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Disabled Women like Victoria’s Secret Model Sofia Jirau Don’t Need you to Protect Them

You don’t own disabled women. Reread it. 

You don’t own our bodies, minds, or choices – we are not plastic, inanimate Barbie dolls upon whom you can enforce your views and project your prejudices. 

You cannot preordain our life or career paths – our clothing choices. You cannot tell us we’re being exploited as you manipulate us. 

Yet, according to the clouded, non-disabled gaze, the narrative is straightforward: Disabled women can’t make free choices – we don’t know our minds or genuinely understand. We’ve been dehumanised so wholly. 

We’re the superhumans: the broken discardable, not quite humans, the broken dishwashers.     

That narrative was made more apparent when Victoria’s Secret made history by announcing that Sofia Jirau, a model with Down syndrome would be a part of its new campaign featuring “dynamic women.” 

In the caption for her announcement post, translated from Spanish, Sofia Jirau wrote: “I once dreamed about it and worked for it — today, it’s a dream come true. Finally, I can tell you my big secret… I am the first Victoria’s Secret model with Down syndrome!” 

Across social media and in comment sections, the move has been labeled “exploitative.”

Jirau worked for this position, so, to have non-disabled people suggest that she didn’t – or that she could not consent to it, to have strangers question the severity of her disability, and to have them indicate that it was a perversion to involve her, is disgusting.  

“Not sure how I feel about this,” “So Wrong,” “But they’re like a child.” “She needs someone to watch her in that room.” read the comments.

The infantilisation is vile. She’s not a child. She is a disabled woman. 

Outsiders do not have to be “sure” about our choices. We’re not looking for validation from non-disabled people – our lives would be somewhat stunted if that were the case. We would exist in a perpetual state of childhood, never quite reaching puberty or shredding our purity.   

Jirau has noted that “people who have Down syndrome like me are capable of getting a job, creating their own business, and working hard.” When non-disabled want to attack us, they will diminish our achievements and suggest our hard work is illusionary – it’s a radical act for any disabled person to go against the socially sanctioned roles for disabled people. 

This, in turn, conflicts with the profound ableism within our culture – the comforting fairytales that non-disabled people tell themselves.   

But disabled people have everyday lives. We’re ordinary people: we have jobs, we socialise, we have sex, and we purchase bras and vibrators. We have our dreams and expectations to fulfill. Non-disabled people want to sell themselves a fantasy: we’re fragile, the damsels in constant distress – even as they have to cut us down and shrink our existences to fit the one-dimensional part.   

The reality is that ableism causes society to view disabled people as both asexual and unattractive. Therefore, hiring disabled models is exceptionally important. We should be supporting them and fighting internalised ableism on sexuality. 

Do non-disabled people believe that disabled people don’t wear bras? Is it “exploitative” that Victoria’s Secret sell bras to disabled women? Are they corrupting us, sullying us?     

We should be questioning why the default setting for such conversations is that a disabled woman is being exploited.

Disabled women such as myself and Sofia Jirau make choices every day about how we live our lives. How we use our bodies – and how we make money, just because society tells us we’re unattractive, asexual and dependent, and therefore unable to make choices – doesn’t make it so.    

Disabled women are more than the choices we’ve been given. So, finally, we’re breaking free from the notion of our fabricated “safe” existences – we were never protected – there is no right, “safe” path for disabled women, free from exploitation. 

We have long since abandoned the fairytale, the Dream House. This protected imagined existence never existed. So why are non-disabled people trying to chain us to it? 

The reality is that the Dream House the non-disabled built for us was made of lies and control, built on foundations of actual exploitation and the underlying ableist ideology that disabled people cannot make choices for themselves. 

It’s a non-disabled world, and we’re just living in it: and trying not to be stripped of our humanity.

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