Fashion designer Dolores Cortes has picked a fresh face as the covergirl of her 2013 kids swimwear catalogue for the US: Valentina Guerrero, who’ll be appearing not just on the cover but in several features within the catalogue. Not particularly major news in the fashion industry, where such models are chosen on a regular basis, but what makes Valentina, nine months old at the time of the photoshoot, stand out, is this: She has Down syndrome.
That means that suddenly she’s become the talk of the advertising and fashion communities, and she’s attracting mass media as well, because she’s breaking down some important social barriers. This is not the first time a person with disabilities has appeared in an advertising campaign, let alone a fashion campaign, and it’s not even the first time a disabled person has been featured in designer fashion. But it does appear to be the first time a disabled child has been chosen as the cover model, and that makes Valentina remarkable.
It also means that there are a whole bunch of stories swirling around her that make me want to gag.
There’s been a trend in recent years to feature more disabled models, especially in advertising aimed at the everyday Joe (or Jane); Target, for example, got a lot of social cred for using a model with Down syndrome earlier this year. And I view this as a good thing, although of course I’d also like there to be more disabled models and a greater representation of disability. Baby steps, however. Progress is undeniably being made.
With this trend, of course, comes trumpeting press releases and demands for praise and pats on the back for using disabled models. There’s a certain cynicism involved there in the persistent insistence upon being recognized for using disabled models, rather than just subtly integrating them into catalogs and advertisements and letting them be seen for who they are. “Look at us,” these companies are saying, “and our progressiveness.”
It means that casting disabled models is still viewed as progressive, daring and in need of celebration, rather than something unremarkable that doesn’t necessitate commentary1. And yet, unfortunately, it still requires commentary because so many casting calls exclude people with disabilities from the start; their agents know not to bother sending them, not least because it’s not uncommon for there to be significant accessibility problems at studios and other venues. A wheelchair user can’t go for straight catalogue roles because she won’t even be able to get into the casting office. She has to wait for an ad agency to think of a Very Special Campaign.
In high fashion, disabled bodies have been primarily used more like props and objects to be viewed with curiosity as accessories, without much allowance for the humanity of disabled models. There have, of course, been exceptions; I am in love with Aimee Mullins’ Alexander McQueen legs, for example, which melded high fashion and disability in an interesting, and challenging, way. In this case the goal was not to single her out for attention, but to blend her into the runway show, and many people didn’t even realize she was walking on prostheses.
It’s exciting to see fashion designers picking up on the expressed desire to see disabled models, and thinking about integrating them into their campaigns. At first glance, Valentina looks like any other baby modeling swimwear; she’s grinning, she looks relaxed and happy. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know she has Down syndrome unless you’re specifically looking for it, or you’ve been told. And therein lies the rub.
Dolores Cortes has made a big point of the telling, issuing press releases, walking the runway with Valentina, and generally making sure everyone knows how progressive she is for picking a disabled model as the face of her swimwear campaign. The noted designer is already well-respected in Spain2, and now she’s spreading awareness of her brand across the Atlantic with this casting decision. That’s not accidental; she wasn’t sitting around the office one day chewing on a pencil before suddenly leaping up and saying “I know, let’s have an open casting call for my next campaign!”
I don’t feel the need to congratulate her, and other designers, advertisers and members of the fashion industry, for using disabled models. Sorry, but I don’t. There’s a lot of media going gaga over this right now and lots of gooey-eyed commentary on how nice it all is, and while I firmly believe that things like this are important social steps, the larger the production made about them, the more disabled models are othered. When you’re singling them out for special attention, you’re reminding everyone that they’re different, instead of just working models like anyone else. Models who face significant social and cultural barriers that make it hard to establish and maintain careers.
Like the fact that once Valentina is no longer sufficiently cute, she'll be out of work.
In an industry where looks are everything and there’s a very narrow range of acceptable body types and appearances, please note that most disabled models are white or easily read as such, with shocks of blonde hair and blue eyes. Many also appear nondisabled at a glance, with no obvious markers of disability.
They represent the least threatening form of disability, that which looks most like harmless nondisabled bodies, instead of challenging the viewer with braces or canes, visible amputations or obvious variances in facial and physical structure. The curves of scoliosis and the scars of self-harm are not visible on disabled models, because these things are scary. The narrow confines of beauty do not have room for disability, and until that changes, I can't throw my cap up in the air with joy every time a company is praised for casting a cute little white kid in a modeling campaign.
1. Yet, here I am, writing commentary. Return
2. She designed the Olympic costumes for the Spanish synchronized swimming team. Return