How Canva is changing the way women are represented in the media
Elle Hughes

How Canva is changing the way women are represented in the media


Image from Canva's 'Natural Women Collection'

As Canva’s reach continues to grow, the need to create a diverse and inclusive image library becomes more important than ever. In response, Canva’s Marketplace team lead by Elle Hughes has created the Natural Women Collection. In this article, Elle talks about what the initiative aims to achieve, how it came to be, and how they made it happen.

The Natural Women Collection is a completely free stock photo collection that showcases everyday women whose personal stories and experiences challenge both societal standards of beauty and gender norms.

When I first joined the Canva image team, I was excited because I was aware of the influence that stock images can have over what we see in the media. I knew that stock images make up the bulk of what appears in blogs, magazine and other media, and therefore any positive changes we made to the library could hopefully trickle down into the public perception of certain subjects. I knew that the photos in the Canva image library, used in millions of Canva designs, were the perfect opportunity to positively influence what is being put out into the world.

I realized there was work to be done to audit and grow the Canva library so it was more aligned with the diversity of the real world, and my team and I decided that the first subject we’d tackle was the way that women are represented.

Image from Canva's 'Natural Women Collection'

Why women?

Why start with women? Well, to begin with, we are a team made up of almost all women (and the one man on our team has a wife and two daughters), so we’re all too aware of the societal pressures placed on women to look and behave a certain way. This subject was important to us personally.

Despite progress in this area, it’s still true that a woman’s appearance is thing that the media chooses to focus on more than other aspects of the female gender. All you need to do is compare suggested results from a Google Image search for woman (beautiful, attractive, beach) vs. man (cartoon, hairstyle, black), or girl (pretty) vs. boy (cartoon).

Over the years there’s been a positive shift in stock photography, with the ranks of top selling images moving away from the cliché of a woman wearing a towel and lying on a massage bed to a more empowered representation of women in the workplace, climbing mountains - and generally being a little more kick ass. However it was clear that despite these steps in the right direction, there were still many extremely common female concepts that were underrepresented in stock photos and the media at large.

Why don’t they show women the way we often are? Where are the things we see in everyday life—the cellulite, the scars, the acne? Where are the women who live full lives in a wheelchair or as an amputee? Why does aging always have to mean loss of beauty or importance? TV shows and books and films discuss this sisterhood, yet when it comes to representing these “true” women, the characters who are cast are oftentimes still traditionally attractive— youthful, flawless skin, toned and able bodied.

In this blog, I’ll share with you our vision and approach for driving change, including the challenges we had to overcome, and the process of curating our collection and bringing more diverse and inclusive images to everyone.

Image from Canva's 'Natural Women Collection'

The vision:

To show a diverse range of women, exactly the way they are, and celebrate their unique beauty. Push into the mainstream the concepts that are rarely depicted in stock photography, or seen as positive. Promote body positivity and aim for a future where a woman’s appearance doesn’t define her.

Image from Canva's 'Natural Women Collection'

The process

We kicked the project off by discussing with female colleagues the sort of concepts that they’d like to see represented in stock photography. Then we created the brief. The message? Show all sorts of women in their natural state—no airbrushing or photoshopping. Remind women that their uniqueness is what makes them beautiful.

We kicked off with some in-house shoots by placing an ad on a model finding site, describing our mission. Within 24 hours, hundreds of women had responded to the ad, volunteering to model—even for free—because they felt so strongly about this. I was genuinely moved by the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the model applicants:

I’d love to work on a project like this as I’m always striving to love my imperfections and want to push myself out of my comfort zone.

This role is absolutely perfect for me. I have leg hair and armpit hair that I am currently embracing and celebrating. I have an Instagram page dedicated to this simply to contribute to images of women with body hair because the media is full of images of women with hairless legs and underarms. I also have small stretch marks on my thighs.

What a fantastic idea to show the real woman. I would adore to do this campaign. I have a passion for size diversity in the media and am a body positive advocate.

I am naturally hairy and have some skin conditions. I have keratosis pilaris on my arms, back and butt, and have stretch marks on my butt. I also have acne marks on my face at the moment. I don’t have a perfect body, and would love to do this shoot to embrace that.

I’m completely in love with the concept of this project & if you’re still looking for women to contribute, I would love to be considered!

I have lost an incredible amount of weight over the last year and I have had to undergo a few skin removal operations. I have large scars down both my arms and across my stomach. I don’t like my scars but they remind me of the struggles I went through and that makes me proud and I want to show and inspire others that they can accomplish their goals if they dedicate themselves and work hard and to never give up on yourself.

I currently sit at a size 22 and have plenty of stretch marks to show for it. I also don’t have the typical plus-size model figure and I notice that women of my shape aren’t represented much in media - I would be grateful for the opportunity to contribute to more diverse portrayal of big bodies!

I just wanted to start by saying that I really like what your creative idea is about. I personally have always felt like my stretch marks, visible veins and imperfect body shape were a flaw. Only time has changed my way of thinking and I believe I would make a perfect candidate for your shoot.

I think the concept is wonderful - I’m all about female empowerment and making statements. I have plenty of scars, pimples, body hair, body fat - whatever you require that I’m happy to show off to the world.

I would love to apply for this role as I am starting out as a model. Would love some more experience. This sounds like such a great campaign, more people should be doing things like this ! I would love to do a shoot like this, I am from a Greek background, have body hair and am not scared to show this as it is so natural and all women should embrace their natural selves.

I am fit but have scars on my stomach from birth and my face has small scars from spots I had removed when I was a teenager, the usual cellulite that we all have a little grey hair etc. I think this shoot is a fantastic idea and I hope it works out well even if I am not in it.

I’m interested in taking part in this. I’m ageing so grey hairs are becoming visible. Waistline isn’t what it used to be. I also have scars on my knees from operations for sports injuries.

This sounds like an amazing project I’d love to be apart of. Any message that empowers women to embrace who we really are is important. Being a young female I admit I’d never upload an Instagram without it being retouched and that is sad. I used to be 25 kgs heavier and I have stretch marks, I have acne scars from when I was younger, and other imperfections.



Image from Canva's 'Natural Women Collection'

Next, we decided to cast the net wider and sought photographers from around the globe, commissioning them to capture images that fulfilled the creative brief and mission. These photographers, from the US, the Philippines, Germany, Mexico and more, reported that this was one of their most rewarding shoots, as they typically never had the opportunity to work with such a diverse range of models.

One of the most rewarding parts of the process was the opportunity to learn about some of the models’ personal stories, many of which involved overcoming adversity or challenges, like cancer, Down Syndrome, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and acne, among many others. Many photographers already show this ‘true’ view of beauty in their work and projects. The difference here is that we’re making these photos free and available for anyone who wants to use them.

Image from Canva's 'Natural Women Collection'

The future

Putting together the Natural Women Collection of photos is obviously a small step in what will be a long journey to change the way women are represented in stock photography and the media at large. And the collection we’ve put together is by no means exhaustive. Instead this is an initial collection of images that we’d like to add to and grow upon, something we’re calling on current and new photo contributors to help us achieve. We would love for this collection to be the most diverse and inclusive collection of women available anywhere.

Other focal points for the Canva image team include creating and acquiring diverse lifestyle images that are authentic, culturally accurate, and relevant to our rapidly growing global user base. We’re also dedicated to ensuring a more even spread of ethnicities in our library, including a decent selection of free images.

Most importantly, in an effort to be a force for good, we will continue to represent and promote concepts that are considered taboo or are ignored in stock photography, so no one has to feel excluded.

Image from Canva's 'Natural Women Collection'

Final thoughts

As I’ve mentioned, this is just the first step on our journey to making our stock photography library more diverse and inclusive, and part of the much more arduous journey to changing the way women are represented in the media. But it’s a start.

As the Natural Women Collection was coming together, I noticed that several companies were making positive steps in the same direction. Bonds released an ad entitled The Queendom, featuring sexy and strong women with underarm hair. Billie razors launched #projectbodyhair with a video went viral, showing women actually shaving their body hair (not the usual airbrushed legs that are already smooth and hairless), “because womankind is both shaggy and smooth”. Online retailer Aerie ran an underwear campaign in which they showcased models with chronic illness and disability.

I hope that this is a trend that continues to gain momentum.

Image from Canva's 'Natural Women Collection'

If you haven’t yet, you can check out the Natural Women Collection here.


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