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‘A bizarre silver stocking’ and the limits of mainstream beauty / 23 November 2012

Viktoria Modesta: Fashionista, model, singer, nightclub icon, amputee. I have come across Viktoria Modesta many times ever since I moved to London  - I attended the same club nights as her, seen her perform her music, saw a beautiful photograph of her and one of her custom prosthetic legs at the Spare Parts (It is now hanging in our living room). Like many other people, I was glued to my TV screen when she performed as the ‘Snow Queen’ at the Paralympic Closing Ceremony. Alongside Oscar Pistorius and Mat Fraser, she made the public realise that people with impairments can be sexy as hell – or so I thought.

Viktoria attended this month’s European Music Awards, wearing a beautiful Vivienne Westwood gown that emphasized her curves. The dress was slit open in the front to reveal not only black hot pants, but also a crystal encrusted, custom made below-the-knee prosthetic. Of course, her picture was all over the internet a few days later, and Viktoria shared it with excitement on her Twitter and Facebook page. Suddenly, that excitement and joy I felt over Viktoria’s great look was tainted.

Reporting on the fashion of the awards show, the website digitalspy did ‘best dressed’ and ‘worst dressed’ lists, and Viktoria, just named ‘a guest’, popped up in the gallery of the show’s worst dressed. The reason for this, the caption of the picture said, was that her ‘daring black gown’ was ‘slit up in the middle to reveal a bizarre silver stocking’. Well done, digitalspy. If you look at the picture closely, it is really obvious that the ankle is definitely too thin to be actually human flesh – but the digitalspy captioner got probably so used to overly photoshopped pictures that s/he lost all previous knowledge of human anatomy.

How did this happen? Did Lady Gaga’s penchant for mobility aids reinforce the media’s belief that sticks, wheelchairs and prosthetics in close proximity to glamourous starlets must be a prop? Has the general absence (with a few exceptions) of people with impairments in glossy magazines and gossipy websites lead to the assumption that it is less likely for an amputee to show up at an award ceremony than for a person to wear ‘a bizarre silver stocking’ on one leg?

To me, this shows the deeply ableist attitudes this type of media harbours against people with impairments: The fashion world might embrace people with bodies that are different to some extent, as proven by Viktoria’s work as a model. The mainstream media, however, simply seems to ignore the existence of people with impairments, unless they fit into one of their neat little ‘benefit scrounger’/ ‘superhuman athlete’ boxes. If Viktoria does not provide a sob story together with her amputated leg, it can’t be the real thing and is just ignored.

After Viktoria linked digitalspy on her facebook page, all hell broke loose: While she found the situation quite amusing, many of her friends and fans were genuinely upset and started to comment on digitalspy’s website – which made matters only worse: The picture stayed in the worst dressed category, but only the words ‘to reveal a bizarre silver stocking’ were removed. While digitalspy realised that they made a mistake, they were not willing to admit what a weird, ableist mistake it was. Finally, after further comments, Viktoria’s picture was finally put into the best-dressed category, admitting that she was wearing a prosthetic, and digitalspy posted an apology, admitting that the caption was ‘inappropriate’. But it seems that they did not fully understand why their action was so offensive to the thousands of disabled people who long to see more disabled identities represented in the media, without a charity or supercrip story next to them. Viktoria managed to laugh the whole thing off – it was indeed a very bizarre incident, but for me it left a bitter aftertaste.

If there was that moment when disabled people were recognized by the mainstream media as equally sexy, successful and beautiful, it has passed now. Yet the reaction on Viktoria’s Facebook has shown that the public is smart and more willing to accept people with impairments as sexy. Hopefully the media will follow its lead and smarten up.

Keywords: fashion,media representation