(WOMENSENEWS)–Sitting at her kitchen table a few weeks ago, Danielle Sheypuk couldn’t think of any fashion designers who have chosen disabled models to consistently represent their clothing.
But this is changing — with her.
The Tomboy Shop, an androgynous clothing retailer based in New York City, just announced that Sheypuk will be regularly modeling its clothing.
"To me being a tomboy is about identity," said Rachel Grossinger, founder of the year-old shop, in a phone interview. "It’s a personality type. It’s a form of expression and to me it has nothing to do with whether you are disabled or not."
Grossinger came up with the idea for The Tomboy Shop a year and a half ago while in graduate school. A "tomboy" herself, she noticed there was a gap in the market for androgynous style clothing.
The Tomboy Shop is an online retailer and a content site with interviews, upcoming events and fashion ideas.
Grossinger said she hopes to open a storefront in the future, but right now is focusing on events and pop ups when possible.
Sheypuk and the shop are currently working on a consulting basis, with Sheypuk being paid hourly to begin with. As the shop gains momentum in the next few months she will be called in regularly to model for new shoots.
Grossinger said having Sheypuk on the team helps define the shop in a way that speaks to a broader audience. "I don’t see her as any different from any of us," she said. "When you are around Danielle the wheelchair is just an object in the room."
The first photo shoot from The Tomboy Shop shows this. "The wheelchair is there but it is not a big blazing highlighted wheelchair. It’s just another body type. That’s it," said Sheypuk.
Fashion Week Stir
Last year Sheypuk caused a stir in the fashion industry when she rolled down the runway during the February New York Fashion Week.
Sheypuk, a clinical psychologist and Ms. Wheelchair New York 2012, was the first person with disabilities to be featured in that venue. This year designers caught on to the inclusivity trend; people with down syndrome and amputees made appearances on February’s runway.
Sheypuk said while this is a huge step forward, designers mainly feature models with disabilities as one-shot deals.
"All the designers that have used models with disabilities so far they have good intentions," said Sheypuk. "But it’s so few and far between and infrequent that it becomes like more of a social statement than about the product."
Sheypuk said designers refrain from using models with disabilities for a few reasons. There is the idea, she said, that people with disabilities are sick and not the ideal image of a healthy person, so designers are afraid of their brand being stigmatized.
Maybe more than anything, she said, designers are afraid because they don’t know how to work with someone who has a disability. She said the first Tomboy Shop shoot proved it’s nothing out of the ordinary. If something didn’t work on her during the shoot Grossinger was quick to try again. Sheypuk said it was just like if another model put on a color that didn’t work with their skin tone and had to change.
"We just worked around each other’s bodies and it was great," she said. "It means a lot that Rachel trusts to use an image of someone with a disability to sell her product. That’s a ‘risk’ that no other designer is taking."
And when a designer does take that "risk," the models they choose are unlikely to look like Sheypuk, who was born with her disability and uses a motorized wheelchair.
Sheypuk said the most common model with a disability is someone who is pushed in a wheelchair because of something that happened later in life. As an example she pointed to the 2012 reality TV show "Push Girls," about four women in push wheelchairs, three of whom were paralyzed in car accidents.
"I feel like their image is more acceptable in society because they look like pretty girls sitting down that could get up at any time," she said. "That’s what’s important about The Tomboy Shop for all people who have congenital disabilities to see this. They’re gonna feel good about their bodies."
Diversifying Beauty Ideals
Alexandra Santibanez remembers the first time she saw Sheypuk in the news during the 2014 fashion week in New York.
"She inspires me in so many ways," said Santibanez, a wheelchair model and motivational speaker. "Just like Danielle, I don’t let my wheelchair define who I am."
But it’s also important for people without disabilities to see Sheypuk modeling for The Tomboy Shop, said Harris Stratyner, a New York based media psychologist. "She is not only helping people with disabilities but she is helping people who don’t have disabilities."
Stratyner said for any young girl who is bombarded by Photoshopped images in the media, seeing someone like Sheypuk can change their beauty ideals and challenge unrealistic standards.
Social and media psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford also said seeing Sheypuk regularly modeling for The Tomboy Shop is important because it shows everyone that people with disabilities are just another diversity in life.
"It tells [people without disabilities] that people with disabilities have jobs, they are respected by people around them and they are considered beautiful," she said.
Dill-Shackleford said if people are invisible in the media we miss out on the crucial opportunity to learn about them. "Learning more leads to less fear and greater understanding and that probably leads to less discrimination."
Sheypuk said she hopes this job with The Tomboy Shop will encourage other designers and retailers to choose models with disabilities for the long haul. Like Santibanez and Sheypuk they are out there and are now striving for more than political statement campaigns.
"We’re trying to get to the ultimate goal of complete integration," said Sheypuk. "Look at this designer doing it, now let’s get another designer to do it."
She added, "The more fashion magazines or media depict people in wheelchairs as sexy and glamorous, the more other people believe that."
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