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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 (69 Responses)

  1. staciedrew says:

    This is an awesome article, and I am so glad to see inclusion at its finest- simply being treated the same as everyone else. Confidence is Sexy on everyone who wears it, and Jes wears it well! My hats off to Jes and her friend Holly, who are in my opinion, artistic and social geniuses! :)

  2. jward52 says:

    Pretty COOL Sachse. – I believe a person is better by just being- “YOU”. Go Girl. – Your pics were inspiring, honest, and also just pretty neat. – Joe

  3. msamericanpatriot says:

    This could be a way to show people that disabled people want to explore their sexuality just as well as they do. I know I sure would love to.

  4. EarlChantrill says:

    Disability is not sexy and neither is ability. However, there are sexy people with disabilities, and Jes is an example. Good for her for being confident about her ability and not focusing just on her perceived disability!

  5. gwennbuz says:

    Sachse, you are fighting for all those who are not like everybody else. What great parents you have to
    raise you as “normal” You are beautiful and it shows in every picture. You are inspring and look a lot nicer
    than some of those skinny looking same models we see on a regular basis..

  6. ambitiousmamas says:

    Sachse, you are beautiful. I think society’s idea of what constitutes as ‘sexy’ is skewed. It doesn’t reflect the diversity of the women who exist.
    I blogged about this topic recently.

  7. disabilitiesrightsadvocate says:

    More work like this needs to be done in order to destigmatize all things disability! It is about time that people are able to recognize the uniqueness and beauty that comes from a variety of disabilities. Bravo!

  8. skurtzman says:

    A special thank you to Holly Norris for creating this feature art. Ms. Sachse is a beautiful example of how courage, confidence and individualism outrank elitism, sameness, and following the crowd. Art of this nature goes a long way in reducing stigma by demonstrating to the general public that individuals with disabilities often have other abilities that shine when encouraged.

  9. shirleysdaughter says:

    Fabulous photos!

  10. AKAspie says:

    No disabilty cannot be sexy: it is in and of itself strictly an abstract concept; now a person with a disability can certainly be sexy, but as a person with a disability, I find abstract fetishism of disability as a universally applied concept bothersome on a personal level. This is mainly an issue with the headline, and less so for the story’s actual subject, whom I applaud. I know I wish I felt more sexy in front of a camera sometimes, self-assurance outside of a camera lens is hard to capture when one is terrible at responding to the ‘Everybody smile for the camera’ call…..I think I’m damn awesome in the mirror, possibly having a stroke in most every photo!

  11. Freda says:

    Sachse, I think you look fabulous and am inspired by your confidence and attitude. You go girl! Beautiful pics Holly!

  12. shane says:

    i can simply say good for her she obviously doesnt suffer from the self-esteem issues i do as well as the anxiety and chronic nervousness especially central to issues such as sexuality and celebrating diversity, perhaps societies commonly held notions of what is sexy and what isnt could do with some tinkering

  13. Sabina says:

    Amazing! I recently began dating a man who is a C5-C6 incomplete quadriplegic. I think he is incredibly sexy! Whenever I get near him, I just want to cuddle with him! It isn’t his disability that makes him sexy but him!

  14. Lindsay says:

    Absolutely amazing!

  15. jst me in ne says:

    You go girl, that is creation at its best. Don’t ever believe otherwise.

  16. Sandra says:

    Sachse, You are beautiful, you go girl!

  17. gary blaschke says:

    Hey Jess and Holly, I’ve taken people with every disability imaginable for a fun surfing experience for over twenty six years. I’ve seen it all and nothing is more important than personality and attitude. If we can get the so called beautiful people on the beaches of Australia to accept everyone for having a go, not what they look like, then you girls have it all.
    Next time your in Australia, I’d love to take you surfing…

  18. Jen Kuhn says:

    LOVE IT!

    This is great, not just for women with physical disabilites but for all women and young girls. And also for our communities. We tell each other what beauty is, it’s time we start showing, teaching and
    re-educating the public.

    I think you should do a calendar and posters.

  19. Kim says:

    She is stlyish. At first I thought expoltive, but the look on her face says shes hamming it up. Also, its all expoltive- what does bare breast have to do with selling overpriced copycat 80s track shorts. A tear came to my eye because she is luving her life free

  20. Linda Em says:

    Several years ago my son invited me to a Christmas potluck at the local community college where he worked with disabled students in the physical education department. He told me to bring my camera so I could take pictures. All the students were happy to meet his mom and posed happily for the pictures I took. I am not a professional photographer, but those were the best pictures I have even taken. I realized later it was due to these people being recognized as valuable and as people we wanted pictures of. That is not very common in our Hollywood style culture. So kudos to you Jes for challenging the belief about what is beautiful or sexy!

  21. Lauri Robertson says:

    This is encouraging, not only for p/w/d, but for anyone who has a body-type that doesn’t fit the current standards. Those of us labelled as ‘too fat’ or ‘too thin’, or ‘too anything’, can take heart in looking at this happy, sexy, confident, young woman!

  22. OneTearOfJoy says:

    As much as I applaud Sachse for her confidence, I think these pictures will not just do what they are suppos to do. Too many people are ignorant when it comes to accepting “different”. I can see those people already making fun of Sachse, and it personally hurts me too.
    I grew up being overweight and people around me sure let me feel it. I didn’t give up and figured out that as long as I loved myself others would feel the same way, for the most part. I shocked people around me too just like Sachse, and some did accept me, but not all.
    In recent years a movie came out with a very talented young black actress who is very overweight, and different. She was invited to the Oprah show and praised for her marvouless work as “Precious”. A few days later a certain well known radio authority made right away fun about her. Listening to this radio show I teared up since I realized no matter how good, how talented, how pretty, and how confident someone is there will always be those who make fun of “different”. Often these people won’t stop at just making fun, they become creative and really hurtful. I pray Sachse has the personal strength to let it roll of her back!

  23. Lester says:

    awesome. as it should be.

  24. Cyndi says:

    You are the epitome of sexiness…because you are not afraid to explore it. I am a recent amputee and still embarrassed to show myself to anyone naked and still do not consider myself sexy. I know that will change in time, so maybe it’s good I saw this article. Keep it up! I love it!

  25. Winter says:

    Work it girl!

  26. Susan CATHERINE (Surname) says:

    Hello Jes,
    You look so great! Really cute and totally confident.
    Susan

  27. Penelope Herbert says:

    Sexy is being confident and comfortable in our own skin. Jes is fabulous, confident, and sexy.

  28. Aeva says:

    Wow…I would never have the guts to do anything like that (and I have a body type that is seen as stereotypically desirable). She looks so happy and confident, not to mention beautiful. I’ve always been a sucker for strong, tattooed women though!

  29. Liam Payne says:

    This is a wonderful article! She is pretty and confident…I like that in a woman. This is inspiring!
    xoxo,
    Liam James Payne (yes it is really me from One Direction!)

  30. Chandra Chauhan says:

    Beauty is absolutely NOT only what you see on the outside…it comes from within and the fact that you have the confidence, the courage and rocketed self esteem, tells everyone volumes about your character, your personality and your inner beauty….you are beautiful to me all the way…

  31. Zebrawoman says:

    I think this girl has amazing legs, first of all. Secondly, she’s got attitude to spare, and good for her. Unfortunately, fetishist will gravitate towards these pictures, and they will be mocked and misused. Objectification of women, whether able or disabled, fat or thin, pretty or not pretty only creates more trouble for women, whoever they are. You can be disabled with barely a physical trace of it. You can have a totally nu-commercial, or as some would call it, grotesque body and be strong and able as an ox. We need to accept people as they are, not packaged and labeled.
    Again, no reflection on Sasche – she’s a brave soul and even though there will be mockery and misuse, she has struck a blow for disabled acceptance.

  32. Tom says:

    Rock on girl!!!

  33. Jason H. says:

    Dear Ms. Jes Sachse,
    You rock!

  34. Jim Kraus says:

    Jes you are another shining example that REAL beauty comes from within.

  35. Carol Slaby says:

    I really enjoy seeing people with disabilities get over the hurdles sometimes placed there by loved ones and express themselves. Protecting our children from the world only serves to have the world expect nothing from our children. Carol Slaby, Terre Haute In.

  36. Sharon LeBlanc says:

    Awesome Jes! I have a little girl age 7 who is Trisomy 21. I never want her disability to define her and my wish for her is to be comfortable in her own skin and for her and others to see how beautiful she is. I am so happy to see that you feel that way, lets hope it rubs off on the rest of society! You go girl!!

  37. Camery says:

    The ‘Tight’ photo series is ammmmmmazing! Stunning and beautiful!

  38. Drew House says:

    You are brave, you sound intelligent, and you look fun-loving, Jes, and these are all indicators that you are beautiful in the inside. That is, of course, the most important part of being a beautiful human being. However, there is another piece here separate from all that: You are also very physically beautiful. No back story required. Period. Full stop. Regardless of anything. You just ARE who you are, and you know it. That is a hard thing for many people to be. You’re the whole package, inside and out, lady! (I love reading the comments of the people you’ve touched with this, too. Well done!)

  39. buddhabunny says:

    Jes, you are so gorgeous! I’ve seen you around at disability talks and always thought so. I love these pics!

  40. Consuelo says:

    everyone can be sexy.. it’s something about attittude and being comfortable with who we are, not how people see us

  41. dee says:

    jes has some major guts. i love how much self confidence she’s got- it makes me feel a bit silly for worrying about my weight. this is both a great takedown of the stupid american apperral ads, and a reminder that confidence really is hot. rock on jes :)

  42. Heather Fisher says:

    Way to go Jes! Your spicy attitude is encouraging!

  43. Tim says:

    Jes, you are Beautiful! the world is a better place because of you.

  44. Lauren says:

    This is great for her and she really is amazing.
    …….but it’s not very uplifting when it comes from a blatantly sexist company like American Apparel. Their ads are like the article says, all one body type. But not only that, women are portrayed as sex dolls whose only value is how they can please men. I’m not making this up, just look at their “now open” ad, and the difference in how men and women model a shirt (the man is dressed modestly and confident and the woman is wearing the shirt wide open, only covering her nipples and in a thong. It is the same button up unisex shirt.) And if you look into the photographer responsible for their prized ads, you’ll see that he is one creepy guy. Models have stories of being sexually harassed and abused by him while the staff acts like everything is just fine.
    So, no, I don’t trust a company like this to be actually genuine about this. More like, they discovered this project and figured they could turn this bad-press criticism into profit. That way they can appear to be as open and accepting as people want these days and get good press and more millions. If their so accepting, why are their clothes so tiny when catering to everyone would get more business?

  45. Thomas Alleman says:

    Wonderful pictures, Holly and Sachse! Congratulations on your success! FYI, there was no need for you to get permission from American Apparel for the creation or display of these pictures—even their sale in galleries and publication in magazines (and websites) is protected by Fair Use and Fair Dealing laws. (Selling them to advertisers who are trying o draw attention to a product other than AA is the only exception to this.) Because these photographs function in the artistic/satirical realm, they don’t require permission from anyone. For many, many years, those laws have allowed artists and commentators throughout the Western world to address cultural, social and political issues raised by powerful, moneyed interests, including governments and corporations. Those laws are strong here in the States, where AA lives, and they’ve been enshrined in Canadian law since 2012, with amendments to the Canadian Copyright Act. The reason I mention this here is obvious: if this project catches the public imagination—as it certainly deserves to!—you might have a great many opportunities to create and display more images in a variety of venues and situations, and you shouldn’t feel it necessary to ask AA for permission every time you want to move forward. That gives them—or any corporation—too much control of “the culture”. I know a little about them, and I do believe that they probably embraced your project for all the right reasons—I’m pretty sure they “get it”, and are truly fans of this work—but, still, they never had an actual say in any of this, in the first place, and won’t in the future, unless you allow an advertising agency to promote tires or soft drinks with these pictures. Good luck!

  46. Syruus says:

    wow you go that’s great I totally love it it’s about time !

  47. Samantha says:

    As a long time sufferer of Anorexia Nervosa, I am well aware of the unrealistic expectations advertisers and the media put on people. Nobody has the right to define beauty, and I think Sache more than proves this in her photo spread.

  48. Kristine says:

    Fabulous! I’d kill to have thighs like that – you got, flaunt it!!

  49. meatfish57 says:

    What a great article and beautiful young lady :)

  50. blancheellis says:

    Hey, great to see this. I totally agree that sexiness is how you act and how you feel, all connected with confidence and not defined by a certain set of limited features. This is good to see, full of humour, humanity and sensuality.

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