New East Digital Archive

In Russia, ideas of beauty are stuck. Meet the rebels looking good on their own terms

12 January 2020
Image and interviews: Miliyollie
Introduction: Anastasiia Fedorova

Beauty is a powerful concept that take on a different significance across every culture — it defines not only the looks we aspire to, but also the values we believe in. We often see beauty as a given, or as a product of nature, while in reality it’s determined by our cultural preconceptions. It can be liberating and inspiring, but also oppressive and restricting, dividing people into those worthy and not worthy of love and admiration. And so it remains important to reclaim and reinvent the meaning of beauty for the current era — and an emerging generation in Russia is keen to have their say.

Russian beauty, as the fashion industry would have you believe, is blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfect features. Within Russian culture itself, beauty is often linked to gender and traditional social norms: beauty is not just about looks, it is about shaping the way people behave in patriarchal society. For the new generation, redefining beauty is important, not only on the aesthetic but ideological level, too. They want to show that beauty can be queer, fat, gender-fluid, non-white, subversive, outrageous, and individual.

For The Calvert Journal’s Russia Z project, photographer, and body positivity activist Miliyollie created a series of portraits that challenge our perception of Russian beauty, and spoke to the people she photographed. This work couldn’t be more relevant for Russia — but also globally, as long as we exist in a culture obsessed with appearance.

For me, beautiful people are those who share my values, who are understanding and respectful of other people’s opinions, conscious about the things they consume, and are able to relate to other people’s experience and feelings.

As I value personal qualities over appearance, I try to apply this to myself as well. It was not always the case. I used to think that I’m not worthy of love, attention, and appreciation, but now I understand personality is more important than what is external. My body shape and acne don’t preclude me from feeling beautiful.

Beauty for me is not something natural or simple. Beauty is faith and aspiration. Beauty is striving for happiness and believing in yourself.

I wouldn’t consider myself incredibly beautiful, but I change my personas so often that I can’t even remember what my face looked like before. I love what I do and when I finish a new makeup look that’s when I feel beautiful. How does it go with the norms society upholds? I don’t care.

Since childhood I couldn’t fit myself into feminine beauty standards. As a teenager, I often heard that to look “beautiful” a woman has to wear dresses, but no one could ever explain why that was the case. The first time I felt truly beautiful was among an accepting community of people of diverse ethnicities and sexual identities. Everyone was open, happy. No one was ashamed of anything — and that’s how I realised I’m ok.

I’m now in a new phase of relating to beauty, which is connected to getting older and the changes which come with it. Beauty is natural, beauty is the freedom of self-expression — but also looking after your body. It’s a process.

In every person there is something which would make you fall in love with them. I always pay attention to small details: birthmarks and freckles, laughter, smell, facial expressions.

I’ve been big since childhood. I haven’t been bullied too badly, just occasional unpleasant jokes. But in romantic relationship I used to feel insecure: if I didn’t encounter fat phobia then I was perceived more as a friend, as if I didn’t exist as a woman. Moving to a bigger city meant I started getting more attention. At first I thought it was some kind of a joke, but now I don’t pay as much attention to my weight, and feel sexy and beautiful.

I’m still in search of my own understanding of beauty because, to me, most popular definitions are destructive. I think beauty can be very diverse and it’s great. Charisma is what makes a person truly beautiful, something intangible, and unexplainable.

I think most people who have some kind of unusual appearance have to deal with bullying and mocking. I grew up with jokes about being mixed-race and too tall, which, of course, has had a negative impact on my self-esteem. I am very happy that thanks to the body positivity movement, beauty standards are changing — and more people believe that we are all different and beautiful in our own way.

A beautiful person is someone who radiates the energy of love, harmony, and contemplation. I think beauty is confidence, self-care, and looking after one’s mental and physical health. I do consider myself beautiful — for me it’s not egoism but self-love.

Beauty is a result of continuous work towards self-acceptance. I think inner freedom and self-acceptance are the key to being beautiful. I feel free from social standards of male beauty. I don’t want to seem more beautiful than I am — I just want to be myself.


I like how small kids talk about beauty before they absorb all the imposed standards through Disney princesses and advertising. I remember my little sister before she was 5 thought that the most beautiful people were the most vivid and unusual characters who stood out in a crowd — very tall, very short, with bright smiles and coloured hair, with tattoos and piercings — beauty for her was exactly the opposite of the standard. I want to celebrate this attitude to beauty.

Beauty is not about standards, limits, and proportions — it’s about courage, integrity, honesty, and freedom. Society’s approval, which I often get in the form of compliments, don’t really create self-love. Actually on the contrary, it weights you down. I’m opposed to beauty standards but at the same time I fit into them, and it can make you feel a bit like a fraud.

For me beauty is self-expression, something unusual, interesting, beyond standards and stereotypes — and most of all natural. I think that imperfections have a lot of allure, and expelling them from your life is a big mistake.

A lot of factors makes a person beautiful — expressing your personality, being soulful, and positive. And most importantly, accepting yourself the way you are, radiating joy through one’s body and mind.

As a body positive activist, I can’t ignore the existence of conventional beauty — and the fact that people who fit its criteria have more privileges and respect. I try not to separate people into beautiful and not beautiful. I think as a society, we’re too fixated on our own and other people’s appearance.

What makes a person beautiful is not fitting a certain criteria or wearing “correct” make up. It’s confidence. I think as a society, we’re too fixated on our own and other people’s appearance. I don’t consider myself beautiful — on the one hand, it’s what I’ve heard from other people, on the other, I don’t think it’s important. Sometimes I like my face and body, sometimes I don’t, but generally I don’t think my appearance defines me.

I’ve been into body modifications from an early age. I love tattoos, piercing, and implants, but a lot of people don’t understand it, or are even afraid of it. Some even get aggressive and pick a fight just because I have flowers tattooed on my arm. For me, body modifications are a form of art and my body is a canvas. But I’ve come to terms with society — they judge by the cover and not the inner self.

Through my work as hairstylist and colourist, I make people more beautiful externally, which hopefully makes them a bit more beautiful internally, too. But I think true beauty is inside, and comes through in the way one treats people close to them.

Beauty is something you can feel, not see. My own ideas of beauty don’t have much in common with what I see in magazines and advertising. When I think “this person is beautiful”, they don’t have to fit the mainstream criteria of beauty. It’s in their movements, voice, and way of thinking.

In contemporary visual culture it’s hard to abandon the notion of beauty altogether, but we should try to expand and reinterpret it. My relationship to the concept of beauty can be complicated, often bordering on dysphoria. It’s the support of my community that helps me to stay myself and feel beautiful.