How Ash Paraskevas redefined her own beauty standards

"I wanted people to see me before they saw my hair"

January 15 2021

Ash Paraskevas shines on the cover of our Redefining Beauty issue. Here, BEAUTYcrew's Samantha McMeekin meets the Australian influencer on a mission to ignite self-love, shelve the mainstream beauty standard and champion equal representation.

Sick of the feed, I often find myself on the ‘Explore’ page of Instagram. If you ask me, it’s where the best beauty creators are hiding. And right there, amongst the mainly white, blonde, ‘traditionally beautiful’ Australians I was being served, was Ash Paraskevas and the best eyebrows I’ve ever seen in my life.

I hit follow.

Weeks, perhaps months later, another post of Ash's caught my attention. It was a picture of herself a year ago in comparison to now. The difference was staggering. Both beautiful, but one tremendously happier and freer.

And while the story was told in the caption, putting years of oppression, conformity, change and self-acceptance into a few paragraphs doesn't tell the whole tale. Because at just age 24, Ash has managed to adjust her mindset to a perspective many of us spend a lifetime trying to achieve; complete confidence in who we are and how we look.

It didn’t happen overnight, it certainly wasn’t done with ease and it’s something she works at every day. But in Ash’s words, her purpose now is to share what she knows; to inspire and ignite self-love and acceptance in others so they don’t feel they need to change or hide who they are. 

And so, here’s her story.

Ash wears St Cloud

“When I was younger, I really didn’t look like my mum at all.”

Growing up, Ash was a born performer, always singing and dancing for any obliging audience. “My mum always encouraged me to be and do what made me, me. She raised me as a single mother in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne.”

“I definitely get my bubbly personality from my dad. He was always very outgoing and unapologetic for who he was. And he's a very strong person. I think that's a lot to do with who he is, being a Black man, and everything that he's been through.” 

Ash speaks lovingly of her mum, describing her as a petite Greek woman with blonde, straight hair. “It was hard to see myself in my mum. I was always questioning whether I was adopted.”

Because of their rocky relationship, Ash also found it hard to connect with her dad on that level – “in a way any non-typically Australian-looking person would need from their parents; to have supportive people that look like them.”

“I struggled with beauty and makeup… I honestly felt so alone”

It wasn’t until beauty came into the equation that Ash really began to notice the dissimilarities between not only herself and her mum, but what surrounded her.

“My mum didn't have my hair, she didn't have my skin colour. I would come home from school crying because no one looked like me.”

“I got teased for all the things that made me different because people weren’t used to it and they didn't look like that. And they didn't see it as beautiful either.”

Ash is sympathetic about how hard it must have been for her mum. “She just wanted to make me happy and help me feel like I was beautiful.”

“And so, I started straightening and bleaching my hair at a young age. I remember being seven and wanting that blonde, beachy look. I would also get my eyebrows done, ever since the age of six years old.” 

Ash as a toddler

Ash in 2019

Ash in 2020

“I had the worst relationship with my hair”

Describing it as ‘ruined most of the time’, Ash says the energy and money spent on trying to conform her Afro hair took up 90 per cent of her childhood. 

“We didn’t have much money so it was often DIY and there would be times where I was spending hundreds of dollars (which I had saved from my job at McDonald's) to buy a new straightening product or hair extensions. For a long time, my hair was super unhealthy and dry. It broke a lot.”

When she once tried to embrace her natural hair in high school, Ash was met with microaggressions like “can I touch your hair?” and “you look like Oprah”. Being at an age where being loved and in a relationship seemed so important, she was quick to change it back.

“I was self-conscious and I didn’t want people to see my hair before they saw me.” 

And this time, the change was tenfold. “I really spiralled at that point. I was looking into changing my nose, wanting to get fillers and really conforming to the stereotype of beauty that we see.”

What Ash finds most scary about this time in her life was that it was all accessible and achievable for her, too.

“And then, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was burnt out”

Just over a year ago, Ash was constantly comparing herself to white Australian influencers on Instagram, harbouring an eating disorder and consulting with plastic surgeons.

“I had also entered a competition called Miss World. I was trying to live a life from a magazine. I wanted to be the most beautiful person, with a beautiful house, with all the money. And I got lost in that.”

“And then, I think I just reached my pinnacle. I just couldn't do it anymore. I made the top 10 in Miss World and it just exhausted me so much. The constant stress, upkeep, money and energy I had been putting into trying to be the standard of beauty my entire life; and I just took the time to really reflect and ask myself: why?”

It took months, in fact, for Ash to really unravel everything she’d ingrained in her mind about beauty standards. “It was a journey of self-reflection and just trying to understand where it came from because, at the time, I didn’t. I was just living passively.”

Ash wears DISSH

“It was the hardest part, but also the most relieving”

Slowly, Ash began unfollowing the accounts she’d used to compare herself and began actively looking for people who looked like her and had similar experiences. 

“It was definitely not [a complete transformation] straight away – if you told me I would look like this a year ago, I would have said ‘no, no’. If you told me I would be a size ‘small’ or ‘medium’ in clothes, I would’ve probably cried or laughed in your face and said I’d rather die than be that size.”

“I had to take really slow steps because to me these things were so significant and they defined my identity.”

It started with skipping her usual fortnightly nail appointment. Then, it was downsizing her lash extensions. “I had an addiction to lash extensions. I got the biggest you could get. I used them to hide.”

And then, she began researching natural hair and what it would be like to transition.

“I wanted to start clean with my new hair, my natural hair”

Ash describes the transformative strides she took as equal parts freeing and scary. But the scariest step of all was her hair.

“It took months. Months of trying to understand my heritage, researching the natural hair community and playing around with fake natural hair to see what I would look like.”

“There was one person who I knew in high school who went through a similar journey to me, she had this account @embraceyourfrizzique. I reached out to her and she gave me this one movie on Netflix, which was called Nappily Ever After. I connected so heavily with this movie, honestly, it was my whole journey in front of my eyes. This woman, the main character, was me.”

Ash continued to follow more and more people who were embracing their natural hair, watching videos of their own transitions and rewatching the Netflix movie over and over again. “I kind of developed my own little hub of what I needed to see and consume but this was very hard to find via Australian accounts – I had to search for American, UK and Brazilian accounts.”

But by shutting out the noise she’d listened to for so long and surrounding herself with like-minded beauty instead, Ash was able to take the big step herself. She had her chemically straightened ends cut away, and with them, a lifetime of societal beauty standards. 

She was left with the beautiful Afro she still has today.

Ash wears Verge Girl

“Representation is the most important thing”

Reflecting on her own experience and what it took to finally feel beautiful in herself, Ash can’t articulate enough how much seeing other people who looked like her from a young age would’ve helped.

“Australia isn't really at the forefront of recognising and advancing or accelerating multicultural beauty. And by this, I mean giving them a platform as big as they would the likes of Bec Judd etc. I would love to see more people who look like me seen as important public figures in Australian media.”  

Looking back, “to have seen myself in magazines, or even just little things, mainstream things that people don’t realise, it would’ve helped me to see myself in the world.”

“I often say I can’t wait to go to Africa or Bermuda so I can walk down the street and see people who look like me. Because when I walk down the street in Australia, it never happens and if it does, it’s a special moment for me.”

And while Ash thinks representation in her home country is somewhat better than it once was, she’s also adamant that there’s more work to be done. 

Ash wears DISSH

“I am seeing hair like mine and faces like mine in more ads and campaigns, but that’s because I actively look for it. And it’s often the people that aren’t actually knowing that they need to see it, that need to see it.” 

“I want to see less tokenism, diversity as a performance for a brand and the use of mostly white-passing POC. I also want to see the media taking on POC as they are, without the need to ‘quiet them’, make them assimilate or more ‘acceptable’ to their view of what they ‘should be’.”

The latter of which is something Ash has experienced for herself. “I have had instances where I am given a brief as a POC, which has absolutely no example photos with someone who looks like me. Where makeup artists are given a brief to do my makeup and the example photos are blonde models with blue eyes.”

“If you book me for a job, do not then do my hair in a way that goes against its texture, thin out my eyebrows or change my features using makeup and Photoshop to make me more your standard of beauty.”

“Be confident in who you are and what that looks like”

Along with fighting the good fight for equal representation, for Ash, the role of her social media and sharing her story all comes back to confidence and encouraging anyone and everyone to embrace their own natural beauty.

“I really want my social media to inspire confidence in people. You don't have to be like, ‘Oh, I love myself all the time. I'm amazing. I'm perfect.’ But just be confident in who you are and accept who you are.”

Her mantra? “Be so confident and so loving to yourself that other people feel safe to do so too.”

Ash's favourite products and beauty shout-outs

"Accessibility of beauty products for women of colour is so important," says Ash, who adds that it can be really hard to find suitable hair products in mainstream stores.

She names The Curl Store and Saint Curl as two of the Internet's best – "they are doing the hard work in Australia."

She does give props to Shea Moisture and Garnier though (which can be found in Priceline), citing the Hair Foods range in particular, which she says 'helped her a lot'.

When it came to getting 'the cut', Ash also discovered how hard it was to find a salon she felt comfortable going to. After a few failed attempts, she called upon her friend from @embraceyourfrizzique, who is actually a hairstylist at Rumbie & Co – a Sydney hair salon that specialises in wavy, curly and Afro hair.

Although Ash keeps it pretty low-key these days when it comes to makeup, she does divulge that she's recently fallen for Laura Mercier's Translucent Loose Setting Powder in 'Translucent Honey' ($62, at MECCA), which she pairs with the brand's Tinted Moisturizer ($75 at MECCA). "I love their products and the shades are a good match for me."

As for the secret to her glowing skin? Ash loves Ole Henriksen products, AzClear ($13.49 at Chemist Warehouse) for breakouts and slathering on aloe vera.

Garnier Hair Food Nourishing Banana for Dry Hair

Ole Henricksen Banana Bright Vitamin C Serum

Laura Mercier Translucent Loose Setting Powder

Photographer: Nadia Tornese @thats__the__one

Hair and Makeup: Ash Paraskevas @ashparaskevas

Styling: Ella Dolan

Want to read more from our digital issue? Here's how five women beat their beauty hang-ups.