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Can Disability Be Sexy?

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A series of photographs spoofing the often racy advertisements from clothing retailer American Apparel is questioning traditional ideas of beauty in a most provocative way.

The photos are of Jes Sachse, a 25-year-old Canadian college student with a rare genetic condition known as Freeman-Sheldon syndrome. She has unique facial features, a curved spine and her right leg is a bit shorter than her left, but Sachse is not lacking in attitude.

The series dubbed “American Able” includes 13 recreations of actual American Apparel ads. In one called “Tight,” Sachse appears in a leotard to strut her stuff before an oversized window. In another ad called “Workout,” Sachse is shown wearing nothing more than a headband and green shorts.

The work produced by Sachse’s friend, photographer Holly Norris, 21, is appearing in Toronto subway stations this month on more than 270 electronic screens as part of a photography festival.

“What I hope comes of this is that people can view disability differently and see that people with disabilities are sexual,” Sachse says. “So many people are trying to come to my aid and protect me from being exploited and they want to prevent disabled people from living their lives.”

The project began nearly two years ago as an assignment for a women and popular culture class that Norris was taking as an undergraduate at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Norris thought it would be fun to spoof American Apparel advertising, because the company claims that models in its print ads are just normal, everyday girls, though they all seem to share similar body types.

“This idea of who is beautiful and what’s sexy that we see in the media all the time isn’t necessarily what beauty is to me or to you,” says Norris, who received permission from American Apparel to display the work publicly.

As a child, Sachse says she was taught to deny that she was different. But over the years she instead developed pride in her body. Most of the clothing used in the photos actually belongs to Sachse who says she likes to dress stylishly.

“I look confident in the photos and I look just how I feel about the work, about the idea, about my body,” she says.

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Comments (83 Responses)

  1. tara says:

    so amazing!!!! i appreciate Jes so much

  2. Al_Belle says:

    Jes, you have become my new hero. You are beautiful.

  3. Pamela Dahl says:

    I have a disability, and I like seeing ads with people with disabilities in them. We are part of the public who buys the products being advertised!

  4. Pamela Dahl says:

    Kudos, Sachse! As a person with a disability, I like your attitude!

    Pam

  5. Steven Mairs says:

    Better yet, can not being sexy be acceptable?

  6. Sarah B says:

    Fan-freaking-tastic work, Jes & Holly! THIS makes me feel excited that social media can truly help inspire people to question their ethics & perspectives and change status quo, even if it’s a few people at a time!

  7. Nemimi says:

    She actually has fabulous long legs!

  8. Cameron says:

    “As a child, Sachse says she was taught to deny that she was different. But over the years she instead developed pride in her body.”

    We really need to fix this. Kids are always taught to pretend there’s nothing different about them even if there is. They need to be taught to understand, respect, and even in some ways revere difference, both in themselves and in other people. They do not need to be taught that “difference” doesn’t exist, because it always has and always will.

  9. marfans patient/advocate says:

    I have a mild case of Marfans Syndrome. I have had two major surgeries one splitting my Strenum and the other leaving a scar down my left torso. Between the surgery and marfan I been left a little twisted and scared. I commend you miss for being comfortable with who you are

  10. Gone too far says:

    I am truly disgusted. People take things so far. Disability can never be considered sexy and this is just an eyesore that I wish I never saw. Society is becoming so mundane and boring that they are willing to make freak shows out of people disability. This is just wrong.

  11. cheryl says:

    If you are going to ask if disability can be sexy or not then you need to be fair and put someone nice looking with a disability in the pictures.

  12. *In the eye of the beholder says:

    – Some individuals will always undoubtedly fail to behold ANY beauty beyond the ‘usual standards’, and for these blinded people, I’m really very sorry that you miss so much!

    – Jes, you look as beautiful and confident as you obviously feel! Awesome to see someone (with a disability, no less) embrace yourself AS YOU ARE, step out in confidence and share with others who you are. It takes true courage and well-being to do what you’re doing, and I’m confident that your campaign will inspire many others to do the same. Thank you!

  13. Lawton says:

    This is such a great idea – and great photos!

  14. Deirdre says:

    This is a great a idea. hopefully it will be used in positive way facilitate change in attitudes and behavior towards persons living with disabilities.

  15. Everett says:

    Just as beauty is truely in the eyes of the beholder, so too is sexy. Jess believes herself to be sexy and because she is the beholder of that belief then indeed she is sexy. That others may not find people who are different than various segments of the general public’s standardized perceptions of beauty or sexy is only important to those who allow others’ perceptions to define them. Obviously Jess defines and loves herself and, in the final analysis, her opinion about herself is the opinion that matters the most.

  16. Lin Jaynes says:

    WOW! what a beautiful lady ,inside & out!

  17. Lia PAdilla says:

    Definitely, any disability can be beautiful and this young lady in the pictures proves how gorgeous one can be. I appreciate how the disability community is coming together and bringing to light the positive aspects of physical disabilities. I say kudos to you!

  18. Frank says:

    Disability is another “feature” a person has; and it is also another means of causing admiration. Usually what a man admires the most in a woman is her body, so, it is the same for people like me, we also like to see her body, even if it is no a “normal” one for the rest of the society, but it is for us. A disabled person causes us to feel admiration for that kind of people. It just a new condition, but is not “normal” for society because no too many people know about that, but is the same as when a man admires a woman.

  19. Brenda says:

    Love it! Go Jes!

  20. Dave says:

    I am really glad to see a disabled chick getting a modeling gig! To Hell with being stuffed into society’s back bedroom! We’re here, we’re not going away, and we want to enjoy the same things as everybody else!
    Good job, Jes and Holly!

  21. Peggy says:

    I don’t think the right questions are being asked here. What is sexy? It will be different for everyone. Is it important to be sexy? I have no idea!

    Is it okay to feel good about yourself, to like what you see, to like how you feel inside your body? Does it match how you feel about yourself inside? Do others have to agree with you and lust for you? Or does it matter that only ones that matter to YOU find you irresistible, sexy and loveable?

    Does it bother you that others try to push on you what they feel is a desirable look or what qualities both physical and emotional are most important? Are you pushing against them to show that you don’t agree with their way of thinking? Do you think it’s worth it to push back? I’m not sure…

  22. Augie Krieser says:

    Simple deduction… all human beings can be sexy. Individuals with disabilities are human beings, therefore can be sexy. Read it carefully. The deductive argument answers two questions in a positive manner.

  23. Shelley Ashfield says:

    I love the “tight” sequence – the sunlight and the limited palette with your figure are just beautiful, both in Jes’ shots as well as the original American Apparel ad.
    The other setups are spoofs – just as the original American Apparel ads were spoofs. Dorky curtains, dorky furniture…doesn’t matter whether it is Jes or some other model, I look forward to the day when the dorky “snapshot” aesthetic passes. When you’re old enough to know where it originated, it doesn’t look cute anymore.

  24. Linda Sadler says:

    Luv, luv your pics! You are an inspiration to all. I hope Vogue will photo shoot you for a front cover. Best of luck.

  25. Ambiguous-One says:

    Good questions, Peggy. I like the idea of running a spoof of American Apparel ads. Love that idea. And I love that Jess was bold enough to take part.

    But I’m not so sure it’s important to promote ‘self’ as our society loves to. We’re a narcissistic society. We love to see ourselves and we love to hear ourselves. Sheesh.

  26. sandra probert says:

    Good girl. They should use more aunts/children with disabilities not only down syndrome kids/adults.

  27. Mari Beth says:

    Confidence can be sexier than what many people consider “physical beauty” (stick thin, model perfect features) in my opinion! That model definitely has confidence and beauty!!!

  28. April M. Whitt says:

    You go Jes!

  29. Heather says:

    I love this! It should be everywhere!! Jes is an inspiration

  30. Daisy says:

    Jess and Holly – fabulous, insightful work, you have challenged the culture of ‘Norm’ with beautiful work, one for us!! X

  31. Seth Daniel Sikma says:

    So amazing, Yes. I think its a great idea with what your trying to do but I think your going about it in the wrong fashion… Just like @StevenMairs says below “Better yet, can not being sexy be acceptable?”

    I find a lot of females dressing down but yet complaining about how men look at the female body? What does this, exploiting the human figure. Can you not tell how people look? And whats more important, the person or what they’re wearing? Who they are, what they can and have accomplished?

    I would have to disagree with this.
    Why can’t a Challenged person be in Ads? Its because of Society that they’re not isn’t it? I work with Mentally Challenged persons and they’re amazing people, Gorgeous and Bright people. Look at how they look at the world, and don’t judge. We all want to be accepted but yet when were met with challenges and fail we feel like were unworthy and unacceptable of peoples acceptance.
    Were all Challenged and have new challenges DAILY!! Just because someones born a certain way doesn’t limit them, Us as a community, a Society and everyone in this world is responsible in some way.
    Stop Judging!

  32. Char Howard says:

    Physical disability is not the same as intellectual. My daughter is shaped like Kim Kardashian but has the mental capacity of a 10 year old and begins high-school this year. I am happy for her goal and the recognition that the photos has provided- but I need this distinction: If this was an intellectually disabled person who really does have what society accepts as a marketable figure, then we would definitely be dealing with exploitation. So specify “Physical disability” please. The reality of the situation is that some disabled people do need protection from being seen as “sexual beings” by those who would take advantage of them. Thank you ever so much.

  33. Rhonda says:

    This is not helpful to or for my daughter with a pFAS. She is extreemely vunerable. Her mind is damaged but she presents as a typical teen and looks like a 24 tall developed woman. She would take this as permission and TOTAL empowerment to do the same. She is obsessed with boys because she wants acceptance and will do anything they say. We, her adoptive parents, fear daily she will be hurt emotionally and physically the rest of her life. This is not helpful – there are other ways to show physical beauty, of every kind, thru photography WITHOUT the porn option. The window/black leotard shots are fine. We want healthy safe wonderful options for our daughter.

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