Meet the models & influencers redefining beauty standards today

At Health & Beauty, we believe in celebrating every kind of beauty. It’s why our covers are never retouched and inside each issue you’ll find examples of beauty in all its different forms. Here, models and influencers, Lucy Edwards, Shankar Jalota, Nan Mthembu and Lucy Dawson, share what beauty means – and feels like – to them. 

While progress has been made in beauty inclusivity, we’re still in an age where it is often shown through a filter, making these inspiring stories of embracing diversity within beauty more necessary and relevant than ever before.

Lucy Edwards

The YouTuber and creator of the #HowDoesABlindGirl series uses her platform to educate people about life with sight loss

I lost the sight in one eye when I was 11 and went fully blind at 17, due to a rare genetic condition called incontinentia pigmenti. Going through disability at such a young age was hard, but it ultimately drove me to do things I never thought I’d achieve, such as going viral on TikTok with my message that I’m blind, not broken, and becoming a journalist for the BBC. 

Losing my sight has led me to understand what life truly means. I’ve always loved make-up, so when I went blind, I didn’t want to lose that part of myself. With any grieving process you think about what came before, and I wanted to hold on to the Lucy who loved everything beauty. Instead of being visual, it became about my other senses. Now I’m feeling products, sniffing them, trying not to let my guide dog Molly lick them!

Because I can’t see myself in the mirror, I’ve had to grow my self-confidence. I’ve learned I don’t need something reflecting back to know that I look good. Life is about self-acceptance. 

I used to hate my mobility cane and wanted to be the same as everyone else, but now my difference makes me stand out and gives me a voice. It took a long time to feel that way, but that’s what makes me beautiful these days. I started creating my own YouTube make-up videos to change how the world views blindness and beauty, such as by showing how I style my hair, or apply eyeliner, to prove that we can still appreciate looking and feeling good. Although the beauty industry has room to change, I’m definitely starting to see a shift. Recently, I was the face of Pantene, which has started using Navilens on its bottles. This is a code you scan with a free app while you’re shopping, which reads out how far away the product is, as well as the ingredients, how to use it and the price. I cried the first time I used it – getting my independence back was incredible. Without it, every bottle feels the same. Brands are opening their minds that disability exists. I can feel the rumble building, we’re on the edge of something amazing.

Shankar Jalota 

AKA The Vitiligo Man, is an advocate for letting your differences define you in a positive way and is the author of a children’s book on visible differences

I remember the day I went to my work internship and forgot my make-up bag. I have vitiligo – a condition where your skin loses its pigment cells, resulting in pale, white patches – and cosmetics hid how different I looked. But that day was life changing as, while I was scared to go “au naturel”, people were curious, but accepting. It was so empowering that I never wore make-up again.

I was about 14 years old when I noticed a white patch of skin on my chest and under my eye. I had no idea what it was, but my grandmother persuaded me to visit the doctor. Eventually, I was diagnosed with vitiligo – I hadn’t heard of it before and had a hard time accepting it.

I now have vitiligo on my face, chest, legs and back. It can be triggered by a few things, one of which is stress. Some research indicates emotional stress can bring it on, due to the hormones produced when you feel stressed*. My family was very supportive, but it was still stressful and it felt like this contributed towards my vitiligo spreading. The irony is that now I’ve accepted it, a large part of what makes me feel beautiful is my vitiligo. It’s like wearing the best accessory all the time. I’ll often wear all black to make my vitiligo stand out. Giving the world the chance to see me confident, loud and proud makes me feel empowered, as I hope it inspires others with differences to think “yeah, I can do that, too”. 

Joining Instagram was a game changer, as well as when my friend did a photo shoot to show me a different perspective of the beauty of my vitiligo as this led me to advocating for visible differences. My perspective of life has changed, as you never know who’s looking up to you or reading your words online, and I feel that responsibility now. I’ve written a children’s book, The Adventures of the Vitiligo Man, because I want to give back to the younger generation and help them understand how we are all unique and beautiful in our own way. I remember wishing when I was younger that there was more out there to make me feel seen, so the book is based on my experiences and the main character’s superpower is vitiligo. I want to change what others might think about visible differences. 

Our skin is what makes us unique, whether you have vitiligo, freckles, rosacea, a scar, or endless other differences. You have a right to feel just as beautiful and empowered as anyone else.

Nan Mthembu 

The non-binary model has albinism and their Black South African origins inspired them to campaign for the rights of queer and disabled Black communities

It took me a long time to accept my identity as a Black person with albinism. I was born in South Africa, but moved to Yorkshire as a child and, despite the love and support around me from my family, I struggled with looking different. I wanted European hair, so I tried to straighten it all the time, and hated that my pale skin kept me from tanning like my friends. 

It wasn’t until I went to college that I began the journey of embracing who I was. I started exploring my queer identity and set up the college’s LGBTQA+ society, building a supportive community. 

At the same time, I joined Instagram, and seeing people all over the world with albinism enjoying their lives inspired me to do the same. I felt connected and started campaigning for disabled, queer people.

Two years ago, I decided to try modelling. Friends had always told me to try it, but I never had the time as I had a busy retail job. The opportunity came when I was furloughed, which meant I could try to get signed and put everything into it. Now, incredibly, I’m modelling for global brands, such as Kurt Geiger, and I recently opened my first London Fashion Week show for Vin + Omi. I realised, because I was born this way, I was never going to be the same as everyone else so there was no point in trying to fit into a certain box. I embraced my individuality, because that’s the thing that brings me ultimate happiness. 

I think it’s easy to build up an idea of beauty being what you see in the media, and an accompanying list of specific features. When people feel they don’t meet this often unrealistic criteria, they convince themselves they’re not beautiful and try to change to fit traditional representations of beauty. To me, beauty is multifaceted and individual. It’s the positive energy you give out to the world. The love you have for others, the physical body you’ve been blessed with, your smile and all your unique quirks are the things that make you beautiful.

Lucy Dawson

The disability rights campaigner and influencer is paralysed in one leg and has a rare brain disease. In 2021, she went viral through amplifying the hashtag #BabesWithMobilityAids

I think society has a hard time realising disabled and beautiful aren’t mutually exclusive. People will say to me “you’re not disabled, you’re beautiful”. They think they’re being complimentary, when actually they’re implying being disabled is a negative thing, as well as ignoring a huge part of my identity. My mission is to remind everyone that disability and beauty can go hand in hand. 

When I was 20, I began suffering from migraines, hallucinations and behavioural changes. I was eventually diagnosed with a rare brain disease called Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, which is a type of brain inflammation caused by antibodies, but it was initially misdiagnosed as a mental breakdown and I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act for three months. During this time, I sustained a third-degree burn through my sciatic nerve while having a seizure, leading to the permanent paralysis of my left leg. It is why I use mobility aids today.

The journey from first being diagnosed to where I am today was not easy. I faced a lot of frustration regarding the things I could no longer do, which I now would refer to as ‘internalised ableism’. 

When I was admitted to hospital, I was in my third year of university. The brain disease wiped my ability to walk, talk, read, write – everything. I had to relearn all of it. One day, with the encouragement of my sister, I began to share my experiences online. Social media has been a fantastic place for me to find community, solidarity and support. I love how the disabled and chronically ill community uplift each other through hashtags like #BabeWithAMobilityAid. 

I get excited when I see disabled people celebrating their bodies and use my platforms to amplify this kind of disabled joy – something I think the media often ignores. When faced with a copy and paste of the same image everywhere we look, what’s seen as the norm can be loud in our minds. That’s why visibility and representation from marginalised groups is so important. Only once people see us exactly as we are – not as something to pity, or to make themselves grateful for their own lives – will they see there is beauty in difference.