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Makeup-free Miss England finalist defies ‘unrealistic beauty standards’

Melisa Raouf used to spend three hours perfecting her makeup because she didn’t feel confident in her natural beauty. But as other contestants put on theirs in preparation for the Miss England pageant this week, Raouf faced the competition without it.

In doing so, Raouf, 20, became the first makeup-free participant in the Miss England competition’s 94-year history, making her a face of a bare-face movement that has resonated with women around the world. It was a challenge to herself, Raouf said, after years of feeling shy and insecure, discouraged by a social media ecosystem overrun by meticulously edited and filtered pictures.

“Women are pressured to look a certain way because of society’s narrow perception of beauty and perfection, and they’re often scrutinized for not conforming to them,” she said in an interview. “I wanted to challenge these unrealistic beauty standards by taking that bare-face round to the next level.”

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Skin-positivity activists have criticized the beauty industry’s role in marketing their products with photoshopped images and profiting off women’s insecurities. Raouf, a political science student at King’s College London, said she wanted to inspire girls who, like her, felt they couldn’t measure up.

Contestants qualified for the Miss England finals, held Sunday and Monday in Birmingham, in one of several ways, including by winning a special title (such as “publicity queen”) or a regional competition. Raouf made it after winning June’s Miss London Bare Face Top Model competition, an optional round added in 2019 that invites contestants to post a photo of themselves without makeup on their social media accounts, and then claiming the same title at the Miss England semifinals in August.

Leading up to the finals, Raouf picked up litter in London and ran a 10-kilometer event to raise money for the Miss World-affiliated nonprofit Beauty with a Purpose, which provides food, water and education to those who need it. She also started #barefacetrendmovement, which buoyed her confidence — and connected her to a community of women seeking skin positivity.

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“I’m very proud of her,” said Elle Seline, who last year became the first woman to compete makeup-free in the Ms Great Britain contest, a pageant for women ages 31 to 44. “It’s awesome that other women are waking up and using their platforms to make that conversation continue.”

Seline, 32, used her platform in the Ms Great Britain pageant to promote women’s empowerment and right to bodily choice, from wearing makeup to getting an abortion. She said she was bullied for her olive skin tone and heavier features and struggled with bulimia growing up, but being alone during pandemic lockdowns, away from other people’s judgment or validation, gave her time to work on herself ahead of the competition.

She sees Raouf’s makeup-free choice, she said, as a baton pass to a beauty revolution.

“We will see a difference in how society perceives beauty, and we will hopefully see a lot of changes,” Seline said.

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Raouf and the other Miss England finalists competed in 10 rounds, including hair and talent. The crown went Monday night to aerospace engineering student Jessica Gagen, who next will compete with more than 120 other participating countries for the title of Miss World.

But, in her closing statement, Raouf drove home her message.

“For far too long, women have been pressured to look, act or behave in a certain way, and I believe it’s time for a change: to show women no matter your age, no matter your background, we are beautiful the way we are,” she said Monday.

The push for natural skin love has slowly gained traction, surprising even some real-skin influencers who worried their unfiltered images would run into hateful comments.

Mariia Bilenka, a 25-year-old Ukrainian living in Hamburg, had shared her skin story on social media in 2018, fed up with the inconsistency she faced when trying to treat the skin breakouts she experienced since she was 13. “I was super ashamed because skin issues were such a taboo topic to talk about,” said Bilenka, a marketing specialist for a skin-care app for people prone to acne.

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Now, more than 500,000 Instagram posts include #bareface, and nearly 250,000 more include #skinpositivity, signaling the growth of a once-niche group as real-skin activists and sans-makeup influencers resonate with the push to see unfiltered and unedited pictures as beautiful.

Lou Northcote’s modeling career was cut short at age 16 because of severe acne. It hurt Northcote, now a 25-year-old Londoner working in fashion, not to be able to pursue what she loved. But the community she found through her Instagram hashtag, #freethepimple, has given her a wealth of support to embrace her bare face.

“We all have lines, veins, scars, marks anything. But for some reason, we’re told we need to be completely flawless,” Northcote said. “I didn’t invent acne. I just spoke about it.”

So did Raouf.

“After entering this contest, I learned that ability to love myself [and] accept myself for who I am in my own skin, whether that be with makeup or without makeup,” she told The Washington Post. “That inner confidence will radiate far much more than any makeup or filter can.”

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