People are ramping up for London 2012, and I’m excited too, but not for the same reason everyone else is, because I’m not really following the Olympics. I’m much more interested in the Paralympics, where the world’s most talented disabled athletes meet up to kick ass and take names. Excuse me, compete in athletic events in a spirit of global unity and cooperation.
The Paralympics really challenge social attitudes about what disabled bodies are supposed to look like and what people with disabilities are supposed to be able to do. It includes events in running, swimming, equestrian and other categories, and I love watching the athletes in motion, whether they’re running on prostheses, riding dressage or anything in between. They have these strong, powerful, refined bodies that can break records with incredible grace and finesse because they’ve been spending years in training.
When the Paralympics come around, there’s also an uptick in disabled visibility that for once doesn’t position us as figures of misery and tragedy. Unfortunately, a lot of the coverage is of the “they’re so inspirational” variety, but sometimes, just sometimes, it manages to hit the sweet spot. The spot where disabled athletes and their bodies are celebrated, but not used as a teaching instrument or object lesson. Where barriers and social attitudes start to break down because the fundamental framing of disability is shifted.
Like in a recent issue of Elle, where swimmer Jessica Long was profiled. She’s a double amputee who’s been making waves since 2004, when she took four gold medals at the Paralympic games at age 12, pretty much out of nowhere. Uhm, yeah, Jessica Long is officially more badass than I will ever be1. She’s got a closet full of awards and medals to call her own and she’s recognised internationally as an extremely talented athlete.
Not just in the disability community, but in the broader sports community. Long is the first Paralympic athlete to be given the Amateur Athletic Union’s Sullivan Award, which goes to the best amateur athlete in the US. Period. Regardless of disability status. That’s a major accomplishment.
And in Elle, the article has her in a fashion shoot, which is huge.
Physical disability and the fashion world are often positioned at odds with each other. It’s very unusual to see people with disabilities in fashion photography, unless it’s as a stunt. When people with physical disabilities are featured on fashion runways, it’s often as a charity project or Very Special Designer Episode, not something where the disabled models stand on equal footing. Disabled models become freakshows to stare at, or figures of tragedy and inspiration for the audience, but what they aren’t is serious models.
With serious bodies.
Long has a great body for fashion photography; she’s lean, long, and muscular, with an expressive, beautiful face. Like other athletes, her body type may not quite fit into the haute couture box, but it’s pretty darn stunning. And strong. The Elle photograph showcases her strength and beauty in a way that’s pretty challenging for viewers; if you just flipped past it, you might not realise you’re looking at a double amputee. Long is balanced in a physically demanding pose and her face is flawless; she looks like any other fashion model.
The focus of the image is on the lines and planes of her body, which happens to be disabled, rather than on the disability. It isn't a voyeuristic image, but rather than same kind of header image you'd expect to see in any other magazine profile. Look at this pretty person, doing things that are amazing.
People with physical disabilities are pretty much excluded from the fashion world. Few designers consider disabled bodies when they’re coming out with new lines, and disabled models are few and far between. Long’s rocking a stunning Ralph Lauren Black Label dress in her Elle shoot, and it’s safe to assume that it may have been altered for the shoot to make sure it fit perfectly, because that’s extremely common for any fashion shoot to make sure the clothes look perfect. Those alterations probably included adjustments for her athletic body, as well as her amputations.
The photo is a great reminder that we're interested in fashion, too, and want to be able to wear clothes that aren't just functional, but also elegant, fun, beautiful, daring. For people with physical disabilities interested in fashion, such images can take on new meaning. It can be especially hard to find garments that fit comfortably; particularly for wheelchair users, who need to think about how garments will fall when the wearer is in a seated position for the majority of the time. Seeing a disabled model looking flawless is a visual signal that it's possible for us to be fashionable, too.
Many people assume that disability precludes an interest in fashion, when that’s really not the case. Like some nondisabled people, some people with disabilities are interested in fashion, and want to be able to express ourselves fashionably. Thanks to the limitations of the fashion world, not to mention the high poverty rate for people with disabilities, we’re often restricted when it comes to the kind of garments we can buy. People with physical disabilities also need to consider the possible need for alterations to get a garment to fit correctly, which can add to the sticker price.
So I like seeing people with disabilities represented seriously in fashion photography, because it’s a reminder that we have bodies too, and some of us like putting pretty clothes on them. Looking at Jessica Long in the pages of Elle, I think too about young women and girls with disabilities, especially newly acquired ones, who may be feeling like they can never be fashionable or “pretty” and will always be viewed as frightening and freakish. Long is neither frightening nor freakish in this shoot: She’s just a gorgeous athlete, focused on winning gold in the pool in August and September.
1. At age 12, the only gold I was taking home was spraypaint related to a school project. Return