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The advertising and modelling industries have long been under fire for unrealistic portrayals of the human form—particularly of women, though men have not been immune either. Seeing countless depictions of impossibly tall and thin models has been linked to low self-esteem and anxiety to flat out eating disorders in girls and women trying to emulate these standards. There have been many approaches to combating the problem, but the most obvious one has been to be inclusive of diversity. When we look at ads these days we see some racial diversity and some age diversity and yes, body diversity. Most notable perhaps was the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover earlier this year featuring Ashley Graham—a model who is considered “plus size” in the industry. There is one group of people that is still left by the wayside in this inclusion of diversity—people with disabilities. But even in that arena, there is reason for optimism.
“I’ve seen a lot of change in last 10 years. … I was able to model for a big company and worked with another amputee, Alex, and another model who is in a wheelchair and they didn’t try to hide our disabilities,” says Shaholly Ayers, a long-time model who is also a congenital amputee. In addition to being a fantastically accomplished model who has worked for Nordstrom, US Weekly, The New York Times, Glamour.com and walked the runway at New York Fashion Week, Ayers is also deeply invested in changing social perceptions of beauty and disability. “It’s about showing, visually, that a person with a disability, a person who is an amputee, is still capable. I still should be considered beautiful despite my missing limb. That shouldn’t be a reason why I can’t model.” And she has shown that it certainly isn’t holding her back; but her road had not been an easy one.
When asked why she wanted to be a model in the first place, Ayers said, “like any little girl, we all dream either of modelling, acting, singing, or at least I did. I always wanted to do that and had some idea that I’d be in front of the camera. I was 12-years-old when I had my first modelling competition. I got nothing. I didn’t win. And of course I wanted to try harder because of that.” However, when she approached a modelling agency in her later teens, she was told that “there was no way [she] was going to model—because of [her] arm—and that no photographers were doing to take photos of [her].” As anyone who glimpses Ayers’ portfolio and resume can see, the agency was absolutely wrong, but sadly, this kind of outright rejection of difference is indicative of pervasive attitudes in our culture.
Ayers ardently works on changing these attitudes twofold: 1) by providing “visual proof” as she calls it, that people outside our narrow assumptions of beauty can serve as beauty ideals, and 2) by being the ambassador for Global Disability Inclusion, a consulting firm that specializes in disability employment and inclusion strategies. “I think collectively our message is that people with disabilities are capable in all sorts of different types of jobs and should have [various] careers,” Ayers said.
One employer that carries much weight in the fight against society’s attitudes toward people with disabilities is arguably the very industry Ayers works in: modelling/fashion/advertising. The biggest issue in that field is exactly the dismissal with which Ayers is all too familiar. People with disabilities are often entirely absent from visual representation in our public consciousness. As Ayers noted, “there are companies, like Dove, who try to show normal, everyday, regular people. The sad thing is that people with disabilities are not being showcased even in those natural beauty campaigns that are supposed to represent everyday individuals. It’s sad because people with disabilities aren’t being reflected, but it’s also sad for the company because one in five people have a disability. The company is missing out on growing their business. It’s a huge opportunity.”
Ayers is tireless in disseminating just this message that inclusion of people with disabilities in marketing is not just good for the consumers who see themselves represented, but it’s good for the company as well. She recently attended our Ruderman Studio-Wide Roundtable on Disability Inclusion in Hollywood where over 100 actors, producers, writers, agents and executives assembled to emphasize the same message when it comes to television and movies. People with disabilities need to be included to grow the company and to change public attitudes and stereotypes. “I was blown away. I’ve been doing this for several years, I didn’t realize so many people felt the exact same way,” Ayers said of the Roundtable. For her it can often seem like a lonely battle as a person with a disability in an industry that traditionally erases any disability or perceived flaw. “The conversation about authentic disability for me hit home because of the most recent Vogue Brazil issue where they photo-shopped able-bodied models to look like Paralympic athletes. That was very disturbing. These are actors and actresses that have had to overcome so much themselves and it was powerful and encouraging.”
Ayers’ big hope and goal is to make it easier for the next generation to be seen and fully included. “In the next few years I’m hoping to establish myself more fully for people with disabilities, as an ambassador,” she said. Even though it is hard work and she encounters roadblocks and highly problematic depictions, like the Vogue Brazil incident, Ayers’ remains both optimistic and determined. “We’re working on making [the changes] more permanent,” she said, “but I think there is change.”