There’s a first time for everything, right? Ever since my stroke, I have faced a lot of firsts: my first time standing up from a wheelchair, my first steps, my first time moving my left arm. The list goes on.
A couple of months ago I found myself facing yet another first: my first foray into swimsuit modeling.
Allow me to explain. My friend Syanne approached me on Instagram with a vision she had for a swimsuit calendar featuring women with physical disabilities and their mobility aids/devices for daily living. And as scary to me as it sounded, putting myself out there in a way I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with, I jumped at the opportunity and immediately agreed. I welcomed it as a chance to normalize disabled bodies and show the world that we are normal people too, and just as capable of modeling as anyone else.
Before my stroke, I wasn’t afraid to post pictures of myself on Instagram in a bathing suit; in fact I enjoyed it, because I was proud of my body and liked receiving the validation from my friends. It made me feel better about myself.
After my stroke, I struggled a lot internally with my body image. I was no longer the carefree and confident girl I was. I gained weight, then I lost weight, and seemed to live my life in an on-off cycle of dieting to maintain my weight post-stroke. I really wasn’t confident about my body, and was constantly seeking ways to alter myself to look skinny and desirable. So when Syanne asked if I wanted to be a part of the swimsuit calendar, I viewed the invitation as an opportunity to embrace my new body image. Can I put myself out there for the world to see? I didn’t have unshakable body confidence, but maybe that was the point. Maybe that was okay, and by participating in this project, I would be doing my own small part to remove the stigma around seeing a person with disability empowered to model and exuding confidence. So, with that in mind, and as awkward as it felt, I posed in my bikini for the calendar.
For me, the swimsuit calendar was a powerful way to put images of amazing women with disabilities in front of people and force them to see that first and foremost, we are regular people. Do we look like the typical models you see in Sports Illustrated? – no, but most people don’t look like that anyways. We are real and messy and imperfect, all of us, and this calendar showcases our humanity. I, like Syanne, was frustrated with the lack of disabled models in the fashion industry, and figured this calendar would be a good way to increase representation and normalize disabled bodies.
Syanne found a site called Zazzle to print on demand our swimsuit calendar. She spent weeks laboring to put it together. And on the day of publication, Zazzle refused to print it and flagged the calendar itself as inappropriate, specifically due to “age restriction and language”. This raised some eyebrows on our end, especially when we went through the site and found products covered with expletives as well as swimsuit calendars that made ours look like your parents’ wedding photos. Syanne immediately engaged customer service with these inconsistencies, and what followed (after the normal runaround) was some confused finger pointing and an eventual acceptance of the calendar.
Now, I can’t say for sure why Zazzle initially flagged our calendar and didn’t publish it. If we’re to believe them, it was a mishandling from the initial customer service rep and an issue with “the algorithm”. And they did ultimately backtrack on their position. But I do think their initial reaction illustrates the whole reason I wanted to be involved with this project from the beginning.
People aren’t always prepared or comfortable seeing disabled people in spheres like this. If you were not disabled and saw a swimsuit calendar of disabled models, you might stop for a minute and wonder, what the heck is this? I’ve never seen anything like this before. My suspicion is Zazzle had a similar reaction. And that reaction is exactly what we are trying to eliminate.
I was ready for a disabled swimsuit calendar to create some skepticism among my circle, though from most it will be momentary and followed by support. Seeing the written reaction from Zazzle was a stark reminder how final and dismissive that skepticism can be.
Part of the goal of the swimsuit calendar was to normalize disabled bodies in fashion. If you look at the stats, about 15% of the world’s population has a disability. But we are just as normal and capable as anyone else. Zazzle’s response in rejecting our calendar is just a singular example highlighting how much work still needs to be done to normalize disability. And we’re just getting started.