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How These Models With Disabilities Are Redefining Beauty

When it comes to gender equality, especially in media and the fashion industry, women with disabilities and visible differences often find themselves left out of the narrative. Disabled people are the largest minority, yet extremely underrepresented in the media.

It is time to create true equality and fair representation for all women. To celebrate International Women’s Day, these models from Zebedee, a talent agency representing people with disabilities and visible differences, gathered for a photo shoot that showcases what real, unique beauty can look like. Here are their stories.

Models from Zebedee posing nude with sheets covering them.

The Models

Lindy

Lindy

I am 65 and have a hearing disability. A hidden disability can prove difficult at times such as traveling, social occasions etc. I don’t feel I should be embarrassed by my hearing aids anymore — they’re part of who I am. I believe when we look at another person, we should see the person first irrespective of age, size, ability, ethnicity or differences. We are all unique! I was delighted to take part in the photoshoot. Being myself and draped in cloth made me feel empowered, stronger as a woman, not afraid to show who I am. It was a positive experience with lovely people. It is never too late to do something new. I want to celebrate womanhood and women who are strong and beautiful.

Georgina

Georgina posing tastefully nude in a wicker chair.

I’m 20, and my disability is myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, which I’ve had for almost 11 years now. I wasn’t born with my disability, instead, ME/CFS came into my life when I was 10 years old and it flipped my life upside down. Due to my condition, I need a wheelchair and I got my first one when I was 12. It’s been a long road getting my life back on track and being a part of positive campaigns like this one are a huge help.

Where do I begin to talk about this day? I guess I’ll start with the fact that I am genuinely so proud of each of these beautiful women who took part in this shoot. We all had our reasons for doing this shoot, but one thing that linked us all was the knowledge that this may help not only our own confidence but that of other women, whether they have a disability/difference or not. I did this shoot because if I had seen photos like this when I was growing up, I probably wouldn’t have been so hard on myself for trying to fit in. Now I know you don’t need to conform to fit in. We are all different and that is OK — in fact, it’s more than OK, it’s beautiful. No two people are the same and that’s the way Mother Nature intended us to be.

Seeing myself in my natural form in the raw images reminded me that this is me and I am proud. I felt freed, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Yes, I felt nervous, but that feeling soon dispersed into this magical moment. Being in front of the camera, with the fabric draped around me, I felt gracefulness combined with strength. Everything felt right. I think it’s easy to forget and fall into the loop of thinking you’re not good enough or you don’t look a certain way. When in reality, we need more celebrations of who we are and not to get caught up in stigma.

I’ve never felt more like myself in the body I’m in today, disability and all. I worked hard for this body, I’m not going to let anything take that away from me and if I ever feel like that again, I can just think back to those moments in the shoot where I felt the most beautiful, the most empowered.

The vibes of the day were empowerment, femininity and softness. Being around this group of women from all different backgrounds and different ages felt like I had known them my whole life. As we sat around a toasty fire, I felt so lucky. There was no awkwardness, there was no judgment, there were just uplifting words and female camaraderie.

The shoot was all about finding our inner strengths, showing that we are strong but also delicate in such a stunning way that celebrates us as diverse women. In one day, you could see us all grow and come into our own — that was beautiful. This day will forever stay with me. Photos can speak louder than words. We all didn’t come out of the same mold, so why does society try to make us think we did? We are beautifully unique, it’s time to embrace that! Sometimes in life, you get to be a part of something incredible. This is one of those times. I’m so grateful.

Niamh

Niamh, a bald woman posing tastefully nude.

I am 20 and have ectodermal skin dysplasia, which is a name used to group closely-related genetic disorders. Specifically, I have Hay-Wells syndrome. It is an extremely rare disorder. It causes abnormal development of ectodermal tissues including skin, hair, nails, teeth and sweat glands. Most noticeably, it has caused complete hair loss. Most who are diagnosed with my disorder are born without hair, but I was born with hair.

To me, International Women’s Day is a celebration of our gender and what we have achieved. It is not only about achieving equality but about feeling empowered in all that we have achieved as a community together. It is about standing as one, uniting, to demonstrate the love we have for our gender. It is about doing whatever the hell we want to do with no judgment from each other, only celebration, respect and love. IWD, inclusion and diversity are important to me because I grew up always standing out from the crowd, feeling different.

I got used to the stares and whispers, but just because I was used to it doesn’t mean that I was comfortable with it. I wish there was someone like me to look up to, to show me that I was and am beautiful and that I should love myself. I feel like the world has grown a lot in recent years and has become a lot more inclusive for everyone who feels “different.” However, there is still a lot of room for improvement, we are all equal and everyone should feel like they belong.

This photoshoot took me out of my comfort zone because I am extremely vulnerable and it is showcasing all of my insecurities for the world to see. However, it also made me feel incredibly empowered and it showed me a new way to look at myself, which gave me a new appreciation and love for myself that I have never had before.

Maya

Maya

I’m 19. I have a genetic nerve condition and scoliosis. I’m also a manual wheelchair user. I feel International Women’s Day is so important to recognize and celebrate all the amazing achievements of different types of women. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where there is a lot of discrimination against women, however, International Women’s Day is an important step towards women’s equality and to slowly eliminating discrimination against women.

Inclusion and diversity, especially in the media, matter so much in today’s society. The media is a reflection of our society and it also educates and influences the population. If there is a big lack of inclusion and diversity, it can cause certain minorities to feel unimportant or different from the rest of society. It is vital that we have models/actors we can relate to. I know from personal experience that when I watch TV and there is a character who has a disability, or when I open a magazine and there are models with disabilities/differences, I get a sense of empowerment and I feel more self-confident. Furthermore, if these minorities are getting media attention/representation, it can cause the rest of society to be more accepting, empathetic and inclusive.

I got involved with this photoshoot to have the opportunity to put myself out there, celebrate the gorgeous women in our society and show the beauty in all different bodies. I also wanted to help anyone who is struggling with body confidence. In all honesty, this is one of the scariest things I have ever done, but I am so grateful to have done it as it was also one of the most freeing things.

For over five years, I went through a battle of disliking my body, as I knew my body shape was very different from my friends/family. I was especially self-conscious of my back and feet due to having multiple surgeries on both, which caused a hump on my back and deformities on my feet. After taking part in several projects like this shoot, I have come to accept my body for what it is and find the beauty in it. I never thought I would be able to do something like this, and I hope I can inspire others to take that step towards self-acceptance.

The advice I can give to anyone struggling with gender discrimination, self-acceptance or body confidence is to try and celebrate your differences and put yourself out there. Maybe try posting a photo showing the part of you you feel self-conscious about? Make sure to surround yourself with people who accept you for who you are and make you feel empowered to be yourself. Remember you are not alone and there are so many people you can reach out to who are going through the same experience. Most importantly, remember you are beautiful and matter so much in this world.

Clara

Clara

I am 39 years old. I have an inherited connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) and I am a full-time wheelchair user. However, there is more to me than my condition, which is why I decided to take part in this campaign. I strongly believe inclusion and diversity matters and it’s important that people feel/see that they are being represented in society. I am a big supporter of body positivity, self-love, self-empowerment and encouraging others to go after their heart’s desire, regardless of their abilities. These “buzz words” are not just for the “able-bodied” women who are a certain size, they are words for all women with all types of bodies everywhere.

Monique

Monique

I am 33 years young. I have a condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta type 3 aka brittle bone disease, which means I can break my bones very easily. I deal with fatigue, have extremely lax limbs and I am of small stature — only 3′ 4″ and a full-time wheelchair user. International Women’s Day means so much to me. It’s a great day to celebrate all women, no matter their abilities, disabilities or differences.

I find I’m usually seen as a woman last when people look at me. First I’m disabled, then black, then and only then, those who don’t mistake me for a child see me as a woman. I had to take part in this campaign to show that all women, no matter how different, should be celebrated, should be acknowledged, and should be seen as beautiful. If only one woman feels pride within herself after seeing this campaign, being in my birthday suit in front of others will have been so worth it.

Kathleen

Kathleen

How much do you forget about someone being a woman when she has a disability? Should Kathleen be described as a woman who happens to have Down syndrome or someone with Down syndrome who happens to be a woman? We all know normalization comes through representation, which comes through diversity, which comes through inclusion, which comes through awareness. It’s a loop.

Just like the sheer cloak of womanhood used to hide away a person’s abilities and confine them to a well-defined code of conduct, the sheer cloak of disability seems to often strip them of their womanhood. That’s why it is important to see women like Kathleen as models, to show that their condition or disability doesn’t make them any less of a woman. They share the full range of feelings, emotions and urges of any other mainstream woman, the joys and sorrows, the longing and the disappointments, the need for validation and fulfillment. IWD has always been a great platform to expose some ginormous elephants in the room. This is one of them. So let’s talk about it.

Gemma

Gemma

I am 25. I was born with congenital melanocytic naevus (CMN), in other words, hundreds of birthmarks of different sizes all over my body. I also underwent around 20 plastic surgeries as a baby, leaving me with some scarring and disfigurement. Like many girls, I struggled with my appearance at secondary school and used to cover up with clothes and make-up, passing on trips to the beach or swimming pool. Gradually I started to embrace my differences — it’s still a journey but I have come a long way!

International Women’s Day is a fantastic opportunity for all of us to come together to celebrate the vast diversity, achievements and experiences of women around the world. Sisterhood is an important concept to me — I feel lucky to have amazing girlfriends who will fiercely protect me, particularly if I ever face any discrimination or prejudice about the way I look. We share our highs and lows and are always there looking out for each other, working together to be our best selves.

I work in a field that still has significant problems with gender inequality. Women make up 70 percent of the global health workforce but only 25 percent of the global health leadership positions. Events like IWD allow a platform to highlight these issues and facilitate progressive change. I am participating in this campaign to promote inclusivity and diversity, celebrate beauty in all its forms and recognize all the wonderful, hardworking women in this world!

Renee

Renee

I am 21, I use a wheelchair full-time and my disability is paraplegia, which means I can’t stand or walk. When I was younger I always struggled with my self-esteem. I felt like I wasn’t represented in the fashion industry, and I wanted to be a part of the movement towards creating a more inclusive world. International Women’s Day is so important to show women that we are all beautiful, we are all worthy and all have things we struggle to accept about ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from who we are or define us. I hope I’m helping women across the world accept themselves deeply and unconditionally. I hope I can help people embrace and love all the things that make them unique, instead of hating them.

Cara

Cara

I’m 21 years old. I have a functional neurological disorder which affects all aspects of how my body should function and means I often use a wheelchair. Since becoming unwell, I had become so angry at my body for all it had taken away from me and the ways it had changed. Doing this shoot, surrounded by the other beautiful ladies, I finally felt pride in my body and beautiful not only in spite of my disability, but because of it. I am proud of everyone involved in the shoot for making International Women’s Day an opportunity to empower and represent women often missed and show everyone deserves to be included and feel body positivity.

A Zebedee Management Shoot

Photographer: Shelley Richmond

Image Credits: Zoe Proctor