Burns victim Turia Pitt features on the cover of The Australian Women's Weekly: is this finally a sign of acceptance?

Pitt was running a marathon when she was caught in a bushfire three years ago leaving 65 per cent of her body covered with scars. Is the latest shot in the war to redefine beauty or grim fascination?

The faces that you see staring out from the newsagents' shelves are usually blemish-free and perfectly pretty. They are supercharged versions of female beauty, more often than not digitally enhanced and manipulated to look that way, too. So it's a jolt to see the cover of this month's Australian edition of Women's Weekly. Runner Turia Pitt smiles back from it, a glossy-haired, neatly styled personality and role model like any other. The only difference between her and, say, Victoria Beckham (who is on this month's Vogue), is that 65 per cent of Pitt's body is covered with scars. "I feel humbled," Pitt has said. "For me it sends the message that confidence equals beauty."

Pitt, 26, was running a marathon when she was caught in a bushfire three years ago. She has undergone more than 100 operations, and spent more than two years in hospital. She lost all the fingers on one hand.

So how do we react to her image? Magazine covers appeal to our baser sides – envy, aspiration and downright nosiness – but does this one bring out empathy or grim fascination? Does it even matter, as long as we're discussing and normalising the issue?

"There would have been a time not so long ago when using an image other than a perfect model or aspirational celebrity was taboo," says Lisa Smosarski, editor of Stylist magazine. "But we have seen a proliferation of 'real women' gracing covers and readers' priorities change. And with that comes acceptance that everyone doesn't look the same."

That acceptance has come partly through activists and personalities such as burns victim Katie Piper, but it's also thanks to increased exposure on social media. Twitter and Instagram fill our lives with imagery that we might otherwise never come across; we become worldly even as we stare at our phones.

Burns victim Katie Piper (right) on the front of 'Hello!' magazine Burns victim Katie Piper (right) on the front of 'Hello!' magazine
"Women with disabilities and physical signs of deterioration are the least represented of all women," says Sali Hughes, author of Pretty Honest: The Straight-Talking Beauty Companion. "They're less represented than any woman of any size. That's why this cover is shocking – but the only way to stop it being shocking is to make it familiar."

Read more: Katie Piper introduces new baby in Hello!

This week, 23-year-old Bethany Townsend from Worcester found acceptance, too, thanks to her disability rather than despite it. The aspiring model posted a picture on Facebook of herself sunbathing in a bikini, the colostomy bags she had fitted for her Crohn's disease clearly visible. The picture has since garnered 190,000 likes on the charity Colitis UK's page.

"I'm just so glad it's brought about more awareness of Crohn's disease," she said. "It's made me feel so much more confident."

Bethany Townsend posing with her colostomy bag (Crohn's and Colitis UK) Bethany Townsend posing with her colostomy bag (Crohn's and Colitis UK)
It isn't the first time women with disabilities have been held up as beauty role models: the groundbreaking Real Beauty campaign launched 10 years ago by Dove featured female amputees; Sainsbury's last week revealed the child star of its latest campaign will be a seven-year-old girl with Down's syndrome. And, earlier this year, cancer survivor Beth Whaanga posed naked to show off her scars and highlight her struggle. Clearly then, disability and perceived imperfection no longer provokes the embarrassed silence it once did.

But there's a difference between using disability in glossy advertising, or to promote awareness or raise funds, and our quotidian experience of it. Information from the Oscar Pistorius trial yesterday revealed that hate crime had actually gone up in the wake of the 2012 Paralympics, the "superhuman" tagline the athletes were given deemed "unhelpful".

So does giving disability celebrity status actually help? "They haven't played this for shock value," says Hughes of Pitt's cover. "They've shot her in exactly the same way that they would a celebrity. It's lovely that they've done it in such a boring, mainstream way."

"The risk perhaps is with Turia," adds Smosarksi, "who is putting herself out in the public domain in a climate where social media allows instant, unregulated and uncontrolled feedback. That's a terrifying prospect for any woman not used to life in the public eye."

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