Down Syndrome Girl Is Swimsuit Model: Progress… Or Not?
10-month-old Valentina Guerrero is featured on the cover of the American catalog for the 2013 kids’ swimsuit collection by Spanish designer Dolores Cortés. Valentina has Down Syndrome: Says Cortés in a statement: “People with Down syndrome are just as beautiful and deserve the same opportunities.”
Cortés contacted Valentina’s family about the little girl appearing as a model. As Ceceliz Guerrero, told the Down Syndrome Association of Miami, she “was excited mainly because the fact that they are placing Valentina on the cover of a catalogue sends a very clear message of inclusion; all children deserve the same opportunities, regardless of their physical, economic, social, racial or medical condition.”
6-year-old Ryan Langston (who also has Down Syndrome) has appeared in ads for Nordstrom and Target. But, as AdWeek reports, Valentina “is said to be the first person with Down syndrome in history to be the main model of a campaign from a prestigious fashion designer.”
Why Make a Big Deal About Valentina Having Down Syndrome?
Certainly there should be more models with disabilities. But are Cortés, and the advertising world, giving themselves too big a pat on the back for showing how inclusive and open they are, to feature a child with disabilities? The Huffington Post quotes XOJane’s S.E. Smith:
While I firmly believe that things like this are important social steps, the larger the production made about them, the more disabled models are othered. When you’re singling them out for special attention, you’re reminding everyone that they’re different, instead of just working models like anyone else.
Ellen Seidman at LoveThatMax has a thoughtful take on Smith critiquing Cortés for apparently wanting to broadcast her “progressiveness.” She writes:
OK, my first instinct also was it’s wrong for a company to get all self-promotional about this. But then I thought it through, and I’ve decided that if a company chooses to make a big deal out of featuring a child with Down syndrome in their ads it can be a Good Thing. For one, it can help spark conversation about inclusion. Also, the more attention models like Valentina get, the more likely it is that other companies will join in—and the more it has a chance of becoming a “norm.” We are so, so far away from that right now.
It is simply true. Being an afterthought in the public eye is the norm not the exception for kids with disabilities. Too often, the only reason the media reports about kids with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism or other disabilities is because something terrible, shocking and sensational happens, not because of something positive.
As excited I was to see Valentina featured, one thought has been nagging at me. She is so young — not even a year old. In response to the notion that “Once Valentina is no longer sufficiently cute, she’ll be out of work,” Ellen writes “Why the assumption that this beautiful child won’t stay beautiful? … Maybe Valentina will continue to land modeling contracts for her good looks, charm and popularity, if that’s what her parents want.”
Kids With Disabilities Become Adults With Disabilities
I’ve no doubt Valentina will keep that sparkling smile. My son Charlie‘s smile is certainly as beautiful as it was when he was her age, when he was a chubby-cheeked toddler, when he was a 7-year-old rapidly getting too big for me to carry. Despite some bad bouts of that teenage scourge, acne, and the scars above his nose from banging his face through a window of our car, his smile endures.
Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. As he has grown older, for all the public attention cast onto autism and the growth of schools, programs and opportunities for autistic children, the simple reality has set in. When kids with disabilities become teenagers and then adults with disabilities, public interest fades, for all the passionate advocacy of parents and so many others. Our society is happy to show how much it accepts and includes cute kids with disabilities but it’s another story when they’re teenage boys trying to understand their changing bodies, their yearnings for independence that is curtailed due to their disabilities and their deep annoyance at being called “cute.”
Yes, Charlie doesn’t appreciate being called “cute,” “darling,” “sweet,” “adorable,” any more than any teenage boy would. He would have zero interest for modeling anything. He sometimes has that teenage boy “leave me alone, I’ll let you know when I need you if ever, ‘kay?” attitude. Because he is very minimally verbal, he can’t say any of this to us.
Eileen Riley-Hall addresses this very issue of kids with disabilities growing up in a recent post on the New York Times Motherlode blog. Riley-Hall has two daughters on the autism spectrum, 15-year-old Lizzie and 13-year-old Caroline. Negotiating independence and protection is a complicated dance: Is it time to teach Caroline to use an electric razor rather than Riley-Hall helping her apply Nair? How far can Lizzie go from their house while walking the dog?
Would not a real sign of change in our society be if an older Valentina were offered modeling opportunities but she turned them down because that’s just not what she wants to do?
Related Care2 Coverage
Photo of Valentina Guerrero from DCKids