A trip to the mall bombards me with unattainable ideals of “perfection” everywhere I turn. Mannequins of one standard body shape and size taunt me in each store I enter, all of them wearing clothing that won’t look anything on me like it does on them. Their plastic bodies are tall and thin; I am less than 5 feet with more than my fair share of curves. They stand in casual poses; I am sitting in my wheelchair. To me, mannequins are not always inviting displays. Instead, they’re nothing more than sculptures of a supposedly idyllic body type that I will never be able to attain. Reflections of physical diversity are nowhere to be found.
Until recently, that is. Over the past few weeks, a video unlike anything I’ve ever seen before has been making the rounds on social media, taking on this glaring absence of bodily differences. A German organization called Pro Infirmis had an artist create mannequins as exact renderings of the bodies of a group of visibly disabled people. The completed mannequins were then dressed up and placed in a storefront to be seen by passersby.
The messages behind this video are rich and complex. Upon watching it the first time, I was incredibly moved by the bold statement of inclusion and diversity. However, after viewing the video a few more times, it really struck a nerve. I was seeing myself in a strange new mirror, leading me to consider my own deep-seated body image issues right along with the people in the video.
Incredible reactions are evoked from the participants of the project as the mannequins created in their images are revealed for the first time. Joy and awe can be seen in their faces as they take in reflections of themselves like they’ve never seen before in public. But then, as the mannequins are being moved to the storefront, one of the participants remarks: “The people passing by will be really irritated.” This statement encapsulates so much of the body image struggle faced by many people with visible disabilities. So many people are uncomfortable with anything that appears to be outside the “norm.”
For most of my life, I’ve been in a constant fight with my body for not being in line with these “norms.” I know it is a fight I’ll never win, nor is it one I should have to deal with in the first place. Yet, I can’t count how many times I have been objectified because of my disability. I have been stared at and judged and questioned because of my physical appearance. Though I do my best to maintain a thick skin, it does take a toll on my body image. However, the creation of mannequins in the image of disabled people puts an unexpected twist on the stares I experience. People are supposed to stare at mannequins. So, if mannequins were created in a range of diverse body types, perhaps this could be a small step in the direction of making society less discriminatory towards people with physical differences. Because in reality, no one looks alike – disabled or not. Mannequins are plastic representations of just one body; they are not representative of the beautifully diverse range of bodies that inhabit our world.
The Pro Infirmis video sends a powerful message about bodily diversity that is twofold. The tagline of the campaign urges viewers to consider “Because who is perfect? Get closer.” This resonates with me not only because of the message of loving and accepting others, but also because of the message to love and accept myself. For so many people within the disability community, self-love and self-acceptance are a challenge. And yet, isn’t this arguably challenge for people who don’t identify as disabled as well? Aren’t we all overly critical of our own appearances? We are so quick to forget that we are all unique in ways that uniformly made mannequins in a storefront will never reflect. It is okay – in fact, it is the true norm – to look different than everyone else, because that means you look like you. As the incredible Pro Infirmis campaign teaches us, it is time to break the cycle of discrimination against others because of their appearances, but most importantly, it is time break the cycle of not loving or accepting ourselves.
Ollibean Author Emily Ladau is a passionate self-advocate and is pursuing a career in which she can use her communication and writing skills as a means of positive change for all disabled people. Emily’s areas of interest include encouraging all disabled people to become self-advocates and researching portrayals of disability in the media. Currently, Emily maintains a blog on her experiences with her disability, “Words I Wheel By,” at http://wordsiwheelby.com. She’s always happy to connect with people, and you can follow her blog on Facebook (http://facebook.com/WordsIWheelBy) or follow her on Twitter (@emily_ladau).