For people with disabilities, mannequins can hurt — not help — the shopping experience

Mannequins dressed in the clothes offered by stores are a key part of the clothes-shopping experience. But for people with disabilities, the mannequins can be bitter reminders of exclusion.
For Abigayle Quigley, mannequins can amplify difficulties in shopping, as they often depict how clothing would look only on an able-bodied individual. (Submitted by Abigayle Quigley)

In Canada, the average household spends close to $3,500 annually on clothing and accessories, with a key part of the shopping experience tied to stores displaying their clothes on mannequins.

But for people with disabilities, the mannequins can be bitter reminders of exclusion.

Sheldon Crocker's first memory of shopping for clothes includes asking his mother why the mannequins didn't look like him. Experiences like that continue to affect his self-esteem, he said.

"I used to feel excluded [and] feel out of place. It played a big part [in] my growing up and even a little today," said Crocker, who has arthrogryposis, which is characterized by joint contracture, causing muscle shortening.

As someone living with spina bifida and using a wheelchair, Abigayle Quigley says clothes on mannequins pose a practical problem. 

"Say if there's, like, a knee-length skirt or, like, a dress or just a regular skirt. On a mannequin it could be knee-length. On me, it could be ankle-length," said Quigley. 

Both Crocker and Quigley said they want to see representation in mannequins not only for different types of physical disabilities but also for a variety of genders, colours and body types. 

Unrealistic body expectations

As a woman, Quigley said, she is aware of the unrealistic beauty standards the industry pushes on her gender. Tall and skinny mannequins depict an image of how a person should look as opposed to actual reality, she said. In the 1960s, the stick-thin mannequin — inspired by the fashions of the day — began to sweep aside rounder figures, often only found in plus-size stores. 

Several N.L. stores contacted by CBC declined to comment on the matter although some store representatives said they keep mannequins until they need to be fixed or replaced. "Until they're broken," was how a representative from one store put it.

Quigley said she finds that upsetting.

"If a mannequin is broken, keep it on. So what if it doesn't have an arm or doesn't have a leg? Keep it on display because they're not broken. They're beautiful in their own way and I think that should be displayed."

Crocker said stores' attitudes are close-minded to different ideas of beauty and reality.

"Just because a mannequin has a broken finger — to throw it away, then that's to represent or signify that persons with disabilities are thrown to the side and that they don't matter."

Moving from performative gestures to action

Diversity is often used by big brands to promote their core values, said Crocker and Quigley, but despite the fact they pay the same amount of money for the same clothes, they still don't see representation in their shopping experience.

Brands should move away from performative demonstrations of diversity and engage a range of voices from a plethora of communities in decision-making, said Crocker

His demand is simple: "Start not just talking the talk but walking the walk — or rolling the roll in the chair."

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