Disability Disparities in the Media
Julie Hirschhorn, James Madison University
Have you ever seen a person with a prosthetic limb in an athletic clothing ad? How about a woman with cerebral palsy in a hair commercial? I didn’t think so. The media currently presents skewed definitions of beauty in numerous advertisements. They include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes, ethnicities, and race. They also influence cultural norms to place more value on physical appearance rather than internal strengths. People and corporations tailor themselves and their advertisements to fit the current mold: skinny, bronze, and homogenous. The advertising executives on Madison Avenue do not necessarily dictate beauty trends, but they certainly exploit them. However, there is a large minority group that the media tends to disregard completely: individuals with disabilities. This begs a question worth exploring: to what extent is disability featured in the beauty and fashion industries?
I am not the only individual who has struggled with confidence issues in the past. Nor am I the only person who fits the media’s current mold of beauty. Many times I have looked in the mirror and asked, “What’s wrong with petite, pale, brunettes? Now I am looking at my surroundings and asking, “What’s wrong with autism, amputation victims, and other disabilities?” I and am angry and irked by the lack of not only ethnic diversity, but physical and social diversity in the glossy folds of magazines and other advertisements. We are living in an era where it is not okay to single someone out for having a prosthetic limb or discriminating because a person is deaf or blind. The truth of the matter, is while the media industry is trying to make strides to promote inclusivity, disability is not seen in the beauty and fashion industry. On the rare occasions that it is, disability is seen as something to be pitied, or awed at like someone is doing a magic trick.
Why This is a Problem
While the industry seems to be moving away from the age of the “thigh-gap” in favor of “real” beauty campaigns, there is still very little evidence suggesting that the beauty and fashion industry are becoming friendlier towards those with disabilities. What is ironic, however, is that many models may have invisible disabilities. Anorexia, bulimia (and other eating disorders) and, obsessive compulsive disorder are common among the model community. Eating disorders and other psychological illnesses affect more than 50% of models (National Institute of Health).
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is a philosophical one. Current beauty and media campaigns send the message that the definition of beauty is no broader than the runway which women walk on. It is limited to specific measurements and physical ability. Furthermore, these ads do not fight against the constant discrimination of people with disabilities; rather, they even promote it by ignoring the group all together, regardless of their strong buying power. What is more troubling is the contradictory messages that say beauty is not everything, but simultaneously imply that how beautiful and how able people are affects multiple aspects of life, including school, work, and family. Critics of beauty campaigns claim there needs to be a shift in the global paradigm of beauty. This can be started by exploring why those paradigms are meaningful to begin with, and challenge the validity of those beliefs, so that everyone, no matter if a person is disabled or not, can feel beautiful inside and out.
What has Been Done
For the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the advocacy group Pro Infirmis teamed up with Bahnhofstrasse (the upscale shopping street in Zurich, Switzerland) to display mannequins who were modeled on real-life people with disabilities. The touching video featured people with disabilities (i.e dwarfism, severe scoliosis, prosthetic limbs, paralysis, etc) being measured by a popular designer who takes their measurements and then creates identical mannequins. The mannequins were displayed in an up-scale department store window and seen by shoppers. The shoppers’ reactions ranged from appalled to appreciative. The effect of this video dealt with the art of people staring at fashion displays that were different from the “norm.”
In addition, more progress has been made in the fashion industry. During New York’s Fashion Week this past February, Carrie Hammer became the first fashion designer to feature a woman in a wheel chair on the run way. “People with disabilities are an untapped consumer market in terms of fashion,” said Danielle Sheypuk, a clinical psychologist in New York and the subsequent model. “We read the magazines, shop in stores, but nothing is ever pitched to us.” One would think that with the not-so-booming economy that these designers would want to tap into this growing consumer base. Sheypuk is also involved with the “Raw Beauty” project, an endeavor started by a coalition of photographers who aim to “inspire the public to create new perceptions, transform stereotypes and breakthrough personal obstacles by expanding awareness of women with physical challenges.”
Diesel Denim also has a new campaign, where designer, Nicola Formichetti, tapped Jillian Mercado, style blogger and Fashion Week regular who uses a wheelchair to be the face of the ads. Mercado, who was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy, shows off Diesel’s signature denim in the brand’s spring 2014 ads. “It’s never easy for her to move from point A to point B, but she’s totally fearless and has really been an inspiration to me,” Formichetti told Women’s Wear Daily. “You don’t have to be a conventional model type to represent a brand.”
There have even been some glimpses of disability branching out into other forms of media. In September 2013, Guinness Beer released a commercial that featured a game of basketball with men in wheel chairs. Even Paralympic champion sprinter Oscar Pistorius was used as a model to promote Nike shoes. Before he was charged with murdering his girlfriend. Thus, it has been proven that it’s possible to have a commercial featuring a disabled person without causing societal upheaval. More importantly, these ads show that they, too, are human beings, with families, lives, and they want to look good in clothes and make-up. Why are we denying them that?
A Call to Action
The advertising industry needs to change. Times are changing, demographics are changing, and people are changing. The advertising industry cannot afford to remain stagnant. They need to start featuring disabled individuals in every day advertisements, especially fashion and beauty. The more they are featured, the more integration occurs. Beauty and fashion has an audience of all shapes and sizes. Why doesn’t the industry recognize it?