The Desperate Need for Visibility in the Fashion Industry

the importance of the representation of people with disabilities in the ever-changing world of fashion.

Lexi Lekoutovich
Dec 13, 2019 · 7 min read

Growing up watching America’s Next Top Model, I fell in love with fashion and modelling — all I wanted was to be a supermodel. I quickly realized that none of those girls in the earlier seasons looked anything like me and not only did I not feel represented, I felt ugly.

The fashion industry is extremely exclusive when it comes to models. Looking back through past and the majority of present-day runway shows and editorial photoshoots, it is extremely rare to see a model who is not at least five foot seven with a size double zero waist and a flawless face. The traditional standard of “model” beauty can be extremely problematic for those who don’t necessarily fit that unrealistic mould. Growing up watching America’s Next Top Model, I fell in love with fashion and modelling — all I wanted was to be a supermodel. I quickly realized that none of those girls in the earlier seasons looked anything like me and not only did I not feel represented, I felt ugly. Although fashion has made advancements with the inclusion of different body types, there is still a demographic that is widely underrepresented — people with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Photo by Charles on Unsplash

When people don’t feel represented, their self-esteem is affected drastically and they feel as if they’ve done something wrong for looking the way that they do; however, appearance is something that cannot be changed, only embraced. With the rise of social media influencer culture, people with disabilities now have role models like Jillian Mercado and Mama Cax and thankfully, brands like Tommy Hilfiger are starting to take note by creating a line made for and modelled by disabled bodies. The fashion industry profits on exclusivity by enforcing the uniformity of models and the idea that their clothes are meant for a specific type of person, but there is a desperate need for the visibility of people with disabilities. When brands start to take action to promote inclusivity, they not only allow these people to feel seen, but they reach an entirely new consumer demographic.

The marginalization of people with disabilities in the fashion industry can be extremely harmful to their self-esteem. When people don’t feel represented the media, they begin to feel as if their appearance has made them undesirable. I speak from experience, but this is obviously something many women agree with. We as women typically base our worth on the way we are perceived by others and by whether or not we fit that ideal beauty standard. The constant exposure to media images that glorify a certain type of image affects how girls conceptualize femininity and beauty and enforce the idea that beauty can only be defined by fitting into a specific mould.

Not all social media is bad…

The popularity of social media influencers of diverse appearances has not only promoted diversity and acceptance, but it has also allowed influencers with disabilities to use their platforms to raise awareness about the subject as well as providing a glimmer of hope for people like them.

“There wasn’t anyone who looked like me in any magazines or mainstream media, TV, or anything. It excluded me from something that I was very passionate about. It was confusing because I knew my worth in the world. I knew that there’s [so many] people out there like me, but we are never included in any conversations.”

In an article written for Teen Vogue titled “What it’s like to be a disabled model in the fashion industry”, author Keah Brown interviewed three models with disabilities who are challenging the traditional standard of beauty in an industry that doesn’t accommodate them and those similar. Jillian Mercado, a model with spastic muscular dystrophy is an example of a model who has experienced discrimination within the industry due to their appearance. Nevertheless, these models refuse to stand down and accept these norms and discrimination that comes with being disabled. By rejecting conventional standards of beauty, they use their voices to let others with disabilities know that they are beautiful. Meanwhile, these models didn’t have an easy road to fame and experienced those similar feelings of insecurity and agony simply based on their appearance. Growing up, Jillian remembers feeling excluded because of the lack of disabled models in fashion or entertainment: “There wasn’t anyone who looked like me in any magazines or mainstream media, TV, or anything. It excluded me from something that I was very passionate about. It was confusing because I knew my worth in the world. I knew that there’s [so many] people out there like me, but we are never included in any conversations.” She like many others with disabilities wanted to feel included, but she knew that there was no space in the industry for a person like her; therefore, she internalized her sense of shame and hid because of it.

The inevitable sense of shame surrounding oneself is extremely hard to avoid when you’re constantly bombarded with images of unrealistic beauty standards that don’t appeal to the vast majority of people and it takes an enormous toll on one’s self-worth. Feeling unseen leads to the feeling of undesirability by society. The media and fashion industry has already successfully taken action to promote the inclusion of different races and sizes while the majority of companies remain discriminatory towards people with diverse abilities and refuse to include them in their campaigns.

An untapped market

It was reported that in 2017, one in five of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over (approximately 6.2 million individuals) had one or more disabilities. Canada alone holds such a large population of people with disabilities yet there is still an entirely untapped market for products directed towards people with disabilities and an even bigger market for models to advertise them. The fashion industry is in dire need of a structural change. Not only will it benefit off the production and sale of the products directed towards this demographic, but it will also positively affect the self-esteem of those who are looking at those advertisements wondering why there is nobody like them to look up to and make them feel worth it.

Due to the growing momentum of the movement for media visibility in the disabled community, brands are pushing for the inclusion of these models in their campaigns as well as introducing collections of adaptive clothing suited to their needs. For example, Tommy Hilfiger has expanded its product range by introducing his innovative new clothing initiative: Tommy Adaptive, a new line that includes a collection of new and stylish pieces, suited to the varied needs of people with disabilities. Tommy Adaptive’s collection includes staple fashion pieces like shirts, pants, shorts, dresses, and jackets but most importantly, the garments are easier to put on: “Modifications such as adjustable hems, one-handed zippers, side-seam openings, bungee cord closure systems, adjustable waists, and magnetic buttons and velcro make the fashionable designs much more disability-friendly. Some shirts are even made with easy-open necklines and expanded back openings”. Tommy Adaptive’s mission is to be inclusive and empower people of all abilities to express themselves through fashion.

By asking activists and influencers to create their lines, brands are taking this responsibility away from themselves and passing it onto them even though it is not their job to do so.

Typically most clothing for people with disabilities tends to be not only out of style, but they lack functionality for the varied needs of these people. Although several medical companies are creating adaptive clothing, aside from the fact that they are unfashionable, they can feel sterile and can make the wearer feel more like a “patient” than a person. Undoubtedly, people with disabilities are not new customers, but their voices haven’t been amplified. In an interview with The Business of Fashion, Sinéad Burke stated that because of her disability she has been offered funding by major fashion investors to design a line for little people; however, she is not a designer, “And that also abdicates responsibility from the fashion industry to accommodate this market”. By asking activists and influencers to create their lines, brands are taking this responsibility away from themselves and passing it onto them even though it is not their job to do so.

Although they are role models for people like them, influencers don’t necessarily hold enough power to change the entire fashion industry. It is time for brands to open their eyes and realize that people with disabilities are a large consumer demographic that demand to be seen and heard.

Allies create change

There are so many influencers with disabilities who are challenging the traditional standard of beauty and fighting for visibility; despite this, the power lies in the hands of brands like Tommy Hilfiger to be their allies and use their power to amplify the voices of influencers and consumers demanding change. Movements need to be supported by allies and for change to occur, there has to be a community, supported by people of power who can contribute to causes that they are not necessarily affected by. When brands start to take action to promote inclusivity, they not only allow these people to feel seen, but they reach an entirely new consumer demographic.

GBC College English — Lemonade

Lemonade is a collection of thought-provoking think pieces…

Lexi Lekoutovich

Written by

Stylist and archive researcher specializing in the late 1980s to 1990s anti-fashion and avant-garde. curating @blackbirdinmargiela on Instagram.

GBC College English — Lemonade

Lemonade is a collection of thought-provoking think pieces written by George Brown College students.

Lexi Lekoutovich

Written by

Stylist and archive researcher specializing in the late 1980s to 1990s anti-fashion and avant-garde. curating @blackbirdinmargiela on Instagram.

GBC College English — Lemonade

Lemonade is a collection of thought-provoking think pieces written by George Brown College students.

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