As a woman with a disability, I felt validated by the new Aerie ads

Aerie is a leader in body inclusivity. (Photo: Aerie via Instagram)
Aerie is a leader in body inclusivity. (Photo: Aerie via Instagram)

I was a fairly typical teenager. I loved hanging out with my friends. I loved obsessing over crushes and celebrities. And I loved shopping and looking at all the pretty fashions in the latest issues of my favorite magazines. What wasn’t typical? I never saw anyone in those magazines who looked anything like me.

I was born with a physical disability called Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome, it is a condition that affects my muscles and joints. I have used a wheelchair all of my life. As a young woman, flipping through magazines, I loved the clothes — but not seeing myself represented in the people modeling them made me feel as if I didn’t belong.

For most of my life I haven’t seen people like me represented, but new additions to the Aerie website, which feature women with disabilities and illnesses modeling lingerie, has made me feel seen in a way I never have before.

The models include a woman sitting in her wheelchair and smiling, another woman with crutches. There are also models with Down syndrome, as well as models with vitiligo, an ostomy bag and an insulin pump. When I first saw the photos online it was a poignant moment of pure joy. It was like a lifetime of my wanting to be seen was springing forth from the images and the models were representing what I’ve long wished I could shout to the world: “Do you see me? Here I am!”

Aside from impacting me directly, Aerie’s quietly released new advertising images show a big win for the disability community, a community typically left out of the fashion industry. The fashion space has historically been reserved for a certain type of beauty, and that beauty tends to favor the perfect and the polished. Most certainly not scars and definitely not disabilities.

“As a brand, Aerie has been a leader in empowering women and celebrating inclusivity and body positivity since our launch of #AerieREAL in 2014,” Jennifer Foyle, Aerie global brand president, said in a statement after the release of these latest ads. “Our newest bra models are part of our brand’s ongoing commitment to show real, authentic and unretouched women, who are at the core of everything that we do.”

Time for something very big. Earlier this summer I was chosen to be an #AerieREAL model for their newest campaign and the other night they surprsied us all by releasing some of the products early. A wheelchair user is a model for a major company! I am PROUD to say I’ve done this. PROUD to be a part of it. PROUD to be a model representing a community of disabled and chronically ill people. PROUD to be comfortable in my own skin. As a Christian a lot of people have expressed to me their distaste with what I did here with Aerie, but I have something to say to that. God gave us this life, our bodies, and our struggles to glorify him. These photos are not risque, or provocative, or slutty. This campaign is the epitome of confidence and beauty in who you are as your true self. I have confidence in who I am in Christ even with my disability and my wheelchair, and that translates physically. Being a model in a wheelchair for a major company is kind of a big deal and I want to be transparent about it all. Confidence is hard to come by and even harder to master. Just when I thought I had it my disability and illnesses stripped it away. I was embarrassed to be seen in public with mobility aids, hated how everything looked while I was in my chair. Then God put his hand on my heart and reminded me that i am fearfully and wonderfully made in his image. He put me on this path of life to be the light I needed when I was struggling. To remind young disabled women that they’re beautiful no matter what. Beautiful with mobility aids. Beautiful in a wheelchair. Beautiful with an invisible illness. Beautiful, not despite those things, but because of them. That is Aerie Real. . . Image description: Abby holding her hair up and smiling over her shoulder. Shes wearing a black lace bralette and sitting in her wheelchair.

A post shared by Abby Sams (@abby_sams) on Jul 11, 2018 at 6:43am PDT

There’s an underlying assumption that people with disabilities shouldn’t be comfortable in their bodies because disabilities aren’t “normal.” A disability can’t be normalized or seen as mainstream. A disability can’t be sexy. Women with disabilities are often not even seen as women. Our sexuality and femininity takes a back seat to our disability. A part of ourselves, a part of our identity is erased in the process.

The truth is, people with disabilities are sexual; we do wear lingerie, and fashionable clothes, and want to feel good and beautiful. Aerie understands what we’ve known all along — that we’re not going to stay hidden and we shouldn’t have to. Aerie is changing the very conversation around what is beautiful and sexy. It’s 2018, that definition is desperately in need of an update.

I’ve struggled to belong, to live my life as a disabled woman in an able-bodied world. Seeing women like me in national ads makes me smile at myself in the mirror and makes me hold my head a little higher. Instead of feeling like I need to hide the disabled parts of myself, I now want to show them — real and unafraid.

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