Kylie Jenner stares blankly past the camera with a straight face, clutching the hand rim of her golden wheelchair. Adorned in a tight, black, plastic-looking leotard, strapped heels, and a choker, her whole outfit screams restraint. By this point, most everyone has heard of the subversive fashion statement shot by Steven Klein for Interview Magazine’s December/January cover earlier this month. The internet backlash has once again brought to the table the ongoing discussion of ableism in our society and its effect on the fashion industry.
Jenner’s shoot is meant to be a proclamation of her struggles with fame and the restrictions she grapples with. However, by using a wheelchair as a metaphor for her hindrances in the spotlight as a reality and social media persona, it promotes the negative connotation people with disabilities often receive in our society. Above all, it is offensive and insulting to those who need wheelchairs in their everyday life and not just as a frivolous, edgy artistic spectacle.
Ableism is a term that has vastly evolved since the start of its use around the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s in both the United States and the United Kingdom. For those unfamiliar, it is a means of normalizing the able body and in turn contriving an attitude of discrimination and unequal treatment towards those who possess a physical, psychological, cognitive, or behavioral disability. Those who do not fit the social construct of “normal” are inherently labeled as “abnormal”.
In an attempt to combat ableism in various institutions, measures like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Act have been adopted in the United States to protect disabled individuals from inequity and provide them with equal opportunities within government, schools, public transportation and facilities, and employment. Despite this sizable effort and beneficent intentions, workplace prejudice is still commonplace, especially in the U.S. where employers view potential employees with disabilities as a liability or incapable of adequately performing. Ableism detracts from discerning talents and skills that unique individuals could contribute.
Kylie Jenner’s display of ableism, whether it is intentional or not, reiterates the blatant discrimination that occurs in the fashion and modeling industry. Within this profession, lack of representation has been a problem in numerous areas, especially race and ability. Often times when diversity is featured in the fashion world, it’s one individual used as a token as if to say “Hey! We aren’t discriminating!” or a specific fashion show or shoot dedicated to disabilities. An example is Alexander McQueen’s 1998 “Fashion-able?” issue of Dazed and Confused which prominently highlighted disabled models. This was a step in the right direction, but the absence of representation is still minimal, which is potentially dangerous due to fashion’s fundamental capacity to shape society’s image of beauty. It’s especially frustrating considering that the public as a whole desires to see more types of bodies represented in fashion and media. In addition, people with disabilities are among the millions of others who buy the same clothes and accessories advertised in magazines and fashion shows, perpetuating the industry’s faulty representation of its consumers.
Not only is the low number of disabled models in the fashion industry a problem of perception for our society, but it limits the jobs these models are able to obtain. The fact that an able-bodied celebrity is able to glamorize and sexualize the use of a device that she doesn’t actually need and appear with it on the cover of a magazine – while some models are turned away from shoots because of their disabilities – is extremely unfair. Women like Kelly Knox, who helped revolutionize the industry by proudly displaying her disability in 2008 on Britain’s Missing Top Model (a modeling competition for disabled women), should be the ones on magazine covers. Instead of models who appropriate disability aids, tenacious and confident leaders like Knox should be at the forefront of the industry. People who are proud of their individuality inspire others to be confident about their natural beauty, like one viewer of the show who emailed Knox to tell her that she had stopped wearing her prosthetic arm after seeing her on the show.
Society is moving in the right direction by recognizing the various forms of intolerance that plague our institutions and industries. As with sexism, racism, ageism, and other types of bigotry, the source of progress stands with those who stand up for themselves and the allies that recognize the rights they deserve. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner may not know it, but their ill-considered actions are essential in creating a dialogue to debunk the concept that beauty is exclusive.