Disability scholars cite the lack of disability appearing in mainstream advertising as one of the ways that disabled people are discriminated against, since it clearly denies their role as consumers. Although it could be argued that this is justifiable on the grounds that they have less purchasing power, Barnes (1991) contends that disabled people still do participate in the market, regardless of their financial circumstances. Hahn (1987) explores the notion of how capitalist advertising sets strict standards of acceptable physical appearance and forces consumers to attempt to resemble them, and this in effect means people with alternative or deviant physical characteristics are excluded and segregated from a wide range of mainstream social activities. He also observes the irony in how cities, which were hailed as embracing diversity, in fact exerted pressure on the populations to conform, forcing disabled people to try and alter their appearances, to conceal any abnormality that might have prevented them from fitting in with the rest of society.
“Surrounded by an environment in which the self seemed to be determined less by individual understandings than by images reflected in the eyes of others, consumers were warned about an almost endless series of bodily imperfections that allegedly required the use of specific products to avoid giving offense in personal interactions at the workplace or elsewhere” (ibid, p 179).
Hahn notes the manipulative power of images to instil notions of ideal (and unachievable) criteria of aesthetic appearance among the population, thus controlling their economic lives while disabled people are rendered largely absent from such standard-setting images since their body types do not conform. Advertising thus “solidified a hegemony of acceptable appearance that accentuated conformist instead of heterogeneous cultural propensities” (ibid, p 182). While media images that do show disabled people tend to focus on the medical aspects of their impairments rather than showing them at work or in family contexts, thus reinforcing the stereotypes that they are unproductive and disability is the main concern in their lives.
Haller and Ralph (2006) explain that advertising images not only serve to construct aspects of identity such as gender, ethnicity and disability, but also play a significant role in disability awareness raising among the general public, and as such increased visibility of disabled people in advertising can help reduce stigma. Elsewhere (Haller & Ralph, 2001) note that although businesses have begun using disabled people in their advertising out of purely capitalist profit-making motivations, the resulting images are actually good from a disability point of view – inclusive and showing diversity, rather than narratives of pity that had previously been employed by charity organisations. Overcoming formerly held fears of being perceived as charity organisations, some businesses have understood the importance of addressing disabled people and their families as consumers, thereby increasing brand loyalty among them. While it is still the most aesthetically pleasing and least visibly disfigured models who get used in the images, any visibility that subverts the medical or charity models of disability is welcome since it facilitates acceptance and inclusion; as one disabled person put it: “the Adonis in a wheelchair is better than the whimpering victim in a corner” (McLaughlin, cited in Haller & Ralph, 2001). The more daring the disability images are, the greater their potential for conveying positive and empowering messages about disability to the public, and thus bring about attitudinal change (Haller & Ralph 2006).
According to Haller and Ralph (2001, 2006), some of the characteristics that make naturalising rather than stigmatising media images of disabled people include wearing fashionable clothes, sporting “a trendy haircut“, engaging with others in activities “appropriate to their social group“, having a “smiling appearance“, being seen as “vigorous and healthy” with “no misshapen extremities” to counter the medical model, while using a camera angle that is eye-level and showing the “reality and natural appearance” of people’s bodies without being “grotesque or
disturbing.” While they concede that wheelchair users may represent a minority among disabled persons, advertising is a visual medium and as such the wheelchair acts as an “equipment cue” that signifies “disability as part of the diversity depicted.” They also note that interaction with peers helps to normalise the disabled person and erase stigma; the models appear in exactly the same ways that other models would, without drawing unnecessary attention to their impairments or disabilities.
Allbright (1998) speaks of the power of the camera’s ability to change our point of view: “breaking up (by literally breaking down) an ablist gaze—the one that is forever overlooking people who aren’t standing (up) in front of its nose” (unpaged).
Benetton is one of the few big brands to have used disabled people in its advertising campaigns. Thumbs up? I don’t think so. It just follows on from their other campaigns that are out to shock rather than to include and engage in discourse, the shock is the fact that I’m seeing this, and then a sigh of relief, it’s just another Benetton ad campaign (another remove from reality). People have spoken of compassion fatigue, but what about the ‘Benetton effect’? Really Benetton just took Andy Warhol’s ideas and used them as a marketing tool. In fact, the majority of Benetton models conform to contemporary ideas of bodily appearance, with a few distinct varieties of pigmentation!
There have been other attempts to include disabled models in mainstream advertising, but the result was usually a focus on the disabled model being included in mainstream advertising as a topic of discussion, which kind of defeats the object (if the object was I fact inclusion and not simply a ruse to create a public debate, thereby incurring free advertising!). One such case is Debenhams, in the following campaign from 2010:
Nordstrom have also used models with different disabilities in their advertising campaigns:
Down’s syndrome, paraplegia and amputees, but how much of this is about inclusion per se and how much about selling the organisation as being ‘right on’ is up for debate. Some argue that we should be content that there is at least some inclusion going on, but I rather feel that this is a newer form of exploitation, repackaged but essentially the same as the Elephant Man or the Hottentot Venus, a sideshow attraction set up purely to make money for the patrons: come and buy! Nobody seems to question the fact that despite some obvious inferences to disability (wheelchair, prosthetic, physiognomy) the physical appearance of the models still approaches that of the norms that society has put in place; they are visibly disabled, but not too grotesque that one feels the urge to turn away, they are still ‘photogenic’ in that respect. Even the boy with Down syndrome can be conceived as looking ‘cute’. On an optimistic note, the girl in the wheelchair, Jillian Mercado, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, was subsequently employed by Diesel as part of their ‘reboot’ ad campaign:
Fashion designer Carrie Hammer has engaged fully with the debate about ultra thin model types, and in Febraury 2014 she unveiled her fall collection using models with ‘dysmorphic body types’ and even included one model in a wheelchair. According to The Guardian, this was the first time a wheelchair-bound model had appeared on the catwalk. Danielle Sheypuk said in the interview: “…people with disabilities are considered to be not sexy, asexual, pitiful, helpless, and frumpy just to name a few. This terrible image is the complete opposite of what fashion is trying to represent. These stereotypes simply are not true and people with disabilities are consumers of fashion – which is exactly why more designers should have the foresight that Carrie had and incorporate models with disabilities.”
It seems that slowly the mass media are beginning to engage with these debates, but still the appearance of ‘dysmorphic’ or ‘plus-sized’ models is a rare occurrence, as such the inclusion of disabled models in mainstream fashion imagery is a long way off. Initiatives like the Raw Beauty Project attempt to adjust this balance, but are relatively underpromoted and seem to be restricted to exhibiting in fine art galleries as opposed to engaging with mass media channels:
It has also been argued that the continuing prevalence of extremely thin body types in the fashion industry is not down to the media alone, that consumers have not used their purchasing power to bring about any significant change (“If we objected strongly enough to warped views of female bodies, women would take our custom elsewhere. But we keep buying the brands that offend us“), and that to demand stricter legislation on advertising goes against free market ideology.
“It seems that in the great fight against narrow beauty ideals we’ve gone only as far as lip service. We know what we see is wrong on multiple levels, but you can’t undo years of conditioning overnight. Enculturation starts at birth, and images work at a visceral level. You learn what your society’s beauty is long before you acquire – if you ever do – the tools to criticise and deconstruct it. Within the gap grow unhealthy aspirations.”
As the debate continues, it seems that more designers are catching on to the idea of dysmorphic models, and the September 2015 New York Fashion Week saw the introduction of the term ‘nodel’ (non-model) to describe non-ideal body types. Actually, the term seems to have been coined by Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, who are not averse to using friends and family alongside regular models: “We’ve always liked the combination of working with industry models and “nodels”—friends and peers. I think it creates a more dynamic texture and quality to the clothing.” (Vogue interview)
“…it’s not about a singular ideal of body type. It really goes back to the wearer and what they bring to each look.” As the debate continues, the use of skinny models doesn’t seem to have abated, and perhaps the use of ‘nodels’ is merely another marketing ploy to increase media coverage. Whatever the motivation, it is refreshing to see normal body types on the catwalk for a change, however rarely it occurs!
King (1993) expresses exasperation at how the definition of normal appearance is getting narrower as patriarchal ideology becomes more dominant:
“It is no longer enough to be thin; one must have ubiquitous muscle definition, nothing loose, flabby, or ill defined, no fuzzy boundaries. And of course, there’s the importance of control. Control over aging, bodily processes, weight, fertility, muscle tone, skin quality, and movement. Disabled women, regardless of how thin, are without full bodily control.” (p 74)
Which means even those models like Aimee Mullin or Viktoria Modesta, who fit the accepted norms of female beauty in most other aspects, will never be completely accepted into mainstream imagery.
Another event that combined fashion and disability was the 2010 Disabled and Sexy show in London. The slogan was: ‘SEE MY SMILE. SEE MY STYLE. SEE MY DISABILITY’
Once again, though, the event was not a mainstream one but organised to raise money for charity, and can therefore be seen as exclusive rather than inclusive.