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the price we pay for fashion's punishingly high standards

Working in the fashion industry means you are constantly exposed/subjected to images of perfection - Amazonian goddesses, pin-up pouts and doll-like rosy cheeks can twist your perception of beauty into something totally unnatural. Milly McMahon recounts her own experiences of feeling overwhelmed by the industry and how to feel beautiful within it.

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After a punishing run one morning, l stood in front of the mirror judging my reflection, contemplating the same tired thought pattern l processed most days. Typically female, my days are sometimes ruled by how l perceive myself physically. Today was a darker day than usual. I looked negatively over my body and resolved to try harder and invest more time in seeking happiness through perfection. Later that evening l scrolled through every picture perfect image Victoria's Secret Angel, Candice Swanepoel had recently posted up on her Instagram feed - a good motivational technique for running further and faster the next day. Amongst the bikini shots of the angels antics and those mind blowing selfies, one single image suddenly stood out - an honest, un-retouched photograph of a normal, young woman laughing on the beach, held my attention. Candice's body, like mine, resembled the shape of women l see around me everyday - similar to my girlfriends, minus muscle ripped abs and pin up proportioned breasts and making reference to her lack of cleavage; the photo was shared to help everyone out there self-hating to get some realtime perspective. I suddenly felt hollow.

Without this holy grail of a toned goddess to use as my measure for self-esteem, how comfortable might l feel about making peace with my never ending quest for realising self-acceptance through such thin-spiration. Earlier in the year l had been lucky enough to travel through South Africa. Exposed to countless elegant, beautiful women struggling and begging in and around townships. My own ugliness, the internal self loathing, was immediately silenced by the reality of survival. l felt small and lost. Abandoned by this faulty, coping and profiteering mechanism, l was anyone else. Less even, l felt undermined by my own ability to experience what lay beyond my own perception of self. Day to day l deemed what l deserved to enjoy as a result of my own beauty. Joy was dependant upon how pure l felt. Glossy editorials whispered to me that purity lay in being young, natural, slim, strong, with long hair, clear skin, white  teeth, strong nails and legs, endlessly long legs. If my hair was thin, my skin a little dull and my bitten nails ordinary, how could l count? 

"When I first started getting into fashion as a teenager, it was actually my way of combatting the fact that I felt physically inadequate." Susie Bubble

I rolled over and declared myself a victim to the 'industries'. What l had chosen to ignore, were the many strong, independent women who surrounded me. The working women who invested who they were emotionally and intellectually, in creating and making statements that were both beautiful and positive via the medium of fashion. Stylists, PRs, writers, photographers presenting such talent that physical beauty even failed in comparison. In truth, the women l truly idolise are those with strength of character; stylist Anna Treveylan for her mind blowing originality, fashion editor Ger Tierney for her dark aesthetic and kind nature, Mandi Lennard for her power house work ethic, Diane Pernet and Tricia Jones for their over arching iconic status and Bella Howard, Bertie Brandes and Susie Bubble for their fun, accessible and energetic take on style.

Sure, l was obsessed by Gisele's oaky glow and Lindsey Wixson's perfect pout, but l was not overly concerned by their real lives, because in truth, deep down, how l perceive them is contrived; they represent a brand - an image and not a person. The world's number one fashion blogger and catwalk critique Susie Bubble shares her early love/hate experiences of understanding how she fitted in within the world of fashion honestly, "when I first started getting into fashion as a teenager, it was actually my way of combatting the fact that I felt physically inadequate. I was so awkward as a teenager - NHS glasses, train-track braces and going to a girls school where there was a huge emphasis on weight didn't help either. When I first started my blog, I was actually quite oblivious to the way the industry judges appearance. If anything, the blog helped me overcome certain anxieties I had about the way I looked because it was a forum to discuss personal style and celebrate diversity of style. Now that I'm a bit older, I think I'm quite comfortable with the fact that I'm never going to be that super finessed, picture perfect woman that we constantly see. I think I revel in the fact that I've got too many bells and whistles on in my outfits, I'm not super thin and I know F all about make-up. They're traits that might not be perfect but at least they're my own." Discussing these notions with ASVOFF founder, the turban and shade wearing don juan of fashion film, Diane Pernet, she offered a memory of feeling judged by the very inner circles that celebrate her today. "I remember when I first moved to Paris 23 years ago and I could not believe how people stared. Coming from New York where 'anything goes' and there was so much diversity in every sense, it was a really uncomfortable feeling. During those early years in Paris, I once asked a friend 'why do they stare?' and he said 'because you are different and that scares them.'" i-D Fashion Features Editor and founder of alt-girlie-style-zine The MushpitBertie Brandes echoes Diane's sentiments, "unfortunately, nowadays I often find myself feeling like I'm back at school. It can be disappointing and frustrating to feel, in your 20s, that having the right clutch bag or pair of jeans would make people respect and maybe even commission you more. I don't think these insecurities will ever fade away completely, but occasionally being grateful that you have a talent for something other than dressing yourself definitely helps."

"Nowadays I often find myself feeling like I'm back at school. It can be disappointing and frustrating to feel, in your twenties, that having the right clutch bag or pair of jeans would make people respect and maybe even commission you more." Bertie Brandes

Individuality comes at a price and if not instantly recognised as brilliance can be disregarded as style over substance. Always fronting a brilliant flash of fluro hair colour, stylist Anna Trevelyan totters about transatlantic towns in sky-high platforms and uncompromising outfits. Her ideals of beauty are wildly diverse, "what attracts me to each different person is something unique, regardless of height, size, colour, shape, age, facial symmetry, waist measurements or bra size. So l try to apply that philosophy to myself. We can't resent people for being born naturally beautiful and stylish, we can only be who we are and be happy with that because honestly what else are we gonna do?"

After the experience of leaving countless catwalk shows via the emergency exit to avoid being stood next to a fashion editor head-to-toe in Balenciaga or Alexa Chung's size 0 ass, l began focussing on the women l felt proud to feel acknowledged by. Recently invited to a luxe midnight dinner by PR industry powerhouse Mandi Lennard, l wondered how she too, ignored the smoke and mirrors in favour of the flowing champagne and goodie bags. "I'm always in sneakers to hoof it round town. If I'm having a meeting at the British Fashion Council I may consider what to wear more - a dress or my Junya studded shoes - but I have the confidence now to dress according to how I feel. I'm very aware, that when I am me, I feel good. Everyone gets dressed up for the British Fashion Awards, but at the last ones, I wasn't really in the mood, so I wore something easy and didn't even bother with my hair. I had a great evening because how I dressed allowed me to be me." Girlie photographer and a personal muse of my own Bella Howard also echoed this sentiment. "I remember years ago I was helping out on a show and one of the models hadn't showed up in time for a run through so I got asked to step in. I never felt so insecure. I was a foot shorter than the girls in their heels and not a size 0, plus I had no idea how to walk. I felt fat, embarrassed and ugly, which was utterly stupid as l now realise no one was laughing at me. I did them a favour by helping out. I feel attitudes have definitely moved forward and people are more open to new ideals of beauty and shape and not just as a one off exception. Its more widespread now. For me beauty shines from within, if you can try to eat healthy and keep a healthy mind (I have been doing transcendental meditation for 3 months) then your confidence and happiness will out."

Another woman l have always looked up to for her classically elegant style and untouched, natural beauty is i-D founder and natural born mother Tricia Jones. Preferring soap to expensive beauty products, she has never felt tempted to behave anyway other than what comes naturally, "Terry and l have been together for a very long time, since l was 19 and l've been lucky enough to have someone who loves me as l am, for who l am, how l am. For these reasons over the years l haven't felt the need to change things radically for him. l think this has given me the confidence to do what l want to do. Of course you can look at people who appear perfect, but l don't want to try and be my daughters' age. l look at the generations of my family going forward and l feel proud. I learnt that from my Mum - when she was younger she was filmstar beautiful, but she aged so well. She was a very good role model in that. We can all have insecurities but l believe in the end you just have to be yourself and we should all celebrate the diversity around us." 

"We can't resent people for being born naturally beautiful and stylish, we can only be who we are and be happy with that because honestly what else are we gonna do?" Anna Trevelyan

Considering the positive affirmations and honest insecurities each woman so readily offered, l considered my own personal experiences. Just last year l worked on a shoot profiling page 3 models for i-D. As each girl arrived on set, eagerly whipping off her bra and standing, bare breasted and proud, l too felt elegant in their presence. Natural, healthy feminity was celebrated, in all its voluptuous glory. Of all the girls, none would be considered correct to model high fashion, but every one of them was undeniably beautiful. During another shoot for i-D years ago, supermodel Lara Stone remembered how she struggled with casting calls earlier in her career, using alcohol to soften the criticisms she was offered to loose weight or minimise her large breasts. She wavered but did not break under the immense pressures to conform.

One woman's beauty does not discredit another. Comparing race, colour, size or tastes reflects more on the person who judges as opposed to the subject scrutinised. Perfection is passing and if ever achieved, only really true in the eye of the beholder. Flashes of imperfection offer the warmest, fleeting moments of vulnerability that give rise to originality and uniqueness, the most wholesome representation of beauty. Style and substance are not insurmountable, they are intrinsically linked. Forgetting self in favour of seeking affirmation and seeking to achieve punishingly high standards stifles the subtle differences that separate us all. Fashion and beauty should be explored for pleasure, not pursued for happiness. All we have is each other, a sisterhood that should protect feminine beauty in all its wily, unbridled fragility. Next time you don't like another woman's shoes or disapprove of an outfit or lipstick shade, remember how you too once felt judged and shamed. Underneath our clothes is naked skin, we were all born equal, focus on what you love and forget the self hate.