Prosthetic Categories

Women Who Inspire: Why These Disabled Models Rock the Fashion Industry

    Read how Teen Vogue’s September issue featured the 3 most unlikely unsung heroes in the Fashion world: Chelsea Werner, Jillian Mercado, and Mama Cax

    Chelsea Werner, Jillian Mercado, and Mama Cax Teen Vogue September issue photos.

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    Many of us live in fear about being judged; it’s not any easier if you’re living with a "disability" because you may feel like people stare or judge you all the time. In an industry where looks and everything physical are looked at through microscopic lens, models Chelsea Werner (gymnast and model with Down syndrome), Jillian Mercado (model with spastic muscular dystrophy), and Mama Cax (blogger, model, amputee, and disability advocate), all experience these feelings firsthand.

    The Reality of Modeling 

    Modeling has always been the epitome of movement–with models sashaying down the runway, and each individual known for their signature moves. Models with disabilities go against the grain and have taken a revolutionary step towards empowerment. Aerie’s campaign featured models with disabilities, breaking the mold of what is considered as traditionally beautiful and paved the way to celebrate a more diverse array of looks.

    It’s still a rocky path ahead, and as more campaigns shed light on this reality, people like Jillian, Chelsea, and Mama Cax are even more exposed to an industry that doesn’t know “what to make of” them just yet. 

    Small Steps

    There have been small steps into including more diverse body types into the fashion industry. In 2013, a number of black women pointed out some designers who have not included black models enough in their portfolio. 5 years later, Calvin Klein added black models to their ad campaign for Fall 2018. Spring 2018 shows have showcased its most racially diverse Fashion Week in history to date.

    Despite the recent clamor for inclusion, disabled models are still left out; rejection is second nature. Growing up, these women never saw disabled models featured in magazines or on TV. Jillian recalls never seeing herself in women she saw in entertainment, “There wasn't anyone who looked like me in any magazines or mainstream media, TV, or anything. It excluded me from something that I was very passionate about. It was definitely confusing because I knew my worth in the world. I knew that there's [so many] people out there like me, but we are never included in any conversations.”

    Possible Impact on Mental Health

    It’s a sad reality but most campaign ads and runway shows still exclude disabled models. If this persists despite communities slowly becoming more open-minded about what used to be taboo (i.e., some states are now legalizing same-sex marriage, more LGBTQ individuals are embraced in the fashion and makeup industry, etc.), these individuals will start to think that they’re unattractive, or worse: unworthy. This can have a serious impact on someone’s mental health.

    Early Beginnings and a Bright Future Ahead

    Mama Cax booked her first campaign in 2017 with Wet n’ Wild. She’s currently represented by Jag Models and has been cast in campaigns such as Tommy Adaptive, ASOS, and Chromat.

    Overcoming her struggles with social media in the past, Jillian is now a sought-out model from IMG, and she’s worked with Nordstrom, Target, and Diesel. Props for modeling on Beyoncé’s website as well! You may also recognize her as an Olay model on a Times Square billboard. “It’s going to take time and patience, but I'm a fighter, I'm a warrior, and I will continue [advocating] until we are all represented.”

    Chelsea has walked the runways of New York Fashion Week and cast in an H&M Campaign. With over 142,000 followers on Instagram, she’s proud to say that most of her followers are parents of children with Down syndrome. “And we get comments all the time and messages that Chelsea is giving them hope for their children because in the past they didn't really see a great future for their kids. When they see someone like Chelsea achieving their dreams and doing things that have never been done, it seems to have a huge impact. That makes us want to do even more.”

    It is with hope that our future shifts into a more accepting culture where disabilities won’t stop agencies from representing people who can properly inspire a community. Fashion should be a representation of beauty, and beauty knows no boundaries and abilities. “It’s such a beautiful moment in time now that we have the ability to voice our opinion, to voice our frustration that we've always been in the room but for some reason, we've been invisible.” Hopefully, strong voices like Jillian’s will help mold a bright future ahead – where there won’t be any “disses” against disabilities.