She's not the only one rejecting this antiquated definition of femininity that's hovered over us for our entire history — one that dictates meek voices, long hair, and an affinity for pink. Over the last few years, an undeniable current of gender fluidity and woke feminism has swept through Western culture, with the fashion industry leading the charge. While androgyny has long been a motif in fashion design and culture, today's more mainstream just-do-you attitude is giving it new life. In just the last two years, we've seen transgender women fronting highly visible, notoriously old-school publications; designers like Hood By Air and Vetements debuting genderless styles on the runway; and global brands like H&M releasing ad campaigns that not only dismiss classical notions of femininity but also seek to rewrite its meaning for the future.
While this movement appears to be empowering from an outsider point of view, what does it mean for those touching the industry? Inspired by H&M's #Ladylike campaign, we tapped an eclectic group of New York-based models to find out how they're redefining femininity for themselves and challenging double standards — both on the runway and IRL. Get their no-holds-barred thoughts, straight ahead.
Diandra Forrest, 26
"Femininity is strength, power, and having your own opinion. Unfortunately, [other] people's perceptions of femininity have circled around the length of your hair, the curve of your body, and how much makeup you wear. But I think that's changing. I hope over time we aren't putting ourselves in categories such as masculine or feminine."
Has becoming a new mom changed your POV? And how has it affected your career, if at all?
"Motherhood and femininity go hand in hand. I thought I would take time off to be with my daughter, but about a month after I had her, a designer asked us to walk in his show. It felt great to get right back into my career and bring my baby to set. [During the show,] I held her so tightly and close to my breasts that people thought I was nursing her on the runway, so I got backlash from that."
How did you react to that backlash?
"I thought it was crazy. Nursing is such a natural, beautiful thing; why would anybody criticize someone for giving their child nutrition? There’s definitely a double standard when it comes to women being topless or showing their breasts. Guys can walk around shirtless puffing their chests, but when a woman does it she’s frowned upon. But you’re just feeding your child!"
"I grew up in the Bronx in a predominantly black and hispanic neighborhood. It was hard growing up with such strong African American features but white skin. I got teased a lot; people didn't understand. I didn’t see anyone in the industry that had albinism, so I wanted to be the representation. I wanted to show that albinism is beautiful and that we’re out here, we’re on the map. Then I heard about how in other parts of the world, people with albinism are mutilated and hunted. That's when I got involved in nonprofits to raise awareness. I started the Beyond My Skin campaign celebrating people with albinism. It just feels really good to do something."
Did you sense that your appearance influenced the way people treated you when you first started modeling?
"My first experience was with a runway coach; as soon as I walked in, he asked, 'Why are you even here?' and he told me I'd never be a model. There were people who said mean things, but I didn't let my unique look stop me."
"That was an accident. I lost a bet to a friend, so I had to go to a casting call. I walked in and they said I would have to come back tomorrow. So I went back the next day, and I realized, Wow, they think I’m a guy. They ended up casting me, and they were just doing men's underwear in the show. So I put it on, and my tits are going side to side on the catwalk. The casting director looked like he was about to pass out. After the show, when it came out they had cast a woman, all of a sudden people wanted to work with me. So I was like, Alright, this is my mission."
You've had the unique perspective of modeling both womenswear and menswear. What's your experience with both?
"For men’s, there’s no pressure. Male models that I work with are so chill — they know this is one of the only industries in the world where a white male will get paid less than a black woman any day of the week, so they don’t bank their life on modeling. Also, even if a male was to fall on the runway, nobody would laugh or post it on YouTube. When I do menswear, anything I do is fine; I could sit there and be like 'ehhh,' and they'd be like, 'It’s beautiful, it’s brilliant!'
"But it's really hard going into women's castings. A lot of female models don’t have secondary jobs and prospects, so for them to lose a show, it’s devastating. [You see] a lot of women losing a crazy amount of weight, doing strange things to their skin, and they’re not taught that everything they do is perfect, that everything they do is okay. So when I walk in, I get really scared sometimes."
I have this term I coined called gender capitalism. It recognizes that there are certain benefits and detriments given to people based on their perceived gender or sex. I just don’t have time to be disadvantaged.
"When I was a wilderness fire fighter, I was there under a male persona because women were treated really intensely. It made it clear to me that it isn’t just like men oppressing women; we’re all oppressed by these ideas of limitations that we have for ourselves and other people. So I have this term I coined called gender capitalism. It recognizes that there are certain benefits and detriments given to people based on their perceived gender or sex. I just don’t have time to be disadvantaged."
Do you believe in femininity?
"Femininity is something I look at socially as a 'sexpectation.' I don't believe myself to be limited to femininity or divided from any human based specifically on what society thinks of my body. I hope in 30 years we'll be beyond femininity. We'll be beyond our bodies and the unnecessary labeling and boxing of certain mannerisms and energies."
"Where I’m from, you have to be put together, [which means] straight hair all the time, always manicured, presentable. You have to be gentle and sweet and you have to take care of your man. You’re still strong, but you have to cater to a man. That’s a really tough thing to try to understand as a kid."
So did that stay with you when you moved to New York?
"No, because my mom's a single mom and she just took charge and did everything herself. I’ve always had an example of strong female figures in my life who'd say, 'You don’t need a man, don’t think like that!'"
It’s so hard for bigger designers to grasp the fact that it’s okay and it’s not uncool to put normal people in your clothes. The world is so open to seeing different people.
"I hate the term straight size; I hate the term curve, the term plus. Just let me be a model. When a straight girl shows up on set, no one's like, 'Oh she's the straight model.' Just get rid of the f*cking word. When a curve girl shows up on set she should just be a model. But yes, it's definitely more body positive, gender positive. It's more about personality than measurements. I hope it's not just a trend. I want it to be a real thing where we see more normal people in campaigns and not just the token one. It’s so hard for bigger designers to grasp the fact that it’s okay and it’s not uncool to put normal people in your clothes. The world is so open to seeing different people."
Has modeling changed your relationship with your body?
"I did a completely nude shoot — you can see my belly in all its glory and my thighs — and ever since I've been really confident about my body, because what can anyone say to me now? I'm forced to look at myself and love my body because everyone's always looking at me. It brings out my femininity the most out of anything I do. I have to indulge and love myself to create an image that everyone else loves and feels."
"You know, I feel like the era changed with the Southern belle concept. A lot of women [in New Orleans] are doing men’s jobs, like construction. My mom took care of me and did everything a dad would do, so I feel like the Southern belle expectation is gone; nobody knows what that is anymore."
How about the traditional definition of femininity — do you agree with it?
"The dictionary doesn't define what being feminine is, it defines what it means to be a flower. I'm the hostess at a downtown restaurant, and I'm definitely seen as the flower in the front. The delicate, beautiful, sexual, feminine flower. To me, being feminine means having the voice to say I'm not just an object for men and society to look at."
What are some expectations you face as a hostess, whether they're in your appearance or demeanor?
"We're encouraged to have our boobs out, to wear heels for hours. One day I actually came in with no makeup and it was like, 'Hey, do you want to go to the back and put on makeup?' I thought, Why, do I not look okay? 'No you’re beautiful, it’s just, you know, like if you wanted to put on makeup...' You have to be all dressed up — you have to be that woman."
"Cut-up jeans, an oversized jacket, and maybe I'd put on a choker."
You're also enrolled in culinary school. Is it intimidating at all?
"The culinary industry is basically male dominated. I take it on as a challenge. I want little girls to look up to me. I don’t know why a lot of women don’t go into the industry; maybe because we’re already looked at as cooks at home so it's not professional. But when a man does it, it’s professional."
What makes you feel most feminine?
"I'm feminine no matter what I have on, but I prefer my hair to be as picked out as possible — the further out it is, if it can touch somebody, I think that's the coolest. I like it to be wild."
"I lived a 20-minute drive from L.A. We had chickens and bunnies and dogs and cats and my mom was a hippie. So there was that side of it where my mom was like, 'Go pick up the chicken poop!' But then I went to high school in L.A. Everyone had their eyebrows done and their makeup on and they had fancy purses and were always put together. What defined femininity in L.A. was very calculated and methodical and also depended on what everyone else was doing. Growing up in L.A. was hard; I was self-conscious about so many things."
Does your sexuality play into your femininity?
"I went through puberty very early. I would walk down the street with my mom, and grown men would whistle at me and ask for my number. It was so confusing because I recognized that they would appreciate a beautiful young girl, but I couldn't get the dude at cotillion to hold my hand. It was a weird juxtaposition. But I didn't put weight on whether boys thought I was pretty, so I didn’t relate my femininity or my early introduction to womanhood with the male gaze or anything like that. Now, they go hand in hand. Owning, understanding, and respecting your sexuality as a female is where the power is."
Being female is strength.
When you started modeling, did you feel pressure to conform to any feminine stereotypes?
"The modeling industry is very confusing in terms of femininity. At my first shoot, they decided to buzz my hair. I was the androgynous girl and became this character that wasn't my choice. Now if I'm uncomfortable doing something, I just say it. I'm never going to be the girl who goes to SoulCycle three times a day. I'm so thankful to have this job, but I just want it to be me."
If you could rewrite the definition of femininity, what would you add or subtract?
"Being female is strength. Strength can be pretty and delicate while also being crushingly powerful. It's the power to create life, to live authentically, to change your mind, and to start all over again. But squeezing into a definition that isn't your own doesn't make it right. I need a little stretch in mine."