Monday, 29 March 2010

Debenhams, Disability & Dolls

Well, it’s been a busy few weeks since the Debenhams launch. Along with all the press I’ve been doing I’ve also had to continue to juggle my full time day job and law school, which hasn’t left me very much time for blogging. I’ve received really positive feedback from people for which I’m very appreciative, it’s been really good to know that it has touched other women, both those with a disability and those without. I was asked dozens of questions in interviews which I endeavoured to answer as honestly and accurately as possible, but there are always time limits and word counts to work around. I thought I’d use this blog as an opportunity to add a few things.

Let me begin by saying I love fashion, I love make up, I love jewellery, I love magazines, I love looking at beautiful or striking images and I love even more having the good fortune to work with photographers, stylists, hair and make up artists to create strong bold beautiful images. I’m well aware that fashion is a billion pound industry, not a charity. Millions of pounds are spent from start to finish; clothes and accessories are designed, manufactured, advertised with beautiful and aspirational images and sold in stores. We are all buying into to a little piece of a lifestyle that makes us look and feel better. How often have you bought a gorgeous evening gown with no special event in the diary but a hope that if you buy it, the event will come? These aspirational purchases are a joy and made complete when you finally get to wear the dress to an event sometime later.

Disabled women are fashion consumers too, like other women we fund the industry with our purchases, we also want to look good, feel good and buy into the trends or tribes with which we most identify. Young people growing up frequently want to belong to some kind of social group or niche and this applies equally to young people with disabilities who are too often isolated because of stereotypical prejudices of disability and assumptions that we must all want to hang out with each other so we can compare wheelchairs/ sticks/prosthesis/hearing aids. We don’t. It’s human nature to veer towards those you identify with most, and I guess I don’t identify myself primarily as a wheelchair user; it’s just an aspect of me, not the entirety,

It’s this aspect of seeing someone to identify with that I think it important. As a child I had dark brown hair (I’m currently blonde) and I can remember being incredibly excited and envious when my cousin arrived on holiday with a brunette Barbie!! This was like the Holy Grail of dolls; I loved playing with her for a week and was devastated when my cousin returned to South Africa taking her dark haired, enchanting Barbie with her. Every girl sub consciously identifies with someone growing up, all my dolls were brunette except Barbie, my favourite Charlie’s Angel was Kelly because she was the one I identified with and most wanted to emulate. (Though funnily enough I’ve never really had the desire to sign up to the LAPD and work for Blake Carrington’s voice on loudspeaker!)

Many women young and old feel under increasing pressure to try and match the perfection that is in magazines and advertising, I’m not suggesting brands should use less aesthetically attractive or obese models, I realise they need their brands to sell, they create illusions of perfection that we try to attain. I’m simply saying if there was more diversity in the models used, then more women would see images they could identify with rather than feel inadequate in comparison. There needs to be a balance, for every 16 year old size zero model, there should be a 26 year old size 14 model. Let’s remember who has greater spending power, women in their 30s and 40s have a greater disposable income to spend on clothes and accessories than teenagers and students in their 20s. I’ve asked dozens of women for their opinion and they all say they want to see more women in magazines not young teenage girls. They also said we should be giving younger girls a richer and more diverse group of role models rather than women like Katie Price, WAGs and Big Brother contestants who keep plastic surgeons in business; it’s all too easy to temporarily cash in on beauty and sexuality when you’re young…not so easy when you get older.

It would be nice to see images for more women to aspire to and connect with; so often disability is featured in the media to report on the Paralympics, hate crimes or euthanasia; It’s not that these aren’t worthy of media attention, just that there are many more dimensions to disability than that small sample. I think it is essential to see more healthy, vibrant, interesting and vivacious people with disabilities. The more diverse representation there is, the more normalised it will become.

Obviously I think what Debenhams have done is great and hope other high street retailers follow suit, but I think it’s a while before we’ll see the wheelchair being referred to in the fashion singular by Karl….

”Hmm…I know what this divine creation is missing darling…it needs a sexy wheel to accentuate the curves…”

www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/7323888/Debenhams-first-with-disabled-High-Street-model.html