by Alexandra Capellini
Recently, I found myself once again scrolling aimlessly through Instagram. As I was about to swipe out of the app, a photo caught my attention: Jaleesa Graham modeling swimwear for Target.
There she was, a right below-elbow amputee, repping a swimsuit for one of the largest, most recognizable department stores in the world. A few weeks before, I had seen an online announcement from SKIMS, the American clothing brand co-founded by mega-celebrity Kim Kardashian: the launch of its Adaptive Collection, featuring Stefanie Schaffer in her bilateral prosthetic legs. James Young, an upper- and lower- extremity amputee, would later be seen walking the runway of Graduate Fashion Week in London.
Lately, I’ve been noticing people who look like me in mass media. Of course, I’m biased in what I notice, given that I’m an amputee myself. Even so, there’s no question that amputee visibility is on the rise.
It’s not just happening in fashion and advertising, and it’s not just in my Instagram feed. The Summer and Winter Paralympics got more US coverage than ever before in the last 12 months. In addition to watching the events themselves, audiences could see amputee athletes such as Jessica Long swimming in a Toyota Super Bowl commercial, and Brenna Huckaby snowboarding past able-bodied riders in a separate ad. Prosthetic legs are popping up everywhere in movies and television, too, from Josh Sundquist’s family show on AppleTV+ (Best Foot Forward) to NBC’s La Brea and Disney+’s Hawkeye and Echo.
When I think about the power of representation in the media, and what that does for normalizing amputee bodies, I see more visibility as a good thing. When amputees are shown in the mass media, it sends a message: We are welcome in this space. Another message comes across to everyone else: Amputees deserve to be seen.
And yet there’s a risk that comes with increased visibility. For a long time, amputees in the media have been boxed into two roles that serve the larger disability narrative: We are objects of pity, reminding nondisabled people to be thankful for their own bodies because it could be worse; or we are superhuman athletes, perhaps injured veterans, who are overcoming our amputations as a source of inspiration for others.
Neither of these cliches is true for most amputees. I think of myself as someone simply trying my best each day, adapting to opportunities that come my way. I do not define myself by my limb loss; I offer much more than that. I celebrate amputees modeling for larger brands—amputees modeling for adaptive brands makes sense. I also wait for the day when amputee models are offered work outside of adaptive fashion, when their skills as models are valued beyond showcasing their limb difference. I hope to see amputee models hired for high fashion runway shows that are not designed entirely for adaptive participants and audiences. To me, that would be a sign of true inclusion in the industry.
Our Paralympic athletes deserve as much praise as any athletes do for their skills and commitment to sport. There should still be room in the media to recognize those of us—the majority—who pursue sports recreationally, as most able-bodied athletes do. It takes extra effort to stay active as an amputee, and the media should reflect that sports opportunities are available at all levels of ability.
I’m excited for the inclusion of these amputee actors into TV shows and film. But I also want them to be cast for roles that extend beyond token “disabled” roles. The amputee on screen doesn’t always need to overcome a huge challenge, play a wounded veteran, or save the world as a bionic-superhero character. Amputee characters can also be teachers, lawyers, students, and romantic leads. I have yet to see an amputee cast as a source of physical attraction.
We’re moving in the right direction, improving the visibility of people with limb difference and limb loss in the media. Now is the time to be mindful of the narrative. I do not spend my time seeking pity or feeling bad about my body. Audiences don’t need reminders to sympathize with us or to be thankful that they don’t look like us. I’m not a Paralympic athlete in training or a veteran, and those archetypes aren’t the only ones deserving of representation. I’m a graduate student, staying physically active, loving my body more every day, trying my best.
I’m excited for the media to share all parts of our community.
Alexandra Capellini is a medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.