are familiar with the concept of body positivity, but this is not the only revolutionary take on redefining beauty. Increasingly, many influencers and brands advocate for a powerful middle-of-the-road approach known as body neutrality. This concept emphasizes how people feel on a daily basis, rather than focusing exclusively on how they look. This can have powerful implications in the fashion world, with advocates arguing that aesthetics alone should not be the focus.

Tommy Hilfiger represents a clear leader in the fashion space, having teamed up with actress Jameela Jamil to shift mindsets via the Moving Forward Together campaign. During the 2021 spring season, the brand released free online courses via the Future Learn platform, with the intention of equipping users with the knowledge and drive needed to spur social change.

The body neutrality movement will represent both a major opportunity and challenge for brands and influencers. Sinead Donohoe — a marketing lead for the brand Simply Be — informs Marketing Week, Telling people to 'love yourself' can be as toxic as telling someone how to look...normalizing different bodies is a good place for brands like mine to start.

ASICS reveals how this shift can prove transformative, with its 2022 campaign challenging society's focus on exercising for dramatic aesthetic transformation. In the future, this focus could extend beyond athleisure to include high fashion, with an exciting new emphasis on how high-end styles make us feel.

How Social Media Reflects — And Drives — Body Standards

At one time, we looked to a few select sources of inspiration to keep us abreast of the latest trends. Top looks were displayed on the runway and in print fashion magazines. They eventually trickled down to the catalogs and TV ads we witnessed on a daily basis. This all changed with the takeover of social media, which is now the go-to source of fashion inspiration.

Social media forever transformed the flow of ideas, in part by showing us that glamorous models really do come in all shapes and sizes. Body-positive influencers now inspire followers from all walks of life, helping to combat the self-doubt developed through years of exposure to a singular beauty ideal. Several have partnered with high-end brands to bring their messages beyond social media, even reaching print ads, TV commercials, and runway shows.

As a report from the Business of Fashion reveals, social media has revolutionized the industry by bringing a bottom-up approach to trend formation. Aesthetics such as cottagecore and dark academia emerged on social media long before they made their mark on the runway. This is also reflected in the many shapes, sizes, and ethnicities represented among influencer fashion, with diverse icons often first amassing a huge following on social media before they transition to more conventional platforms.

The Rise of Adaptive Beauty

Terms such as body-positive or inclusive fashion often bring sizing concerns to mind, but these concepts have recently undergone a much-needed expansion. In recent years, a growing movement has called for adaptive fashion to cater to previously underserved populations, such as consumers with mobility impairments or sensory concerns.

Again, Tommy Hilfiger is a clear leader. The brand offers an adaptive collection, built to reflect the unique needs and preferences expressed by a wide array of consumers. These include not only fashion-forward individuals who use wheelchairs, but also, those on the autism spectrum.

In the athletic sphere, Nike is rising to the occasion with FlyEase technology, which provides hands-free access. Not only does this fit adaptive ideals, it represents the power of universal design to bring functional and fashionable styles to a wide range of consumers.

We are merely in the beginning stages of the adaptive and universal fashion movement. There remains a strong need for styles that accommodate the full range of consumers. Coresight Research's 2022 Think Tank report on adaptive fashion reveals that nearly half of those with disabilities (or those who care for people with disabilities) struggle to find apparel that meets their needs. Brands that embrace this opportunity will be poised to further elevate public discourse on diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry.

Reckoning With the Past

Currently, one of the central questions among body-positive and body-neutral advocates is whether it's truly possible for brands to change. Can previously exclusionary fashion lines actually embrace a wealth of beauty ideals and serve an increasingly diverse customer base?

So far, the answer appears to be yes — but with some clear caveats. By far the most noteworthy example of this sense of hope is Victoria's Secret, which has received a great deal of criticism through the years for its unrealistic beauty standards.

Nowhere is this outrage more evident than in the hit song Victoria's Secret, in which the singer Jax reminds us it was made up by a dude and that it was never made for me and you. Determined to reverse this negative perception, the famous lingerie brand has ditched the signature Angels concept and, instead, brought a diverse group known as the VS Collective on board.

Gucci Beauty has also been a key part of this impactful discourse. This was evident in 2020, when the brand hired Ellie Goldstein — a gorgeous model with Down syndrome — as the face for its mascara campaign.

As we mentioned, there's a caveat to all this: consumers will need to continue making their desire for diversity and body positivity known. Otherwise, we risk slipping back into the exclusionary practices of yesteryear.

Already, this can be seen in the co-opting of the body positivity movement, with many activists raising the alarm bells that this is increasingly centered around influencers who fit in with the previously dominant beauty ideal. As reporter Anna North tells Vox, we risk following the same pattern of moving two steps forward, two steps back, with little progress in any direction.

With the discourse shifting from magazines to influencers, we can easily get stuck in a cycle of enforcing the same restrictive beauty standards, albeit via different means. Ultimately, it will take ongoing conversations and targeted education to ensure that consumers understand what healthy relationships with both fashion and their own bodies encompass.

Social media, like any platform, can be either a powerful tool or a source of insecurity. What's unique about our current environment is that the positive resources are definitely out there — they simply need to be amplified.

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