Interviewed and written by Yinsey Wang
Saphra Turkheim and Charlotte Amelia had an idea. An ambitious and exciting one – to transform the way we view bodies and challenge conventions. They wanted, through a university project, to engage the wider conversation on body positivity and ‘Fleshion’ was born, a catwalk show bringing designers together to explore diversity in bodies and beauty. Mixing art, fashion and even a little controversy, Fleshion aims to reinvent how we see ourselves and others, as well the varying meanings of acceptance and choice. In this exclusive interview for Amber Mag, Yinsey Wang interviews the inspiring women on their vision and the show itself.
YW: Tell us about the creation of the show and why you decided to raise awareness of body positivity.
S: The initial idea for the show was to create a series of clothes that replicated human skin. This idea was inspired by body positivity, as well as the natural human form itself. Body positivity is a dialogue that has already been started, and I think that is wonderful. However, it seems that people are already taking extremist views with this movement, for example certain people argue that you cannot truly love yourself if you use makeup or get cosmetic surgery, which I think is false. I wanted to make sure the dialogue that we engage in is inclusive of all bodies.
C: We developed the title ‘Fleshion’ - an amalgamation of ‘flesh’ and ‘fashion’. The body positivity movement is fast and ever-expanding, a movement that I feel is crucial to society. However, within the movement itself, there seems to be unnecessary subdivisions and exclusions. Sometimes within the community, people will celebrate a particular body type by bashing the ‘opposite’ body type. This is toxic and the opposite of body positivity. We wanted to celebrate all bodies, so that nobody feels ostracised from the community.
Our aim was to embrace the natural body in all of its forms, yet we also wanted to encourage self expression. Something which I have personally been a victim of, is people advocating for the natural body by bringing down people who choose to modify themselves; whether that be through cosmetic surgery, tattoos or makeup. I’ve been accused of being fake, conceited and that I must be ashamed of myself or conforming to society’s expectations because I wear a lot of makeup, by a minority who claim to be advocating for body positivity. These attacks claim to be helping but they’re not, they’re bullying. I’m a makeup artist and I see the art form as a way to express myself, however, this doesn’t mean I’m uncomfortable in my own skin. From experiences like this, we decided to include the celebration of the modified body into our show, because, like all bodies, they are valid bodies.
YW: What has the reaction been and is it what you expected?
C: The reaction has been an overly-positive one. A concern of ours was that people might look at the pieces we created and not understand the message. This project was a final year university project and I remember when Saph first pitched the concept, a lot of people misinterpreted it. Some people asked us how we could possibly celebrate the natural and modified body simultaneously, as if that was contradictory. As a solution, we made a video which featured ourselves and some of our models discussing Fleshion and relating it to personal experiences. For some involved in the project, this was a big move so the footage is very raw. My family members were in the audience watching me on a big screen discussing things that I’d never spoken about. It was nerve wracking. We played the video before the catwalk started, and it made all the difference in terms of reception as it provided context for the pieces that people could relate to. You can see some of the footage on our Instagram page @fleshion_
S: During the making process, we received feedback which implied that our message wasn’t being taken seriously because we were a bunch of ‘young, pretty girls who couldn’t possibly have anything to feel insecure about’. Whilst I didn’t mind getting as personal as I did, it did suck a bit that we had to use our personal and negative experiences to be taken seriously. It fed back into our original point that everyone feels insecure. You can’t assume that someone doesn't have insecurities just because they fit your idea of perfection. Once it all came together on the night, I was overwhelmed by the positive reactions. People told me that what I had said on our video message made them emotional. It was touching for me in being able to take a bad experience that I’ve had, use it to spread a positive message, and have it received so well.
YW: What is your view about diversity in the beauty and fashion industries? Do you think change is underway or do you think there is still much to be done?
S: As a person of colour, up until recent years, the lack of diversity and representation in the fashion/beauty industry was disheartening and left me feeling ugly and alienated. I feel that this is starting to change and the representation of ethnicity, body shape, gender, etc. is growing. Yet, I feel that certain brands/companies falsely support the body positivity movement just to capitalise on it.
C: Whilst we were already aware of the lack of inclusivity in fashion, being aware of an on-going issue doesn’t always dampen the shock of the reality of a situation. This reality became apparent to us on numerous occasions, for example when trying to find nude coloured underwear in high street shops for our models, there was a severe lack of diversity in particular stores.
YW: When it comes to how women feel about their own bodies, what do you think can be done to change perspectives on insecurities?
S: I don’t think there is one set formula that could change not just a woman's perspective, but all peoples perspectives of themselves. We have to understand that each individual's insecurities are personal to them. So, any dialogue or attempt to improve one's perspective of themselves has to come from within that individual. That doesn’t mean to say that everyone has to deal with their insecurities on their own. There are definitely some changes that can be made to society, for example the beauty/fashion industry needs to stop capitalizing on our insecurities. Stop telling people they need to get rid of their stretch marks or pores, both of these things are completely natural to the human form, so why are we told so often that we need to be ashamed of them?
Teach children, especially young girls, not to compare themselves to others. Cancel the idea that being beautiful is a competition; complimenting someone by putting someone else down is not a compliment – it’s toxic. Stop telling girls from ridiculously young ages that all they have to aspire to, is to be beautiful. Changing your perspective of yourself doesn’t happen overnight! Give yourself the time and space to grow. Most importantly, we need to get rid of the idea that loving yourself makes you conceited. There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving yourself, in fact, it's something we should encourage.
C: These are issues that all genders face. Women have definitely been victims of society, being told how to look, behave and dress, in order to be more attractive. This has been recognised and fought against, but now some women are verbally abused for ‘conforming’ to the beauty ideal, as if this is a crime. There seems to be no winning! I think the first step that we can achieve as individuals, is simply being nicer and letting people be themselves. Stop ridiculing others for looking, identifying and generally being a little different to yourself. We need to accept that everybody is different, and that the ‘beauty ideal’ is only what society makes it.
YW: How has putting on the show changed your perspectives, if at all?
S: Talking to the models from the show definitely changed my perspective. Listening to people from different walks of life talking about their insecurities and reasons why they need the body positivity movement definitely gave me more insight and empathy for everyone. It reconfirmed what we already knew, most people are uncomfortable in their own skin, everyone has their own struggles and insecurities, so just be nice.
C: I’d say that since the beginning of the project, my perspectives have not quite changed, but my opinions have been confirmed and strengthened. I had an idea regarding the way the human body is treated, presented, and underrepresented in society, from my personal experiences and from what I see in the media. However since in-depth researching these topics, I’ve recognised that while things are changing and bodies are being accepted, we have a long way to go before reaching full acceptance. Companies have always asserted an idea about the way our bodies are meant to look, and then capitalized from our desire to look that way.
Many large companies are accepting the idea of body positivity and diversity, which is amazing. But do they believe in it or is it a ‘money thing’? Either way, it is definitely a step forward and hopefully contributing towards opening the minds of people that hold prejudices against others for merely being themselves. One thing we’ve all agreed on, is that people simply need to be nice, it’s not hard.
YW: How did you scout the models and get the contributors together?
C: Fleshion is made up of a group of creatives who chose to be in the project as it was something that resonated with each individual. We’re a group coming from costume, props, makeup, SFX and hair backgrounds. This was an end of year university project. We have all finished university now so we wanted it to be something special that had meaning. We really put our all into the project.
It was important for our models to relate to the project and want to get involved, so a casting call was put out. We wanted people of all body types, ethnicities, genders, ages and abilities. Some came from a modelling background and some didn’t. Each person involved in the project was present because it resonated with them.
YW: What have you got planned next?
C: We initially planned for the project to be a one-night-only event. It was such an experience, some of us developed and have overcome our own insecurities throughout the journey. It was more impactful than we thought. Some of the team continue to work together on other projects. Who knows what the future holds!
YW: What was your favourite piece in the show?
C: Each design concept told a story. Some of the pieces were designed for the models and included elements that represented something personal, and some wore a pre-existing design concept that was personal to the designer. My favourite piece was probably our most simple! Our incredibly brave model Shannon was wearing only sellotape! For this piece, our intention was for the skin itself to be the focus, to show skin for what it is and what it does. We used the tape to contort the skin. Skin bunches up when you sit down and hangs over clothing. It is completely normal, something we all experience yet it is something we all appear to be self conscious about. It was partly inspired by the ‘posed’ and ‘unposed’ body positivity posts that are popular on social media. The way people present themselves for a photograph isn’t always the most realistic representation of the body.
S: It is very hard to choose just one, I love the saree my mum wore as it was so personal to me. It felt very intimate and beautiful having my mum to be one of my models and also creating something to symbolise the culture we both share. The time and work put into it was meticulous and was truly a labour of love. I ruched multiple trims of fabric varying in skin tone shades and texture to represent the many different types of skin we have all over the world.
Bezann Productions (Backstage) @bezannVP
Hairstyling: Dan W Chapman @danwchapman
Claudia Haley Ellie Symmonds
Lily Kneen Models: Shannon Page Joshua Pembert Alicia Joley