Are child models with Down Syndrome really a great win for diversity?
A nine-year-old girl named Kayla Komlaski has just made headlines as Gap’s first ever model with Down syndrome. The news comes hot off the back of another story about Cora Slocum, a four-year-old girl with Down syndrome, who has appeared in an ad campaign for shoe label, Livie & Luca.
Like most people, when I first read these articles and saw the photos of Cora’s beaming face, my initial response was “Aww, what a gorgeous kid! And what a stunning, joy-filled photo. Just lovely.”
Cora generated the hashtag #I’mGoingBackToSchoolToo and other kids posted photos of themselves. (Post continues after gallery)
But before hitting the ‘share’ button, I stopped. And I thought back to a conversation I once had with disability activist, Stella Young.
Stella was talking to me about an emerging trend where a number of children and babies with Down syndrome had been touted as the Next Big Thing in modelling.
There was 10-month-old baby, Valentina Guerrero, who was described as the “favourite swimsuit model ever” and Natty Goleniowska, a seven-year-old girl who was selected to star in the Sainsbury’s Back to School campaign. More recently we’ve seen Louis Killick, a six-year-old boy with Down syndrome, Izzy Bradley a two-year-old model with Down syndrome, Seb White, a seven-year-old boy with Down syndrome, Franceca Griffiths, a two-year-old baby with Down syndrome, and others.
Stella explained to me that while on the surface this might look like cause to celebrate, deep down, there was nothing truly progressive or revolutionary about any of it, so long as virtually all the models with disability continued to (1) have Down syndrome, (2) be infants or children.
The problem is twofold. Firstly, the emphasis on people with Down syndrome ignores the diversity of the disability community. It also establishes a type of hierarchy within the community where those who have more ‘normal’ bodies which can ‘pass’ as able-bodied are given higher status compared to others.
But there is a deeper problem: the heavy focus on children, and the absence of adult models with disability.
The inimitable Stella Young. (Post continues after video)
What Stella taught me is that people with disability are already infantilised within our culture: their bodies are paralleled with the bodies of children, and they are often stereotyped as less worldly, less rational, less logical, and ultimately, less intelligent than those around them.
And because people with disability are often depicted through these child-like lenses, they are often ascribed with child-like qualities.
Like children, they are depicted as being vulnerable, dependent, innocent, and naïve. And just like small infants, people with disability are frequently imagined as being highly asexual, and in need of protection from adult forces they are assumed not to understand.
As Stella wrote at the time:
I think that we’re OK with disability when it’s cute. In children, in particular, because it’s entirely acceptable and appropriate for them to be dependent. We have much more trouble with disabled adults. Not only are we not as cute, but we also talk back.
So putting an adorable child [with Down syndrome] in a set of bathers, and then congratulating the company for “embracing diversity” is bullshit. If that was a 23 year-old-woman with Down syndrome, maybe they’d be doing something interesting. But disability is often paralleled with infancy, just as able-bodiedness [is paralleled] with adulthood and sexiness.
In other words, an adult woman with Down syndrome (or another disability) will rarely be featured in a swimwear (or underwear) catalogue because of our cultural tendency to treat people with disability as both infant like and asexual.
But the public is quite comfortable seeing and sharing images of cute kids with Down syndrome wearing a swimsuit or pinafore, because this already accords with how society teaches us to see disabled people: as innocent, asexual and inherently childlike.
Likewise, no one is going to feel too stretched or challenged by seeing a cute kid with Down syndrome skipping rope, doing jumping jacks, or laughing gleefully, because this already accords with the types of infantilised depictions and associations that currently circulate within the popular consciousness.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the amazing children in this article, or the fact that children’s advertising is becoming more inclusive.
But until advertisers also include more adults with disabilities, we need to recognise that rather than shattering stereotypes surrounding disability, they might be reinforcing them.
Listen to Stella Young speak about Down syndrome at her TED talk. (Post continues after video)
And rather than challenge the existing associations we make about disability, some advertisers appear to be using those associations to create a kind of Uber-child: one who, being marked by both disability and childhood, is considered especially young, cute, and innocent.
So before we applaud too loudly, perhaps we should wait until there are a few more adults with disability in modelling. After all, from the perspective of the modelling world this might look like a great step forward for diversity. But from the perspective of some in the disability community, this trend might further infantilize people with disability. And there’s nothing revolutionary about that.
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