Photo Series ‘Put On Her Soul’ Injects Some Much-Needed Diversity Into Narrow Beauty Standards

By now we’re all accustomed to the narrow beauty standards that grace the pages of nearly every mainstream beauty and fashion magazine and digital platform. Only 5% of women are represented in almost all advertising we see, which sounds horrendously absurd when it is drilled down to a statistic like that.

But over the past few years we have seen quite a powerful body-positive movement happening, most notably online, where bloggers, artists, models, writers, boutique brands and activists are raising their voices to demand the industry start bending to the wishes and desires of a diverse consumer base, rather than a very insular “insider” perspective. One of those voices is digital magazine Volup2, created by international model Velvet D’Amour.

New York-born Velvet is based out of France where she expanded her career ambitions into photography, and of course created Volup2. She the first supersize-plus model to infiltrate the elite world of Parisian couture by taking the runway first for John Galliano in 2006 and then for Jean Paul Gaultier. The overall mission of Volup2 is “is a visual celebration of Diversity with an emphasis on curves, combined with a self-affirming message of inspiration.”

Velvet has spent her career fighting to expand society’s limited notion of beauty by building awareness around every slice of humanity through the diversity of models that she shoots for her magazine. One of her latest photo series is titled ‘Put On Her Soul’, and features 2 women, Kira Evans and Tulsi Vagjiani. Both models are burn survivors, and the main message is about giving voice and visibility to people who are neglected by the mainstream industry when it comes to a definition of “beauty”.

This is not about reinforcing socialized misogynistic norms that a woman’s worth comes solely from her appearance, it is about the underlying issue of excluding certain types of women simply for the way they look, and the industry that plays a part in perpetuating certain ideals. We spoke with Velvet about her series, and what she hopes readers will take away from what they see in her stunning images.

How did the idea for the ‘Put on her Soul’ photo series come about?

I always look to showcase people often forgotten by fashion in my magazine and I realized that we never see any burn survivors. There are about 450,000 burn patients each year in America alone, yet I had never seen any burn survivors in any fashion magazine. How does it feel to be negated by media due to an experience? Visibility is exceedingly important and screamingly neglected by modern media. I change that to the best of my ability by including a sincerely diverse group of models in VOLUP2 magazine.

What is the main message you want to share with your readers?

My main message is always in supporting genuine Diversity. Fashion can be a great vehicle not just for creativity but also to make positive change. People are affected by the constant chain of images they come across in their daily life and we see so much more now that we are constantly connected. Advertising is virtually everywhere. Yet we see so much of the same old beauty ideals and as such, it saturates our psyche into believing that there is just one stringent beauty edict.

What this does is makes 99% of the people feel less than, and as such they may spend inordinate amounts of their life in conflict with themselves, aspiring to be something they can not. Because even those most often featured in media are heavily airbrushed etc. My photography work was once described as ‘glamorizing normalcy’. I like that description and I feel I can use this gift to create seductive imagery which is firmly rooted in the beauty of humanity.

There is so much more to concentrate upon rather than wallowing in self hatred, yet it is admittedly easy to fall into this trap because of the number of images coming at us, which drum into our head how far off we are from societies currently excruciatingly limited notion of beauty. VOLUP2 aims to celebrate the beauty of humanity.

How did you cast for this shoot?

It was actually more difficult then I’d imagined. I reached out to a lot of people, yourself included, and also posted on our social media and eventually heard back from one individual, and also one group, Changing Faces UK  which is an excellent organization that works to enlighten society to fully accept and value people who have a disfigurement. From there I was happily able to have both Tulsi and Kira model for the hat editorial and we had a blast doing it!

Can you tell us one or two stories about the models involved?

I prefer to let my models speak for themselves so I am happy to copy some of our interview with them here:

“I enjoy being on social media and showing the world that looking and being different needs to be celebrated and not hidden. It gives others inspiration to accept themselves regardless of scars or not. I think it’s important to have more burn survivors being represented in the media. Seeing them in a regular to series not having to play a burns part. It just being a regular cast.”- Tulsi Vagjiani

“Ultimately I think It’s mainly down to the fact that these days people are obsessed with perfection and trying to conform to that idea.  When actually I think perfection itself is an idea and not any one image. It’s all self preference but this image obsessed culture we live in makes it harder for people with burns or for that matter anyone who may be seen as different to be in the media or get involved in fashion and modeling. Those who have suffered a trauma can be some of the most strongest and determined people you may ever meet, they should be celebrated and not left behind the scenes. As like fashion, different can be beautiful and that inspires!” – Kira Evans

Your publication, VOLUP2, is all about body positivity and diversity. Do you see the industry finally making a change in this area with independent organizations like yours giving voice to so many neglected and ignored voices?

I do see that we are making some strides and that is encouraging. In some cases, particularly within the Plus size community, some people feel that the Fat Acceptance message is being co-opted and washed out by the Body Positive movement which often purports diversity while using conventionally attractive hourglass shaped white women on the smaller size of plus.

I think change can be incremental if it is constant but I do feel that genuine inclusion is of extreme pertinence, which is why I am constantly seeking to incorporate those forgotten by fashion within my magazine.

Why do you think so many brands and magazines are still so reluctant to embrace change, even though (for instance) the plus size clothing industry is a multi-billion dollar industry?

I think that fashion is inspired by concepts of beauty which are always perceived of as requiring an aspirational component. That aspirational component has been elevated to a level of impossibility in a world of digital imagery. The fashion industry caters to this impossible beauty dictate as it offers an air of perceived grandeur and drives capitalism.

While the plus size clothing industry makes billions, the idea that fat women can be viewed as covetous, (beyond those few- often young, often white, often tall, always able-bodied, who happen to hold their weight in an extreme hourglass manner) is still somewhat inconceivable regardless of the money to be made. It is all about branding in fashion and associating one’s marque with what is viewed with derision may discredit their careful branding.

The beauty of the existing plus size industry is the extent to which it is created by the community itself, beginning with the birth of the blogging movement, the dissatisfaction with what mere pittance we are offered in selection and style forged a do-it-yourself attitude whereby people began their own brands and began to share relate-able images with actual fat women wearing the clothing meant to be sold to us.

If you can imagine for a moment just how screamingly odd it would be were the next say, Victoria Secret catalog you found in your mailbox to contain images only of 300 lb women selling size 6 lingerie, how insane does that sound? Well, that has been literally our reality!!! Plus size brands selling us clothing on women who would never fit it. Photos of size 6 women marketing clothing to fit a size 28/32 woman.

So I think bloggers in particular have been essential to the changes we see. That said, if you head to a site like say, ASOS and look up DRESSES you will find 122 pages of dresses for straight size women, ie wearing size 2 to 14, and just 17 pages for the Plus size section. (ASOS is actually a wonderful brand that does make a huge effort to accommodate plus sizes with actual fashion forward stylish clothes up to a size UK30). But I think that gives you a great idea of just where we stand as consumers. It is especially baffling when one takes into account that now the average size American woman wears a size 16.

Why do you feel a responsibility to use your platform to show readers something different in your imagery and messaging?

I think my sense of responsibility comes from the fact that people like John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier and Nick Knight, etc in the fashion industry and Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern in the movie industry, TF1 in the TV world, they all took a chance on me when I was so incredibly out of bounds for any of these industries.

Having infiltrated areas where women my size so infrequently do, I understand profoundly just how rare opportunities arise for those who don’t fit mainstream’s idea of beauty or worth. Couple that with the fact that my mission is to create genuine diversity within fashion to the best of my ability, and not just token diversity, but actually including those left out and doing so in a way that isn’t for shock value.

I shoot all my models much the same way I would any of the mainstream agency models I photograph, glamorizing their reality through my lens and celebrating them. I am in a unique position by having both modeled and photographed so I use that experience to try and make a difference through my magazine VOLUP2.

What do you hope will be the biggest impact with a photo series like ‘Put on her soul’?

On one hand it is showing the essence of what true fashion means to me, and that isn’t rooted in following but in leading, in risk taking, in finding beauty in the abstract, in celebrating various layers of Beauty- from the outward beauty my models possess, to the inner strength they exude. It is opening people up to seeing beauty beyond what society drowns us in and freeing us to appreciate more.

It is also the more quiet celebration between model and photographer, as well as that between hair and makeup artist, in this case, the magical Rachel Williamson who shares my vision. It isn’t just the evident image we end up with, but the dance that takes us there. How special one feels to be pampered, to have a highly concentrated energy all on the model. There is a great sense of importance in that and so often those forgotten by fashion aren’t afforded that experience.

I would hope that it draws more people to check out VOLUP2 to see the work we do and how we celebrate humanity through fashion and have done so for over 5 years now.

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You can see the full photo series on the Volup2 website, and see more of the work Velvet is doing to expand the beauty boundaries to “glamorize normalcy”.

 

 

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