Joan Smalls shades all-white runways: ‘People hide behind the word aesthetic’

ELLE Jan '14 Cover Joan Smalls

I don’t have much an opinion of model (“supermodel”) Joan Smalls. She’s pretty, she’s good at editorial work, and she’s good on a runway. I don’t think she’s the most charismatic model working today or anything, but I like the fact that A) Elle Mag used a real model on the cover of their January issue and B) that the model is a woman of color (Smalls is Puerto Rican). It does bug me that the fashion and modeling industries still have such consistent race-relations problems and that so many designers simply don’t want to or never use models of color. Not to mention, there has been a recent rash of blatantly offensive editorials (mostly in Europe) using blackface, which just compounds the larger problems of race in fashion. Most models of color don’t speak out enough about the explicit and implicit racism they face in the industry, but Joan has and will continue to do so. You can see her Elle slideshow here, and here are some highlights from the interview:

On the fashion industry’s lack of diversity:
“People hide behind the word aesthetic. They say, ‘Well, it’s just that designer’s aesthetic.’ But when you see 18 seasons in a row and not one single model outside a certain skin color…? There are people in the industry who are advocates, who support diversity. And there are people who do not. I don’t get it. Beauty is universal. These doors have to open.”

How her modeling career started:
“I came to New York with a dream. I came to do what I saw girls doing in campaigns, in editorials – great things, challenging things.”

Her motivations to eventually get into acting:
“I want to be clear that I don’t want to act just because it’s the typical move for a model. My desire comes from a place of wanting to entertain people on a different level.”

Estee Lauder’s Richard Ferretti on Smalls:
“The word supermodel is overused, but if there is any woman of our generation who deserves the title, it’s Joan. She has the perfect face.”

[From Elle]

She’s right about the runways. The last New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week and London Fashion Week were all droughts of diversity. And here’s what kills me – diversity is good business. It’s like so many of these makeup companies, haircare companies and designers don’t realize that by using models of color, they’re potentially tapping into demographics who would like to buy their products. Not to sound like Yeezus West or anything.

Also, Joan is 25 years old – which means that it’s time for her to brand herself as a model-plus. She’s probably got another five years of runway and editorial work as just a model, but it helps that she’s seeking acting work and she should probably put her name on a clothing line or something. A makeup line maybe?


Photos courtesy of Michael Thompson/ELLE.

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71 Responses to “Joan Smalls shades all-white runways: ‘People hide behind the word aesthetic’”

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  1. bns says:

    She’s not shading, she’s outright saying it, and she’s right.

    Beautiful cover. I hope we start to see more models on covers than actresses.

    • Dani2 says:

      @BNS Yup! Shade is subtle, she outright said it as it is and she’s completely correct. Naomi and Iman say a lot of interesting thing about this white over black tradition in the fashion industry. It’s really annoying to me that this kind of thing is still the norm in 2013.

    • Spooks says:

      I would also like to see women who are not 1,80 and have 40 kg.

      That being said, I don’t understand half of those terms, women of colour, exotic, ethnic… So confusing.

      • LL2 says:

        These terms refer to non-Caucasian women and/or women who don’t have the blonde haired-blue-eyed look.

      • Spooks says:

        I know, but apparently 90 % percent of the people who would be white here are somehow ethnic or exotic in the US. It’s strange.

      • LL2 says:

        Interesting, what country are you from? I would assume that its not a Northern European country. Most of the early American Settlers came from Northern Europe and those people tend to be fair-skinned with lighter hair and eye color so that forms the basis of who looks “white” in the US. Of course I’m not so ignorant as to suggest that there aren’t fair-skinned people with blonde hair and blue eyes in Southern Europe, there are many. However, you are more likely to see olive-skinned and dark-haired people in Southern Europe than in Northern Europe so of course the definition of who looks “white” would be different there or in countries where many of its citizens have roots in Southern Europe.

  2. Nev says:


    happening cover.
    she should be on VOGUE!!!!!!! cough Anna…heads up!

    Naomi, Iman and Bethann Hardison have spoken up recently regarding this issue…

    • Celia says:

      Well, Anna never puts models on cover these days unless they have big pop-culture relevance like Kate Upton (unfortunately) and Gisele or Kate Moss. I don’t think we’ll ever see Joan on cover of US Vogue unless is one of those model issues where they put a bunch of them on cover.

  3. LadyRay says:

    She’s so right. White is seen as the norm and default. I’d love to see more diversity and I’m so TIRED of that word “exotic”.

    • Maria says:

      Amen, exotic and ethnic annoy me, it’s just the PC version of not white.

      • Seagulls says:

        It’s not PC (the point of that twenty year old movement being to be respectful of what people wished to be called), it’s offensive and makes sure to draw a line between “white” and “other.”

      • LL2 says:

        Good point!

    • Jenna says:

      As weird as this is to type (and the need for a shower to remove the icky feeling that this also sorta waving over me) there IS a halfway valid reason it often seems a default ‘blond, bland, white, thin’ setting for runways.

      It sounds seriously offensive I know – but they get picked BECAUSE they are prettily bland. An endless line of such pedestrian pretties mean you see the clothes, not the hanger. Does a buying house say “We’re take 2,000 units of the dress Michelle is wearing” or do they say “Number 6, the bright green silk outfit with the killer flow, that. By next week.” Models on runways (barring perhaps the ‘name’ model that walks in the capstone piece and on the arm of the designer) are basically faceless hangers, and designers want all attention to be on the clothes. When I see Joan Smalls – she could, seriously, be in a feed bag dress and she would grab my attention. She isn’t blandly pretty, she is STUNNING. And the use of the word exotic pretty much explains why it’s still such a white bland boring runway. I’ve been in situations where I have had to hand hold a few designers hands running up to, during, and right after a show – if anyone is talking about the model and not THEIR genius, god help everyone for the upcoming tantrum. They just want their clothes to move, and if they could manage to just buy an army of androids to show off the clothes, many likely would.

      That being said – I can’t come up with a single ‘good’ reason for why more women of all colors aren’t plastered on magazine. A covermodel needs to grab your attention. But what do I know, if I somehow found myself running the planets fashion mags, I would likely endlessly beg Iman, Tilda Swinton, Adele, and Aishwarya Rai to be on every magazines cover, every month.

      • LAK says:

        I have an auntie who was a runway model for Yves saint Laurent in the 70s. He hired black or Asian models for his shows exclusively because he said they moved better. He also developed a make up range specifically to cater to their skin tone.

        Until i came to Europe i didn’t realise that was unusual and that the only option for black women was Fashion Fair make up.

        The 80s and 90s was more diversified even though they didn’t really understand beauty that wasn’t American sporty. At the very least you saw major editorials with non white girls and lots of girls on the runway, particularly in Paris.

        Post script to my Aunt’s story: When Yves Saint Laurent sold his company and retired, the rebranded to YSL company stopped using non white girls and others followed. And oddly, they discontinued many of the make up products for non white women.

        As the 90s closed out, fashioned started to white out and now it is so unusual to see a non white face. Asian models are even more unusual.

        Also, Muccia Prada has said she can’t use black girls because she doesn’t get them – whatever that means. The public really doesn’t appreciate how influential this lady is. Where she goes, others follow. She decreed no black models on her runway and editorials and others followed. She presents it in a way that seems reasonable, but that’s the bottom line. She recently showcased a non white model recently and the entire industry was amazed. In the next few years, there might be more black models across the board if she keeps it up.

      • Lucinda says:

        If you want the models to disappear and the clothing be the focus, you could make your models uniform of any race really. All Asian. All black. All whatever. That’s also what styling is about. You style them all the same so they look uniform and the clothing pops. While I understand what you are trying to say, the argument falls flat.

      • LL2 says:

        I co-sign your comment 100%! People need to stop making excuses for the racist status quo.

      • Jenna says:


        as long as the vast majority of what are viewed as ‘runway’ style models are the white waifs (which even as a white gal makes my teeth grind because while white I may be but I actually own things 95% of the models currently working seem to not have… ie hips, tits, broad shoulders and a measurable amount of body fat so it’s really not like anything wandering down a catwalk looks familiar to me – all I can hear at the moment is the line from Ab/Fab about chucking fetus’s down the catwalk now, sorry bout that) getting all Asian or all Hispanic, all black or even deciding to hire nothing but gals of mixed heritage wouldn’t work in the eyes of the majority of the field. Once it became ‘standard’, those models would begin to fade into the crowd, but the first couple years of doing it, it would be viewed and sadly treated as novelty hiring. The models would be viewed as proof of the ‘open mindedness’ of the designer/client – which would personally make me want to hit people because I hate that kind of backwards ‘generosity’. It would be, at least at the start, the hiring version of ‘I can’t be racists, some of my best friends are XXX’ twaddle.

        Which ISN’T to say it should thus never be done. Whatever is needed to start making the catwalks look like what the real world IS – IE a pretty huge melting pot where more and more folks of varied nationality make up the majority, and not some overwhelmingly restrictive one size fits all. There is going to need to be models who are willing to be ‘stunt hired’. There are going to be a lot of folks who are strong enough to deal with the racism and narrow mindedness, and it’s going to be a hard fight and sometimes a really ugly one to force a change, but it’s one that is well worth doing. What I was commenting on wasn’t an excuse for designers and magazine covers to stay their current beige walls of humanity, just a reason more than a few designers go that route – I think, at least in my case, I’ve had to possibly deal with one too many hysterically irrational ‘artistes’ and the overwhelming migraines they caused to assign them the ability to think rationally. It’s not right in any means (frankly, I’m just as frustrated by how flipping YOUNG they seem to demand their hangers to be. I don’t want to see how clothes fit someone who possibly hasn’t even had their period yet but are somehow supposed to be an ideal candidate for showing off how an outfit meant for, well. And adult would be a start, someone who could possibly afford both the clothes AND the place to wear them in! Flat chest or buxom, seductress or ice queen, just actually grown ups would be nice once in a while) and I’m not in any way attempting to give them a free pass. The folks I’ve worked with that I respect tend to be the designers who, 2 hours before the show poked their heads out onto the street and desperately attempts to convince random folks to model, and then can manage to prove their clothes actually WILL look good on folks who do crazy things like, oh, possibly eat and/or skip the gym once in a while to just veg on the couch and read a book or even, gasp, need to occasionally at least wear a bra. If they can make folks of every size, shape and color look good in the clothes, it’s a line I would be interested in trying on. It’s not right on any level – just the most common ‘reason’ I’ve heard and had to deal with. If it sounded at all like I was saying it was a valid and morally acceptable excuse, I’m terribly sorry. The weather today has my brain in a vise. It was 62 when I was puttering about making my tea this morning and we’re now under a severe weather warning of 6-10 inches of snow and windchill taking it down to possibly as low as -5… my brain has scrambled and I think I must have muddled what I was trying to say and for that, I’m terribly sorry. (I really need to have a proofreader for comments on sites, I always forget tone and even sometimes total intention sometimes fair utterly to translate onto a web board and can completely backwards up my explanation – and just in case, I really am not being snippy or sarcastic here. Just suddenly aware I must have scrambled my intent earlier and wanting to untangle myself.)

  4. Jegede says:


  5. blue marie says:

    The cover is beautiful, and she’s right. The runway should reflect women of every color, the designers are idiots.

    • V4Real says:

      Can’t be mad at the girl for spitting the truth. Watch any runway show and out of 20 models you might see one woman of color if any at all. VS is guilty of it as well.

      Smalls is a beautiful lady and I love that cover photo.

  6. Tapioca says:

    She is right – there are precious few black women in modeling, which makes no sense given the huge potential market out there – but then there aren’t any short, fat, disabled, albino, old or “ugly” ones either.

    Apparently clothing is not for 99.9% of the world’s population!

  7. Evi says:

    The only way things will change is when people change their mindsets and their terminology, i.e. not to use phrases like ‘woman of color’. What a terribly outdated and, dare I say, racist term.
    White is a colour as well, if we get right down to it, so it makes no damned sense to use that phrase ‘of colour’ to refer to people who deviate from Anglo or WASP background.

    • Rachel says:


    • GoodNamesAllTaken says:

      Technically, white is not a color. It’s the absence of color, and it considered a shade. It’s just as stupid to use “white” to describe people as it is to use “of color” in my opinion.

      • DasBaby says:

        Actually, technically white is a TINT and black is a SHADE. I have a degree in Fashion and Marketing.

      • Happyhat says:


        Women of shade? Shade women?


      • GoodNamesAllTaken says:

        To tint a color, you add white. To shade it, you add black. I’m not sure white is a tint or a shade in itself. I was probably wrong, being that I’m only a decorative painter with a degree in art and English Lit, not Fashion and Marketing. 😉

        My point was that it’s stupid to call one group of people “white” and stupid to lump everyone else into “of color.” I cannot, however, think of a great alternative. I just look forward to a day when it doesn’t matter so much.

      • LAK says:

        Personally, if we must call out my skin tone, i prefer to be called a black woman. Woman of colour is so strange to me.

    • mabooski says:

      Women of colour isn’t a racist term though. It makes sense in this context when referring to women who aren’t represented by the fashion industry which are non-white women. I find it strange when people find the term exclusionary. There is nothing calling people what they are Black, White etc. Its what they are? Not calling someone white isn’t going to change attitudes towards race, and I think its naive to suggest so. Race isn’t the problem, its the fact that it has an effect on the trajectory of women of colour, which it shouldn’t.

  8. Harriet says:

    Yeah the cover is really pretty. As much as I think the runway should be full of diverse people I also loathe token models for example 1 Chinese model- to satiate the biggest buyers in Asia, then 1 black model etc etc. Especially because they end up being the same damn models every time. I agree the scene needs to change- just out of curiosity though- can anyone name a designer with a regular all-white model lineup?

    • Applapoom says:

      Calvin Klein did last year at NY fashion week but upped it this year. Donna Karan and Proenza Schouler also not great at using non white models and if I remember correctly, the Olsen Twins’ label do not really use any non-white models. This article I read in Jezebel a few months ago about race and NY Fashion Week mentions it:

      Glad he is

      • Harriet says:

        Thanks for that! The Olsens are considered a major brand? Eurgh!

      • Applapoom says:

        Haha, I guess, judging from their price tags! I did buy a cute too from their cheaper line, Elizabeth and James, not bad. However for the prices of The Row items, I would rather buy something from Chanel or Roland Mouret. Don’t understand why anyone would pay thos prices.

    • LAK says:

      Prada. She was called out and she said outright that she doesn’t get black beauty.

      The editor of British Vogue said the reason she doesn’t use black models is because they don’t sell – this while she was her attempt to shade the all black issue of Italian Vogue that came out 2008 {August Edition] which promptly sold so many copies it may be the best selling edition of Vogue ever.

      Funnily, she’s presided over a whiting out of Vogue. and made it very bland and boring. The only brave thing she ever did was champion Kate Moss at the beginning of her career. Whenever was Editor before her was amazing. She really made Vogue stand out and she used a range of models.

  9. Gossy says:

    For me this is just a meh statement……people never complain when you have all Asian, all black, all Hispanic, all native American, etc. exclusive groups but if there’s a white only group, there’s a huge outrage.

    If you are annoyed by the lack of your ethnicity/race, then don’t buy/support from those things, but it’s gross in my opinion to try to force your own ideals on other people. There’s nothing racist or wrong about having an only white runway.

    This reminds me of people getting hugely upset back in 2012 when Allure Magazine did their second “America’s Beauty Standard” survey, after first having done it twenty years ago. Back then, people thought Christie Brinkley was the ideal beauty and in 2012 it was Angelina Jolie.

    People complained that the “ideal beauty features” only reflected those of white women, but since 70% of the USA is white, of course they would value their own features. The magazine went on to note that Africans polled rated primarily stereotypical African features like big lips, big booties/breasts, as their ideal beauty features.

    So basically if the USA was 70% African instead of 70% white, the ideal beauty standard would be primarily Africans.

    It would be the same if the USA had its majority as Asian or Hispanic.

    I think it’s pretty hypocritical to complain of beauty being too “white” when different races consider their own races to be the most beautiful. Majority rules.

    • Harriet says:

      Good point Gossy and I’m not even white.

    • Quixotic1205 says:

      I feel like that reply was 4 paragraphs worth of you saying “Deal with it minorities! White people are the majority so what!”

      That is so ridiculous because if the runways really wanted to represent a true proportion of races, then it wouldn’t be all white. And if you’re gong to use “majority rules” as an argument, then why isn’t it all Asian? Because news flash, that’s the race that is the “majority” in the world.

      Makes me wonder what you are going to say when Hispanics become the new majority in America. I wouldn’t be surprised if you changed your tune then!

      • ashley says:


      • Nev says:

        Hahaha WORD.

        Trying to avoid the issue.

      • Dani2 says:

        +1 so much. According to @Gossy though, it;s “gross” of us to force our opinion on others but it’s not “gross” for someone’s merit as a model to be based on the colour of their skin.

      • The Original G says:

        Wow Gossy. People of colour are Americans, too.

        Some magazine article from Allure is just that. An article. It’s not how I set my standards and morals.

        In my world diversity is normal and beautiful. Given American history, selecting for whiteness does send a powerful message and it’s not pretty.

      • TheOriginalKitten says:

        “And if you’re gong to use “majority rules” as an argument, then why isn’t it all Asian? Because news flash, that’s the race that is the “majority” in the world.”

        Well, if you looks at photos of the runways from Tokyo fashion week, the models ARE primarily Asian.

        EDIT: Ok after doing more research, I see that that’s actually not true, plenty of white people there as well. Actually, Tokyo Fashion Week looks much more diverse on the runways compared to NY Fashion Week.

    • Dani2 says:

      “There’s nothing racist or wrong about having an only white runway.”

      Please tell me you don’t honestly believe that. From looking at a few of your comments on here, you seem to have a very problematic view of the world in general Gossy, I’m not surprised that this is your take on the situation.

    • OriginallyBlue says:


    • klue says:

      Gossy just stepped in it

    • TheOriginalKitten says:

      Well according to stats, the number of black runway models in NY’s Fashion Week increased from 6% last year to 8.08% this year, so technically that’s progress, no matter how minute it is.

      My question is this: Is it just a case of supply not meeting the demand? Maybe there are simply more white runway models out there, so fashion designers don’t have a large pool of WoC to choose from?
      In that case, maybe we should be laying blame on the shoulders of the modeling agencies instead of the fashion houses.

      • Applapoom says:

        I don’t think it is a supply issue. Chanel Iman said that casting agents would say along the lines of “sorry we already have a black model in our lineup”. Usually a token black or asian girl is added and that is their quota. Joan Smalls and Jourdan Dunn are as beautiful as any white model, why can they not be in the same show? I am not black but I would love to see more black models in there.

      • LAK says:

        TheOriginalKitten: When i was a model in my teens, the agency would tell me on a daily basis one of two things:

        1. They didn’t ask for a black girl today.
        2. They have already seen A black girl today

        notice the singular?

        it wasn’t so much that i sucked at modelling [which i probably did], it was that i felt like i had already won IF i was the black girl from all of the black models with the agency who was picked that day to attend a go see.

        Then when you arrived at the go see i would be told any of the following:

        1. Sorry, there was a mistake. We are not seeing a black girl today
        2. Didn’t your agency tell you? We’ve already seen A black girl today

        Again note the singular.

        In the end i gave it up. It was very clear i was never going to be hired. It had nothing to do with my potential because my agency really tried and it had all races on it’s books, but the non white division was not doing well at all.

        The only way Black girls could get through was to attach yourself to a designer/photographer who was considered avant garde and allow yourself to be styles and photographed in freaky styles.

        Either that or up sticks and move to America because it remains more diversified than Europe.

        Every single non whote model of my vintage will tell you the same thing. Amazingly, the market has opened up in some ways now, but not enough in the majors. And oddly, there were more non white models in my time because non white models were preferred for runway work and that is the only work i was ever hired for.

    • Lisa says:

      “If you are annoyed by the lack of your ethnicity/race, then don’t buy/support from those things, ”

      So…. Where exactly would they buy them? I’m going to need exact brand names.

    • Caroline says:

      I don’t comprehended the intentions behind her statement.
      As an immigrant of a minority ethnicity, I also expect to study and work harder than my mainstream counterparts in order to achieve the same results. Honestly I don’t have an issue with it.
      Designers hire models who look good in their garment and to target their intended customer base(which is mostly caucasian!). For example: only recently has asian models appeared in ads for lucrative brands due to the huge overseas market. Therefore, the trend to hire white models is not going to change unless a) there is a surge of successful designers who are of minority ethnicity, OR b) a complete change in demographics.
      Obviously, neither one is going to happen soon.

  10. Happyhat says:

    I love clothes, but I hate fashion. Well, I love well-designed clothes, but fashion (as in the industry) is such bull – designers aesthetics are such…ugh…nonsense. It’s basically a small group of people making up nonsense about what’s ‘in’, to the detriment of everyone else.

    • drea says:

      And the funniest thing about that small group is… well, you’ve seen what they look like and what they dress like. Most of them aren’t capable of pulling off the fashion they press upon the public.

  11. Melissa says:

    Diversity is not Blacks over White or Asians over Whites or Whites over Hispanics, diversity means that all people are equal regardless of their color. Diversity is life.

    The interview was a nice read and it’s great to see a model on the cover of a fashion magazine for a change. The supermodel era of the 90s (as I have been reading) is never going to come back, priorities have shifted in the fashion industry and it’s mainly controlled by corporations now, but there’s always going to be a chance for some girls to make money and branch out to other things while they’re at it.

  12. Zimmer says:

    I think most of us would find more than “white” in our family tree. I personally much prefer to see a variety of faces. I do like the word “exotic.” For me, the word, “exotic” has always meant beautiful. Also, I imagine my daughter who is half Greek with almond shaped eyes and olive skin would be deemed exotic. Where does one draw “the white” line? This term really irritates me. Why aren’t we just human with a variety of beautiful shades? Can you imagine dogs having this argument about fur? They are so much smarter than us in so many ways. Why do people have to be so limiting?

    • TheOriginalKitten says:

      Very thought-provoking point.

      If you think about it, there ARE plenty of “white” people who do not have “white” skin.
      I agree that in the end it all seems kind of arbitrary. Still, I don’t blame people for wanting to see a more accurate reflection of the diverse melting pot that is the USA in the fashion world.

      It’s too bad that we can’t have a discussion about this topic without using the word “white”, a blanket term that encompasses all the countries found at the borders of the Europe and Asia, not to mention Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which truthfully includes a myriad of skin shades.

  13. Nina says:

    There needs to be more diversity in the media in general, but we know this. It’s so sad that it’s almost 2014, and you look at magazine racks in bookstores or drugstores, and ALL you see are white people on the covers of magazines. And if you do get the odd person of colour, their skin is lightened so much that they look white.

  14. Melody says:

    I can see aesthetics being an excuse for racism or a legitimate artistic choice. Skin tone is a color that you need to consider when figuring out how to show your clothes at their best. If I came out with a line of the most gorgeous yellow or orange clothing, there’s no way I would wear or model them because they’d make me look like a zombie – and it wouldn’t make the clothes look good either.

    Maybe I’ve just bought into the “aesthetics” argument because I’ve heard it so much about plus sized women – clothes do look better on a woman of certain measurements. Of course the alternative is to say “Then design clothes that look good on women of other measurements/skin colors.”

    Racism, artistic choice or just plain laziness. Maybe a money choice – who is the customer that funds these designers?

  15. mkyarwood says:

    100% agree. The human of tomorrow just isn’t lily white.

  16. Lisa says:

    Yet people will talk more about Jennifer Lawrence’s love for chips and cheeseburgers than this.

  17. SuSu says:

    the runways are full of russian/ eastern european models. Model agencies prefer them (tall, thin bodies, elegant faces and not to forget they often come from poor background and do all jobs without whining).
    I think people don´t want to accept that mostly white girls want to become models. Don´t know why, but it seems to be a dreamjob for them?! Black girls f.e aren´t that crazy about it. Some yes but not in the same extent.
    So of course there are way more white runway models out there.

  18. Keish says:

    I know tons of young Black girls who aspire to be models. Runways should be more diverse and reflect our world’s diversity.

  19. K says:

    I’m a white gal, and honestly, I prefer to see modeled clothes on darker skinned ladies. I’m reverse-biased, I suppose. I think the clothes often look better on them than my fellow white chicks.

  20. Jess says:

    She’s so right. It’s obnoxious and makes no sense.

  21. homegrrrrl says:

    I blame it on effortless beautiful women like her who lead dowdy house fraus (like me) to let their roots grow out and call it “balliage” Since high rise jeans (mom jeans) are in, I can’ let the roots grow too…it’s an awesome decade in fashion to look like a missing slob from the ’90s!!

  22. Zbornak Syndrome says: