Last week, we posted an article called “Are we leaving men out?” in regards to body image. I want to talk about another huge demographic that is basically invisible when it comes to body image, much less media and advertisement. Let’s discuss disabilities. disabled modelPeople with disabilities are dehumanized in our culture. People with disabilities are America’s largest minority population, yet the only model of disability is a medical one. Entire industries serve the medical needs of people with disabilities. Durable medical goods are produced to meet their medical needs, pharmaceutical industries thrive on their backs and the federal government has massive programs to serve them. Where are the industries in relation to the social aspects of disability and culture? Why, when other minority populations in America are viewed from a social perspective, people with disabilities are not? Nearly all dolls, body builders, prize fighters, athletes, swimsuit models, etc that are portrayed in the media are able-bodied and used to promote youth, vitality, health, strength, and fitness. Disease and disability are portrayed as undesirable and frightening. For generations, people in America have been taught to pity people with disabilities, that they are the subjects of charity. People with disabilities are nearly invisible in the media, news and advertisements. It’s not very often that you find an advertisement that is non-medical that features someone with a disability. This is especially true when it comes to the world of fashion. disabled-london-fashion-show__oPtThat’s why the 2010 London fashion show that included disabled models was big news. Also in London, was the fashion show “Disabled & Sexy”, which supported spinal muscular atrophy awareness. The goal behind “Disabled and Sexy” was to show that “people with even the most severe of disabilities can follow fashion, display individuality, and have sex appeal just as much as anybody else.” In May 2010, a photographer created a project called “American Able”, a spoof on American Apparel’s ads that featured a disabled model. The project’s description, written by the photographer:

disabled model‘American Able’ intends to, through spoof, reveal the ways in which women with disabilities are invisibilized in advertising and mass media. I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women who are employees, friends and fans of the company. However, these women fit particular body types. Their campaigns are highly sexualized and feature women who are generally thin, and who appear to be able-bodied. Women with disabilities go unrepresented, not only in American Apparel advertising, but also in most of popular culture. Rarely, if ever, are women with disabilities portrayed in anything other than an asexual manner, for ‘disabled’ bodies are largely perceived as ‘undesirable.’ In a society where sexuality is created and performed over and over within popular culture, the invisibility of women with disabilities in many ways denies them the right to sexuality, particularly within a public context. disabled modelToo often, the pervasive influence of imagery in mass media goes unexamined, consumed en masse by the public. However, this imagery has real, oppressive effects on people who are continuously ‘othered’ by society. The model, Jes Sachse, and I intend to reveal these stories by placing her in a position where women with disabilities are typically excluded.

“American Able” was part of a group exhibit for CONTACT 2010 and was shown on over 270 digital screens in 50 Toronto Transit Commission stations. Despite that push in the right direction, there are still almost no designers focusing specifically on designing clothes for people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices, or people with disabilities that may affect limb length and body structure. Dianne Rothhammer, the creator of SlipOn swimsuitdecided to do something about it. She says:

“It all started when I went to an aquatics Parkinson’s class. The husband of a sufferer was standing with me and told me it took his wife 30 minutes to get in and out of her suit. After hearing this I knew I wanted to find some way of helping her.”

Slipon swimsuitDianne then came up with the idea of making a wrap-around velcro-fastened swimsuit that people with disabilities could get into and out of easily. Dianne developed the deceptively simple suit with a revolutionary design that opens at the front and  lets wearers get in and out of the swimsuits without help. It is targeted at people with upper extremity mobility limitation, such as health conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia, for whom the benefits of water exercise are well known.

“After having the initial idea eight years ago, I hired a swimsuit designer and we set to work. Eight months later we came up with the suit; that is when my patent lawyer informed me that no one had ever thought of the idea to help physically impaired ladies get in and out of their suits. Now, eight years later, I hold a utility patent in most countries until 2020.” “When I set out designing the suits I didn’t think of the potential it had, I made it for the one person.”

Dianne plans to design smaller suits for children with mobility problems.

“We trialled the suits in a children’s hospital and the feedback we got from the staff was incredible. Getting the children prepared for water exercise was no longer an ordeal and the children looked forward to going to the pool.” “It gives me a thrill to know that sufferers are able to have a better quality of life from wearing my suit.”

Dianne profited tremendously off the fact that people with disabilities have been ignored by designers and the fashion industry. It’s unbelievable to think that no one had ever considered the challenges a disabled person might face when it came to getting dressed/undressed – something that able-bodied people don’t think twice about. tanja-kiewitz-handless-model-500x275The image you see above is an advert  that was part of a campaign to raise awareness of disability issues. Tanje Kiewitz, who is missing her right wrist and hand, is a disabled model from Belgium and became an overnight sensation when the advert went to press in 2010. The text in the ad says, “Look me in the eyes… I said the eyes.” The campaign was created by CAP48, a non-profit organization based in France and Belgium, which works to highlight disability issues. The organization raised more than 4 million Euros from 2010’s annual telethon – a total that is up more than 10% in 2009 – due to the campaign. Individuals with physical disabilities are often labelled ugly and unsightly, and it’s assumed they feel the same way about themselves. This leads to the conclusion that their bodies should be covered up and hidden instead of displayed, and if any garments are going to be designed for them, those garments should minimize rather than highlight their disabilities. The idea that someone might be comfortable in a disabled body, perhaps even to the point of wanting to show it off, is alien. But disabled people are the same human beings we all are. Many of them are interested in keeping pace with fashion trends. And in most cases, they’re barred from participating in it because the designers they love don’t design for them, the venues where fashion events happen aren’t accessible, and they’re told they don’t qualify for inclusion in the fashion world because their bodies don’t belong. I would love to see our culture embrace a variety of bodies in the future and for fashion to consider more body types. It’s time that we embraced the reality of the diverse world we live in and stop living in a make-believe world of ideals.

Join us next week for our next body image-building post: “The benefits of body acceptance.” And don’t forget to follow our campaign on Twitter using the #suiturself tag, check out our submission gallery, or send us your own submission to!

Related posts from the Suit Urself series: Are we leaving men out? Meet the fat-shionistas How to deal with body-snarking and judgmental comments It’s not just about size The Beach Body Tutorial If you like it, wear it! Work what you’ve got! Body acceptance tips Why are body image challenges important? Suit Urself! Choose your attitude this summer with our body-positive swimsuit challenge!