This year, Endangered Bodies honors Danielle Sheypuk, a prominent disability rights advocate, licensed clinical psychologist, and fashion model. Wheelchair-dependent since childhood, she specializes in dating, relationships, and sexuality among the disabled. We had a chance to speak with Dr. Sheypuk about her groundbreaking work as an activist and model and why Indwelling is so vital for women today.
Can you tell me about your work as a disability rights advocate?
Earning the title of Ms. Wheelchair New York in 2012, and becoming the first fashion model in a wheelchair to "walk" the runway at New York Fashion Week in 2014, I have used my expanding global media profile to advocate for greater commercial attention to be paid to persons with disabilities as a major consumer market. I have written passionately about this "unseen giant" of the consumer demographic, constituting more than $200 billion in consumer purchasing power. My emphasis on the glamor and sexuality of the disabled female is meant to embolden other women in their quest to explore and express their own inherent beauty and desirability.
What unique body image challenges have you faced as a disabled woman?
Frequently, people with disabilities are satisfied with many aspects of their lives but struggle significantly in the areas of dating and romance. We have long lived according to very damaging stereotypes, including those that assert that we are not dateable, not sexy, unable to have sex, not masculine or feminine, and will not make good romantic partners. While we feel good about our careers and our social lives, feeling sexy, glamorous, and beautiful isn’t always easy. Training and working as a professional psychologist has helped me to understand and overcome many obstacles related to negative body image and has thus allowed me to help others with physical disabilities.
What's your experience like working in the fashion industry as a wheelchair-dependent model?
It can be absolutely thrilling and rewarding, but occasionally also frustrating, and even disappointing. Often models with disabilities are included in fashion presentations to make a one-time social or political statement, and then never called upon again as fashion models. But my goal is to create a legitimate demand for models with disabilities, as representatives of true beauty and glamor in the fashion world.
What’s your relationship with the Women's Therapy Centre Institute?
I have just initiated a relationship, based on a speaking opportunity that was offered to me. I look forward to a deepening and long-term relationship with the WTCI.
Why is Indwelling meaningful in today's world?
The concept of being completely comfortable inhabiting one's female body has never been more important - especially in an era that has witnessed the rise of certain anti-female philosophies and religious strains of thought around the world, which downgrade the value of female physicality and sensuality, often with tragic consequences for individual women. This devaluing of the female form, beauty, and sexuality remains especially prevalent in the population of women with physical disabilities.
What advice would you give to women who are struggling to make peace with their bodies?
We all have flaws and, as is human nature, it is very easy to focus on these flaws. The trick is to become aware of the positive aspects of our bodies, the ones that we feel are attractive. It can be difficult to do on your own as struggling with low self-esteem in terms of body image and sexuality can be very powerful. If this is the case, a trained mental health professional can help you address these issues. Once you identify the aspects of your body that you like and find attractive (and we all have these aspects regardless of what body-type we have!), then focusing on them more will cause you to focus less on the parts that you do not like as much. This will become easier over time leaving you feeling less anxious and self-conscious and more at ease and comfortable with the body that you were given to work with!
To learn more about this year’s Indwelling, click here.
Interview by Diana Denza