Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A baby with Down syndrome is a swimsuit model: Yes, it's a Big Deal

Meet Valentina Guerrero, a 10-month-old from Miami who's modeling for the Dolores Cortés Kids USA swimwear catalogue. She even walked the runway (oh, OK, she got carried). Adorable, right? "People with Down syndrome are just as beautiful and deserve the same opportunities," designer Dolores Cortés told Adweek.

Meanwhile, there's been rumbling online about whether Valentina was chosen to be the face of the brand's kiddie ads because she has Down syndrome. The headline on the The Huffington Post's Facebook page:

Writer S.E. Smith at XOJane went off on Cortés for reportedly issuing a press release about Valentina and putting the tot on the runway. While progress is being made, this writer noted, she decried what she called companies' "persistent insistence upon being recognized for using disabled models" rather than "subtly integrating them into catalogs and advertisements and letting them be seen for who they are." She felt companies are trying to call attention to their "progressiveness."

Let's take a closer look at these claims:

The claim: Companies are "trumpeting" it when they feature kids with special needs in ads and demanding "praise and pats on the back."
Reality check! Target has cast kids with Down syndrome in ads for the last few years, including the adorable Ryan Langston. Word about this spread largely via social media. Target, if anything, has been remarkably closed-mouthed about Ryan.

Only after a Washington Post writer contacted Target about Ryan did the company issue a statement: "Target is committed to diversity and inclusion in every aspect of our business, including our advertising campaigns. Target has included people with disabilities in our advertising for many years and will continue to feature people that represent the diversity of communities across the country."

Nordstrom also featured Ryan, in its anniversary catalog. Again, the company didn't draw attention to it. Neither company seems to have demanded praise or props for their choice of models.

The claim: Companies are trying to prove they're "progressive" by featuring kids with special needs in ads.
Reality check! Well, yes, this is progressive—as hard as that is to believe in 2012. As much as parents of kids with disabilities may long to see them represented in the media (and generally get treated like other kids), the fact is very, very few children with special needs are featured in mainstream print ads and catalogs. And TV ads? Name one; I can't.

The claim: Companies are "exploiting" kids with Down syndrome.
Reality check! True, some companies are eager to have models and spokespeople who get them attention. But this isn't Snooki doing an ad for a weight-loss pill. This is a child worthy of being a model—beautiful, smiley, chuba-licious and anything you'd ever want in a baby swimsuit model. Valentina, Adweek notes, is the first child with Down syndrome to be the "main" model for a fashion company. Let's talk about a star being born, not "exploitation."  

The claim: It's wrong to announce that you have featured a child with Down syndrome, rather than "just subtly integrating them into catalogs and advertisements."
Reality check! OK, my first instinct also was it's wrong for a company to get all self-promotional about this. But then I thought it through, and I've decided that if a company chooses to make a big deal out of featuring a child with Down syndrome in their ads it can be a Good Thing. For one, it can help spark conversation about inclusion. Also, the more attention models like Valentina get, the more likely it is that other companies will join in—and the more it has a chance of becoming a "norm." We are so, so far away from that right now. 

The claim: "Once Valentina is no longer sufficiently cute, she'll be out of work." 
Reality check! Why the assumption that this beautiful child won't stay beautiful? Are only cutie-pie babies with Down syndrome model material, to this writer? Maybe Valentina will continue to land modeling contracts for her good looks, charm and popularity, if that's what her parents want. Maybe she will give Gisele a run for her money. Who knows what the future holds.

I want to see more, more, more kids with Down syndrome in ads. I want to see children with cerebral palsy, like Max, and other disabilities as well. If this becomes a trend then, yippppeeee! And if other companies rush to jump on that trend, well, how awesome would that be?  


  1. This makes me so excited! I have been raising money for our local Down Syndrome walk in honor of a friend's baby girl. Persons with DS are beautiful and talented and I'm thrilled so see them integrated into print ads. Your "reality checks" were spot-on and refreshing. I shared this post on FB. Thanks, Ellen!

  2. She's totally adorable, but it's true that once she's no longer sufficiently cute, she'll be out of work. That's the life of a model! She'll just have to deal with it and find some other line of work! It's tough being beautiful! :-)

  3. Well said!

    I was in the Toronto airport last week and there was a huge billboard with children representing every culture and I couldn't understand why they hadn't included a child with disability. There are so MANY opportunities where our kids could be included.

  4. People might want to check out the campaign on facebook "Changing the Face of Beauty"

  5. "Once Valentina is no longer sufficiently cute, she'll be out of work." Yes. JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER CHILD MODEL. OH THE HUMANITY.

    The point of advertising is to sell things. Valentina is really, really cute, and those who hire her think her cuteness will sell things. Is there calculation that she's also a kid with DS? Sure. There is calculation in every decision about advertising. More kids of color are used in ads now (and not just in the back row) than in years past, too -- that's also a calculated act. Does that mean we shouldn't applaud it?

  6. You nailed it, Ellen prime...this is a good thing, really, and sometimes we just need to take it as such and stop overanalyzing.

  7. I have to say I had a hard time reading this because I kept scrolling to see more photos of Valentina. My, she is delicious. I think the company made a great choice, regardless of the DS.

  8. I'm the mother of a gorgeous 7 month old son with DS. I can tell you that myself and other Aussie mums in our T21 Australia group with babies and children with DS are always excited to see children with DS and other dissablities included in everyday things. Thanks for sharing. xx

  9. Ohh, she's cute. I agree that it's a good thing. I would like to see more ads that had children with more visually obvious disabilities though.

  10. So great! Target also featured a girl with Lofstrand crutches in their circular about a year ago. It wasn't the point of the ad, but definitely struck a chord with me as a mother to a son w. CP.

  11. In the mid-to-late '90s, my sister did quite a bit of print and runway modeling through Beautiful Kids Inc., an agency that worked specifically with special-needs and disabled child models. This agency closed its doors when its founder and sole employee retired a few years ago. Does anyone know of anything comparable that exists today?

  12. What a cutie! I just wish that this would be the norm and it would not make the news.

  13. My friend with Down syndrome dances and sings. She also likes ice cream and working hard.

  14. Completely agree with you. Its a positive thing having more people with disabilities 'out there' and visible. When this sort of thing stops becoming talked about as news we'll know that inclusion is really happening and working!

    Valentina is adorable :)

  15. I agree Valentina is cute as a button (English expression no idea why we say this) and diversity in advertising is essential. As her parents have decided to have her be a child model, I think their motivation is the most important to understand. The fine line between promotion/advocacy and exploitation is being navigated by both sides, the advertisers and the parents, especially with the child being so young and therefore being unable to express their own desires. All of us parents of special needs children have to be careful in this area. To use a young baby just to make a point express your beliefs or support a political stance is clear exploitation. Even when it is well intended.

  16. OMG! Isn't she beautiful!!! I knit as a hobby for my sanity. I especially like to knit children's clothes. One day I was looking at one of my pattern books and realized one of the baby girl models had double hearing aids. They didn't make a big deal of it, but they also didn't try to hide. it.I love, love, love it. I don't think Valentina is being as exploited as those poor children in Toddlers & Tierras. That is the ultimate in child exploitation. Children with Down's Syndrome are such commedians and hams and I bet she loved every minute of the attention. She looks so happy in the pictures. (Can't say the same about the little girls in T & T.) I can't wait to share this story with all my friends. I love, love, love it!!!

    Adoptive Mother of a 53 year old woman with Down's Syndrome

  17. I just don't buy into the whole "what if" and "exploited" bullsh..t. That's a cute kid, and who knows what her future will hold? The money she makes can go to a college fund or a nest egg for her future. DS kids are as individual as CP kids or any other kids. The only mistake would be to assume that they all fit into a pre-determined box where their possibilities are limited.

  18. I think she's adorable. An adorable baby girl. DS or no DS. I mean to the un initiated- she could be a child of mixed race.

  19. I think she is adorable. Being that i have a child with down syndrome, I have to say they are just beautiful and amazing inside and out.


Thanks for sharing!

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