Turia Pitt is one of the most important people to feature on the cover of a magazine. I can't think of a person with a facial difference to feature so prominently in mainstream media in my lifetime. Turia Pitt is a burns survivor and she's pictured in her natural and beautiful state - not retouched - on the cover of this month's Australian Women's Weekly. I've given up on buying women's magazines, but today I will be buying this one.
Magazine covers are reserved for idealised versions of beauty. Faces without freckles or laugh lines. Perfectly straight teeth. Taut foreheads. Even supermodels are airbrushed. It's a big deal for a woman of colour or larger than a size 10 to be featured. Physical beauty seems to be everything.
In 2011 Turia Pitt sustained burns to 65% of her body during a marathon in Western Australia. She used to work as a model, and then in the diamond industry.
Turia Pitt and a friend, before the fire.
Her life - and appearance - changed dramatically when at 24 years old, she was burnt. She spent 864 days in hospital, had over 100 surgeries, her fingers were amputated and she's undergone rigorous rehabilitation to learn to walk again.
Three years after her accident, Turia says she's the "luckiest girl alive". She's certainly tenacious. She's an ultra marathon champion - recently riding from Sydney to Uluru and tackling a section of The Great Wall of China to raise funds for Interplast, the reconstructive charity she's affiliated with. She's also studying for a Masters of Engineering. And earlier this year she was the NSW finalist in the Australian of the Year awards. She's got a loving partner, Michael. Talk about superwoman! She has achieved so much.
Writer Carly Findlay with her friend, Paul De Gelder. Photo: Carly Findlay
"Being on the cover of The Australian Women's Weekly is a huge honour," says Turia. "I feel very humbled."
"For me, it sends the message that confidence equals beauty. There are a lot of women out there who are so beautiful but don’t have the confidence, and that's what gets you over the line."
I asked Helen McCabe, AWW's editor, about the importance of Turia on the cover.
She tweeted: "I am snowed under... But the reaction is a bit overwhelming today!". She confirmed the reaction was positive. "It is fantastic", she said.
I tweeted back: "I agree! it's so good to see appearance diversity on the cover of a women's mag. As someone who looks different, I thank you."
And that's the truth. I am so thankful to Helen and Turia for giving women with facial differences hope that we can make the mainstream media, without alteration to our appearance. Turia's scars are visible, the texture of her face has not been altered, and her hand - minus some fingers - is not hidden. She's beautiful.
When I was at high school, I made a comment that I wanted to enter Dolly's Model of the Year. It was the kind of comment said with the seriousness of a 15 year old, heady on Impulse and the naive desire that people are only valued on physical beauty. I wanted to be in Dolly with Miranda and Apia and Shannon - those young models I grew up with. Another student told me that if I did enter, I'd have to change my appearance, put make up on and make sure my photos were in black and white. I guess her harshness was the reality though. I just wouldn't fit the norm that people are used to.
Turia's cover photo gives me hope. Young, impressionable women will see that beauty comes in all forms, beauty is strength and recovery, and that magazine covers don't have to be photoshopped.
Her story and achievements also show that life can go on to be extraordinary, even after acquiring a disability. I love that her story isn't just about her appearance. My friend and colleague James Partridge, CEO of Changing Faces (and burns survivor) tweeted "Great to see that Australia's biggest selling magazine @WomensWeeklyMag is marking Turia Pitt's achievements".
James also said
"I was delighted to see the achievements of Turia Pitt so deservedly recognised in her invitation to join the Women of the Future judging panel of The Australian Women's Weekly - and we can see why she was chosen to be on the cover of this month’s magazine. It’s because of her confidence and her success as a mining engineer, fund-raiser extraordinaire and inspiration to many – and we salute her here at Changing Faces because she is proving that people with facial burns or other unusual facial features do and can achieve those lifetime goals.
I want people to get used to facial difference. I want them to see appearance diversity everywhere. I don't want people to be scared and look away from someone who looks different. I want people to see facial difference as successful rather than a perceived failure. I want the media to play more of a positive part in changing the way people perceive beauty.
Turia Pitt's cover is a game changer. The AWW's monthly readership is 2.4 million (magazines), and its website receives 21 million hits a month. All those people are going to see a different kind of beauty than they're used to!
The media needs to take a positive risk of inclusion. Young girls and women (and men) everywhere need to see that facial difference can be celebrated. Now, this is exciting.
Carly Findlay is a writer, speaker, community TV presenter and appearance activist. This story first appeared on Tune Into Radio Carly. Republished with permission.