In a culture centered around appearance, the fashion and modeling industry holds a huge weight in today’s society. Amid unrealistic body expectations, name brands and distorted representations, it is easy to get wrapped up in the downfalls of this materialistic business. With such an emphasis on aesthetics and looks, a great amount of room for error and false representation comes into play in the world of fashion and modeling. I love fashion as much as the next person, but among the love and lust, a fair amount of mistakes, misinterpretations and just straight-up misconducts go unnoticed.
In 2015, Interview Magazine released their winter cover, which pictured none other than Kylie Jenner posing in a wheelchair. Jenner and Interview’s motive for the shoot caused an explosion of comments within and beyond the disability community. One woman’s response to the photoshoot managed to spark an entire conversation surrounding Jenner’s controversy. Author and disability activist Erin Tatum went viral when she reenacted Jenner’s cover in her wheelchair.
“If being in a wheelchair is trendy now, I’ve apparently been a trendsetter since before Kylie was born,” Tatum wrote in a Tumblr post.
Defining ableism in its rawest form, Jenner’s fetishization and wrongful depiction of the disability community opens up a conversation that is still extremely relevant in the fashion and modeling industry today. The disability community is simply not represented in modeling, or properly designed for by leaders of the fashion industry. White, cisgender and able-bodied females like Jenner stand at the center of this industry that many of us care so much about. Jenner portrayed disability as something artsy and provocative when represented by her identity, but when actual members of the disability community fill this role, they are looked down on as incapable, sick and sad, as Tatum mentioned in her Tumblr post.
Ever present now as it was in 2015, the need for this multifaceted community to be integrated into the fashion and modeling world is all the more necessary. We need accurate representations of the disability community in modeling, and we need adequate and fashionable and practical clothing options for this community as well.
Lucky for those searching for a silver lining in the sometimes dark industry, followers of the fashion industry are able to find hope and inspiration in Aaron Philip. Gaining guidance from fashion trailblazers with disabilities such as Jillian Mercado and Nyle DiMarco, Philip, a transgender model whose pronouns include she/her/hers and they/them/theirs, has started a revolution in the fashion industry. As a model, they represent and advocate for themselves and the entire disability community through their work. DiMarco, a deaf actor, model and activist, was the first deaf person to win “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Founder of the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, DiMarco serves as a role model to deaf models and children, speaking to language equality and advocacy for literature. Philip’s leading inspiration, Jillian Mercado, who was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a teen, has landed modeling contracts with IMG Models and Diesel Jeans, agencies that include a lineup of famous supermodels such as Kate Moss and Heidi Klum. In addition, Mercado starred in Beyonce’s “Formation” video and a marketing campaign for Target. Aligning themselves with these individuals with disabilities, Philip accredits their pursuance of modeling to Mercado especially.
“I credit Jillian Mercado as a trailblazer for people with disabilities in fashion,” Philip wrote in an email interview with The Daily. “I credit all the hard working Black models for their beauty & visibility in fashion right now. I credit all the upcoming trans models for their advocacy and visibility as well. I’m a part of all of this, and I just want to work hard to break boundaries.”
Acknowledging the need for progress in this industry, Philip is spearheading a movement one simply must rally behind.
“The modeling industry has so many issues with not even bothering to take risks and portray disabled bodies of all types in any way,” Philip wrote. “Sometimes they may see an aesthetic within disability in terms of the mobility aids we use and glamorize that, but they still proceed to prioritize big names & able-bodied people. They appropriate disability instead of getting actual models with disabilities involved.”
As a Black, transgender and disabled model, Philip has built a platform for themself via social media and blogging, working into the modeling world and setting straight the false aesthetics the modeling and fashion industry can so often rest heavily upon.
“I have issues with the way fashion tends to ignorantly objectify certain things from certain types of people and amplify it. For example, cultural appropriation is a problem, ableism in the sense that disabled bodies are negatively objectified by the disability and not the talent, general racism & trans people feel uncomfortable in fashion as a space,” Philip wrote.
Philip’s role in the modeling and fashion world is the much-needed push for a long overdue change to what can be a challenging cycle. Philip’s multifaceted identity is real, something people can relate to and certainly something that has challenged the idea of models as commodified products.
“I think designers could start with acknowledging physically disabled folk as a part of their narrative and as potential clients, and with that comes having to work with physically disabled models of all conditions and body types as well,” Philip wrote.
So to the modeling world: Please, no more Kylie Jenners posing in bedazzled wheelchairs. What we need is a continuation of the monumental movement Philip, DiMarco and Mercado have started and will continue to sculpt for future generations of the disability community. The ever-changing industry needs an aesthetic that is real, accessible, narrated and designed by those who live the reality of disability. Only then will the fashion and modeling industry be something we will be proud to associate with and acknowledge.