Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Looking Good: Beauty Standards & Disability

Who deserves to be visualized in media when discussing disability? It's well known that attractive people are treated better by others.  And when you think of the term 'model,' you think of beautiful men and women. 

While contemplating the visuals for my last two novels, I spent days searching stock image licensing companies to find imagery that would represent the two main characters in both Every Time I Think of You and its sequel Message of Love.

And I failed.

I failed because I didn't settle for what was available, because the images for rent did not include young men who resemble the main characters, in particular, Everett Forrester.  Stock images of wheelchair users, are kind of stupid, as this snarky yet accurate AutoStraddle listicle shows.

British trainer Jack Ayers
Most stock image companies portray disabled people -specifically wheelchair users- as either frail, in a hospital, alone, or conversely, as super athletic.

An exception is PhotoAbility, which has a more diverse array of images, but none of their images include two men together that could even slightly be implied as gay.

Also, as I've written before, I did not want to specifically 'brand' the books as disabled-inclusive, or specific. I never shied away from mentioning it as part of the story. I simply thought that the nature field guide look of the two covers was more metaphoric, while referencing an actual part of the story, Reid's love and study of nature.

But one image, the first one (above on this post), struck me as nearly perfect. Two young men hold hands while they travel away from us on a trail. It's a perfectly simple depiction of affection. Despite the modern chair and clothes, it could have worked. But I never found the photographer's name to get permission. Anyone who does know that is welcome to contact me.

Riley Martin
A real person who personifies the adventurous nature of my character Everett would be Canadian Riley Martin. Basketball, tennis, car-racing and even bungee-jumping are among his activities. 

Instead of being what some might considerable "supermodel" handsome, Martin is a regular guy who happens to be a hunk (no idea about his orientation), and is described by fans as having "crazy amounts of handsome!"

I would agree.

Nyle DiMarco
An actual model is Nile DiMarco, who could be described as "impossibly handsome." 

Already a successful print model, DiMarco wowed fans of the show America's Next Top Model even before coming out as being "sexually fluid." That seems to be the new term for bisexual.

DiMarco oriented his fellow competitors with sign language, proving that a deaf person can of course be a fashion model. With more than 250,000 Instagram followers, he's destined for long-term fame, whether he poses with men, women, or in just a pair of shorts.

a model on the runway
In considering the handsome qualities in my main characters, I knowingly overlooked the truth, that many disabled people are not model-perfect. 

They're real people, with weight problems, skin problems, and they are not by any means overwhelmingly athletic. They're not models in the traditional sense of biased beauty standards.

But I did have the excuse of writing romances, so some level of fictional love is to be assumed. Still, realism can ground a story.

Yet people can and do eroticize disabled people, as an extensive YouTube channel called Hottest Guys in Wheelchairs proves.

Recently, however, catalog photographers and fashion designers have chosen to include what are considered "beautiful" people in their runway shows, photo shoots and TV shows. Are these examples of "changing perceptions" about disabled people, or just doling out a form of tokenism for the cute ones?

One of the early examples of actor/models who broke barriers years ago is Mitch Longley

Mitch Longley
Paralyzed as a teenager in 1983, Longley continued his goals of acting, and became a regular character on the popular soap operas Port Charles, General Hospital and Another World, Longley was also a successful model for Ralph Lauren and other designers' clothing lines.

And since the year of Longley's accident, and his looks, are similar to that of an imagined adult Everett, my fictional character, one can imagine him as portraying an older version of Everett; that is, if I ever write a third book about Reid and Ev.

But don't hold your breath. I have other novels underway that aren't about them.

But perhaps, after all, I didn't fail. Because I still get emails and Facebook messages and reviews from readers who want to imagine more about my characters. They saw the beauty in the love between my imagined couple, because they saw them in their own imaginations.

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