Last week Victoria’s Secret announced Sofia Jirau would become the brand’s first model with Down’s syndrome, a huge step for disability in fashion but one that came with a side order of ableism.
The infantilisation of disabled people is something those of us with disabilities have been trying to combat for years, but unfortunately, it’s everywhere, particularly in the internet age. Think about the disabled people you see in charity advertisements accompanied by sombre music that pushes you to donate. Think about the TikTok you scroll upon that shows a disabled person having a good time with non-disabled people as the comments are flooded by “aww bless her” or “these guys are angles for dancing with her”.
Fact is, disabled people are often seen as children no matter how many times I tell someone a wheelchair isn't a pushchair. Therefore many non-disabled people see Sofia Jirau as being exploited, with some on Twitter even asking where her parents are – because every 25-year-old takes their mum to work, right? One went on to say, “it is awful, not beautiful”, and others chimed in that the brand was manipulating her. It's clear that society doesn't see disabled people as sexual beings, which perhaps stems from the lack of disability representation in sex education in schools (I mean, I had one lesson?!).
It’s fair to say that Victoria’s Secret has had its fair share of controversy over the years when it comes to diversity and representation. Other high-end fashion brands have been making waves in diversity for longer, but why is the idea of a disabled person fronting an underwear campaign so uncomfortable for people to digest? Not to startle anyone, but disabled people wear underwear too – shock horror, I know.
Disabled people are desexualised constantly, but newsflash, not only do we wear underwear, we also go on dates – and no I’ve not been on “The Undateables”. We have romantic partners, one night stands and even children, so the idea that we are somehow not fully grown adults who can make our own decisions weighs heavy in our everyday life. Especially as people refuse to accept that our minds and bodies deserve respect alongside representation.
Whilst Sofia and Victoria’s Secret have received criticism for the step in inclusion, many have also praised the brand proving that this move couldn’t have come any quicker. Especially after Twitter user and disability and sex advocate, @chr0nicallycute posted images of herself in her wheelchair encouraging others to join. This led to countless replies from disabled people proving that disabled people can be seen as desirable and sexy.
Whilst this backlash has been hard to take for disabled people, it’s no different to the casual ableism we receive on a daily basis. It’s positive that many were overjoyed for Sofia, and that members of the disabled community are fighting back against ableism despite how tired we all are.