Who do you see when I tell you, “Think of someone beautiful” ?
Do you see your mother? Your best friend? A supermodel? A celebrity? An athlete? A porn star? A stranger? Do you see yourself?
Chances are, some of you may envision an unattainable and unrealistic standard of beauty. Far too often, youth and adults alike are fed an incomprehensible ideal of what you should look like if you are to be considered beautiful by society’s standards. It is imperative to state that race, socio economic status, gender and sexuality identities, religious affiliation and familial heritage play an integral role in the formation of self worth, beauty and self-esteem. However, despite our battles to believe we are beautiful regardless of the messages we are exposed to, media continuously and dangerously reinforces a beauty standard that praises factors of our body that we cannot control, such as our able-bodiedness. Every body is beautiful, regardless of your physical, emotional, and mental capabilities, and it is about damn time we discuss this and demand equal representation of all bodies.
As someone who works within the fashion and retail sector of our society, I am exposed daily to a visually based field, a business that capitalizes on beauty and the allure of the unattainable. Looking to high fashion runway shows for inspiration as a guide to the industry, it is hard to ignore the visible juxtaposition of the social success of runway shows that are inclusive and diverse in their model casting, versus those who whitewash their roster of models. To clarify, diverse does not simply refer to racial background, rather, it is meant to signify the use of models who fall outside of a category once used for casting requirements. Models such as Halima Aden, Melanie Gaydos, Hari Nef, Tess Holliday, and Andreja Pejic are just a few breaking down antiquated barriers of entry for the profession. These models represent segments of our society that are all too often hidden from the spotlight. From misunderstood sexual orientations to ostracized gender non binaries, from an acceptance of all body positivity to models with genetic disorders, it is time to create a runway that is more representational of our world.
In a city that prides themselves on convincing others they couldn’t care less, New York City was home to one of the most rambunctious and celebrated runway shows of the Fall 2019 Ready-to-Wear season. Becca McCharen-Tran’s Chromat runway show championed the body, one that was shaped, performed, and looked unique with every model that strutted down the catwalk. Far too often, this high exposure runway deprives those who identify outside of the typical “able-bodied” category visibility and the agency to control their own representation. However, McCharen-Tran’s vision honored the anomalous bodies, rather than tokenizing the models as props in order to profit.
The casting of models with visible disabilities should not be a revolutionary concept, however, far too often, the segmentation of our population remains under-represented on catwalks, and media sources alike. When they are cast in roles, far too often, athletes with physical impairments are selected over highly femme or “average” models. The representation of disabilities, prosthetics, and wheelchairs must become more universally accepted and de-stigmatized. This conversation is centered on physical disabilities, however, it is imperative to mention that this does not represent the massive proportion of our population that deals with mental and emotional handicaps and impairments. Through the representation of tangible and physical disabilities, we can begin to, as a culture, destigmatize the concept of disabled bodies being beautiful. As Mama Cax, a cancer survivor and amputee took the runway for the second time under the Chromat name, the cultural dialogue surrounding the relationship between disability and socially constructed beauty continues to expand and develop.
While tackling issues within high exposure events such as New York Fashion Week can increase visibility, it can be argued that within these spheres, real change is not encouraged. As someone who works within fashion and retail, I am all to aware of the inherently problematic nature of the industry. Often whitewashed, eltiest, culturally insensitive, size discriminatory, and capitalistic, the fashion industry has no shortage of issues when it comes to representation. Real change, in my opinion, comes from the ground up. While conversations regarding racial representation, gender and sexuality representation and body positivity are necessary and honest conversations we must start to engage with within all spheres of media and our culture, a meaningful discussion surrounding accessibility with those who do not possess such visibility as our top models or athletes is the strongest path to education.
Recently, I was lucky enough to sit down with New York’s own, Mira Mariah, @girlknewyork, in an effort to create the most justice for this piece. Through the power of social media, Mira is raising awareness and increasing visibility of inherently problematic and harmful stigmatization of those who do not identify as able-bodied. Mira runs the tattoo empire that is GirlKnewYork, celebrating the beauty behind every single women, regardless of their age, racial identify, religion, gender, sexuality and able bodiedness.
Mira’s story is one of triumph, grace, disability, and celebration. Born with a birth defect, Mira dealt with chronic pain throughout her earlier life, along with an array of harmful and painful complications from attempted corrective surgeries. Eventually, she decided to undergo a surgery to amputate her leg, and now lives life with a prosthetic. As she is learning to understand her limitations, she expresses her personal struggles to her one hundred and twenty-eight thousand followers on Instagram, sharing ways in which we can be better allies to our friends, strangers, neighbors, and loved ones who navigate life with a disability. As one of the most championed female tattoo artists, Mira utilizes her platform to spread awareness, positivity, love, and support to her followers, igniting a passionate admiration for her @girlknewyork empire.
Throughout our discussion, Mira touched upon an array of problematic stereotypes and harmful assumptions surrounding those of us whom may identify as disabled. She directly addressed the adverse effects of blanketly stating that “all New Yorkers walk fast”. While the stereotype is meant to represent the pace of the city, this statement alienates those who reside in New York but physically cannot navigate the busy streets in the same fashion as those of us who would identify as able bodied. This detrimental stereotype and mindset has the potential to permanently estrange an entire population of New York, a city that already is unfriendly to many who rely on ADA accessibility. Out of the 472 subway stations within the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, only 87 stations are wheelchair accessible, not even one third of all available stops.
Mira discusses the amount of detail of which she must plan her day, accounting for travel time, unforeseeable challenges, and uncalculateble pain, stating “disabled people have places to be too.” Why would you ever risk ruining someone else’s day by shaming them for walking at a pace they see fit on the sidewalk? Why is it universally acceptable to blame the subway for being chronically late, but less acceptable to explain that your prosthetic was creating an immense amount of pain for you and took you twice as long to get to your destination? Mira states that, “we as a culture must begin to grant grace periods to one another for the unforeseeable”. With this, I challenge all New Yorkers to remove this harmful stereotype from their vocabulary.
While we, as a culture, must redefine our concept of accessibility, Mira expressed her discomfort with the unknown. For many, an invite to an event leads to questions such as “what should I wear?” or “can I bring a plus one?”. However, for some, questions range from “will there be seating available?”, “how many flights of stairs will I have to climb?”, or “will I have to stand in line in order to get into the venue?”. By raising concerns surrounding these often forgotten factors, Mira hopes to enact change within business owners and event planners. By understanding the necessity of information and a disclosure of accessibility factors, events can become a more inclusive space for all. Through details such as number of entrances, available seating arrangements, or number of stairs, thoughtfulness can provide for a more empathetic and humane approach to celebrations or business meetings. Through simple education or conversations, transparency can provide for positive changes for all communities.
Along with logistical challenges, Mira sees a misrepresentation of disabled women within the media. She states that too often, disabled women are depicted as a binary, those who are worthy of representation and those who do not. She states that “Too often, disabled athletes are the only representation we are granted”. Mira elaborates on her own personal journey with representation, stating that she feels personally responsible for altering opinions on the intersection between beauty and disabilities. “I always have a full face of makeup on, hair blown out, and a wildly extravagant outfit on, because that is who I am. I want to show people that even though I have a disability, I can be beautiful and femme.” Paralell to the ultra femme, intricate, and impactful designs that Mira gifts her clinents at Brooklyn’s @fleurnoiretattoo parlor, Mira’s appearance strikes you as soon as you face her; strong and contagiously confident.
Along with discussions of the antiquated transportation of New York City, the power of presentation and the necessity for forgiveness, Mira touched upon vocabulary shifts we should all be making as allies, friends, lovers, and strangers. Rather than asking if someone needs help, ask “Would you like help?”. By allowing for the individual to remain autonomous and in control of their decisions, replacing the phrase do you need with would you like, we can demonstrate respect and an understanding for one another, regardless of our able-bodiedness. Mira stresses that education and representation of marginalized communities is one of the truest ways we can create meaningful changes within society and the way in which we perceive those who identify as disabled.
As we, as a culture, begin to dismantle harmful stereotypes and unhealthy stigmatizations of marginalized cultures, it is imperative to grant representation to those who typically are silenced. Mira Mariah and the @girlknewyork empire is simply one example of the power behind a voice with a story to tell. Through education and empathy, we as a society can begin to redefine self care and self love. Mira sums this up perfectly, stating, “As we move towards self care, especially within marginalized communities, and I am going to speak on behalf of the disabeled community because that is the one I know best. Self care needs to be including things that are responsible, important, and ethical, beyond a face mask. As a woman who puts on a face mask and thinks ‘This is going to help with my trauma’ there are bigger things that need to be brought into the self care discussion.” And while this is not to say that face masks and typical self care capitalistic products aren’t a temporary fix, Mira simply want to express that we must begin to address the deeper issues that can inhibit a universal self acceptance and love, the truest form of beauty.
As we continue on in this age of information, and constant stream of images and media outlets reinforcing an unrealistic standard of beauty, I can only hope through education and conversations such as this, we can begin to redefine the relationship between bodies and beauty. Every body is beautiful, regardless of your physical, emotional, and mental capabilities, and it is about time we begin to demand a wider representation within our runways, our movies, our social media, and our lives. Through meaningful cultural shifts, such as the cast of models featured in McCharen-Tran’s Chromat runway shows, marginalized communities can begin to demand conversations surrounding beauty to shift towards truth. Be kind. Educate yourself. Educate your friends. Be empathetic. Be understanding and forgiving towards yourself, your loved ones, and strangers alike.
Who do you see when I tell you, “Think of someone beautiful” ? I see Mira Mariah and Mama Cax, my mother, my best friends, myself. I hope you see yourself.
Feature Image via Vanessa Granda