I Started Casting My Lingerie Models On Their Stories, Not Their Looks. Here's Why

We ask for no photos, no measurements, no physical description – just their journey.

I was sitting at an industry event last year when the managing director of a large lingerie brand blurted out they were so proud to be “embracing the diversity trend”. This statement still echoes in my head. Somehow, in the 21st Century, brands still find it acceptable to consider people as products or marketing tactics to be discounted or renewed next season.

So when I created the underargument in 2015, I wanted it to be more than a lingerie brand. I wanted the site to be a platform to encourage all womxn to embrace our individuality – not just our unique bodies, but our entire beings, our experiences, and our stories too.

I have always found lingerie therapeutic and empowering – it’s one of the only garments you wear that can truly be just for you. You decide how you want a set to make you feel, whether you want to show it or not. It is your choice.

I wanted the brand to be part of the beacons of change our generation is working towards: inclusivity, diversity, body positivity. But I do not believe in defining diversity. I do not agree with quotas or ratios and the stereotyped identities they tend to create. I didn’t want to take shortcuts to visually represent diversity.

I wholeheartedly believe representation matters, possibly even when it is done in ways that I personally find disingenuous and opportunistic, but I did not want to contribute to reducing womxn to the sum of their body or align them to a predefined narrative that is meant to satisfy all “womxn like them”.

So, I decided to blindly choose the womxn who would model our lingerie. Through this ‘anti-casting’, we ask for no photos, no measurements, no description of their physical traits. Instead, we invite womxn to share their personal stories related to any of our collections’ themes, either in writing or, if that is not something they are comfortable with, a voice note.

We receive stories that speak of sexism, racialisation, genderism, sexuality, ageism, perfectionism, ‘atypical’ relationships, body differences, abuse, to failures and silver linings, ambition and personal success. From the stories that resonate with me because of their familiarity, to the heartbreaking ones or those I simply learn from, I always feel very privileged to be the first one to read the words shared by these womxn.

Credit: Manon Ouimet for the underargument
Credit: Manon Ouimet for the underargument

I personally select the stories that we will feature, but my favourite part is announcing to the person that they have been selected. We womxn so often tell ourselves we are not worthy, that many believe their story will simply disappear into the ether after clicking send, that they could ‘never be chosen’. The emotion in their voice when they learn their story made the cut is a reward in itself.

The shoot day is high in emotions for all involved. When their story is selected, we invite the womxn to London, where they meet, for the first time, photographer Manon Ouimet and I. Before coronavirus, we would have about four womxn coming to the studio and getting to share this experience together – a moment of pure empowerment.

Manon is an expert at making non-models comfortable in front of the camera. She grasps their energy and personality instantly and knows how to direct to make them transcend into the most radiant version of themselves. I always say magic happens on our shoots: the womxn leave empowered and often quite emotional, while we leave humbled to have contributed to the reclaiming of their story, body and overall individuality.

As opposed to a casting of professional models, the anti-casting requires the participants to put a lot of vulnerability on show – their personal story and their body in sheer lingerie. This is a particularly brave commitment, especially for those from minority groups that are so underrepresented yet so easily typecasted and ostracised. Every story shared has the power to allow someone else to feel like they belong and to invite them to embrace everything that they are regardless of how different they may be.

Credit: Manon Ouimet for the underargument
Credit: Manon Ouimet for the underargument

Our anti-casting shoots encourage just that – they encourage womxn to own their individuality and be proud of their story. And I can truthfully say there has not been one ‘bad’ shoot, not one womxn coming out looking anything short of amazing.

Beauty is of course subjective, but the reality is when you make someone feel valuable, give them respect, a place to be themselves with confidence and acceptance, they shine. I can’t count the numbers of “Oh wow, I actually look pretty good” I’ve heard at the shoots.

This journey all comes together when the photos and stories are shared on social media and the site. For the womxn participating, sharing their story and photos with the world is a promise to themselves to continue to honour who they are. And it also is an encouragement for others to do the same. There isn’t one story that doesn’t receive a “I so needed to read this today” or a “thank you for sharing this”. Seeing these comforts me that we are doing something right.

I’m often asked if I think other brands should go down the ‘anti-casting’ route. Brands should do what is right by their customers and their values, but if they believe diversity is important (which is a highly rhetorical statement), then they should think harder about the ways they are showcasing or selecting that diversity. If the word “trend” is involved in the process, there is an issue. And If the people making decisions about who represents diversity are all but diverse, that’s problematic too.

I would urge brands to simply be more authentic, and to me, unless diversity reaches the top in companies and the media alike, its representation in mainstream culture will always risk being nothing more than a “trend”.

Maïna Cissé is founder of the underargument. Follow the underargument on Instagram at @theunderargument

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