Jillian Mercado in the Beyoncé fashion campaign


Disabled women often care about fashion as much as those without a disability

So why are they usually excluded from the conversation, asks Frances Ryan

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By Frances Ryan on

I’m not sure at what point it is disabled girls are told they’re ugly, strange things. Perhaps about seven when a boy you like makes fun of your hearing aid. Or 11 when you first notice there’s no one in magazines – no popstar, model, or actress – who sits in a wheelchair. Or 15 when your stomach dips because you realizs the bikini your friend has picked out for you will show your surgery scars. 

Disabled women don’t have a monopoly on sexism or body shaming or self-doubt. That’s a bundle of joy every woman is lucky enough to get a slice of – There’s enough to go round, ladies! It’s a treat for everyone! Nor does possessing a disability as well as both X chromosomes mean two disabled women will have the same feelings, likes, or needs. But one thing I’ve realised as I’ve grown up with a disability is that being a disabled woman can hugely alter your relationship with your own body – and with it, your relationship with the clothes and make-up and underwear you put on it. 

This really rarely gets talked about. I’m not sure it’s something that necessarily comes up with girlfriends – friends who, as much as you love them, are (basic maths suggests) not necessarily going to have a disability. It’s definitely not something that gets discussed in magazines or the Saturday fashion pages. Disabled women – our bodies, our needs – are generally cut out of there, as if we’re entirely invisible when it comes to beauty or sexuality. 

If disabled people do get a mention in a mainstream publication, the subject matter is often grim or outright depressing. (Confession: as a journalist, I’m responsible for a fair whack of this.) That’s partly because the reality of disability – such as the government cutting your benefits to the extent you are suicidal – sometimes is actually depressing. But it’s partly because we live in a culture where disability is often seen in solemn, grave terms – and by extension, a disabled person’s life – is often seen in solemn, grave terms. The everyday, trivial worries – debating whether anti-ageing cream is a patriarchal conspiracy or an actual scientific discovery – are what other people have. The normal, superficial stuff – going into Topshop and wondering if you can get away with a neon metallic slip dress and then going into Reiss and wondering if you can sell a kidney for £550 leather leggings – is what other people do. Normal people. Girls who want to feel pretty. Women who are allowed to think about sex. 

To have confidence – to see the little bits of your body and to learn how to like them – is something every young disabled girl has a right to

As a disabled woman, breaking out of that cage can feel like a little victory. Not only the realisation that you’re allowed to be a woman like any other but the difference your disability brings to it. There is something beautiful about the moment you work out how to make a piece of clothing adapt to your own body – because your disability affects your height, your weight, or shape. When you start to feel comfortable with the marks on your skin left there by medical equipment – or if you choose to, finally find a concealer that covers it. There is a new confidence that comes with finding expression in styling your hair when nausea or pain is making you feel ugly and low. There is a genuine relief the day someone invents jeggings because skinny jeans crush your stomach sitting in a wheelchair. 

An ability to find a pair of jeans that don’t dig into your groin may seem decidedly unimportant when there are currently disabled women in this country who, due to social care cuts, can’t even get dressed in the first place. But perhaps it’s part of the same struggle: to have the same life – in all its substance and superficiality – as anyone else. 

For many of us, that means feeling beautiful, confident, and sexual (and the many things in between). To have that confidence – to see the little bits of your body and to learn how to like them – is something every young disabled girl has a right to. It comes back to something many non-disabled women can understand: when your body is different from the norm, learning what makes you feel good in your own skin is like re-claiming something that you weren’t even aware had been taken from you. 

Fashion and the disabled women 


If your disability means you’re spending the majority of your time sitting down – or you have circulation or other problems – it can be difficult to wear many fashionable trousers that tend to have little give. High waist cigarette pants can be comfy and flattering. I would marry Topshop jeggings; a bargain and they actually look like skinny jeans rather than a tacky alternative.  

A good concealer for scars  

If you have scars or marks that you’d like to cover, it’s worth looking at specialist concealers to use under or in addition to your regular foundation. From the high street, YSL anti-cernes concealer is excellent (at £24, it’s not the cheapest but it lasts). If you go for a less pricey alternative, I’ve found it has to be creamy enough for delicate skin, or it’ll ‘cake on’ to ridged or red marks.      

Skirt lengths 

I don’t understand the science but if you’re sitting in a wheelchair, many skirts seem to either come up very short or very long. That’ll obviously also be the case if your disability means you’re shorter than average or your limbs are. To avoid looking like a Victorian sitting down, I get mid-length skirts shortened to sit at the knee (no, I cannot sew). Buying a certain style short skirt – for example, a pleated mini skirt – is a cheaper way of ‘cheating’ to create the same length.   

Under-eye corrector for fatigue   

When chronic illness or disability is leaving you looking like you’ve not slept in three months, using a corrector – before a concealer – under the eye is make-up magic. The pink- or peach-based formula neutralizes dark patches that mean it tends to be more effective than straight concealer. Bobbi Brown corrector is my personal go to. 

Dresses cut under the bust 

A big chunk of dress styles hide your body shape – or bunch up entirely – if you’re sitting in a wheelchair. I find empire line or shift dresses are best (particularly if you’ve got bigger breasts). Similarly, tops that sit at the tummy are generally unflattering sitting down, so I go longer – never anything that doesn’t cover the top of the bum. 


Jillian Mercado in the Beyoncé fashion campaign
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