"As difficult as it is to live with our oddities, I've learned it's always better to just embrace them and not be ashamed."
Shaholly Ayers was born without her right forearm, but this never held her back from her dreams of being a model. Today she's taken the fashion world by storm, posing for countless magazines and catalogs, is the brand ambassador for Global Disability Inclusion, and became the first amputee to walk New York Fashion Week without a prosthetic. (Related: NYFW Has Become a Home for Body Positivity and Inclusion, and We Couldn't Be Prouder)
"As a child, I didn't even know I was different," Ayers tells us. "I was 3 the first time I heard the word 'disability.'"
Even then, she didn't quite realize what the word really meant until she was in third grade. "That's when I started to get bullied and picked on because I was different," she says. "And that lasted all the way through junior high and a little bit into high school."
A HUGE thank you to @nordstrom for the amazing opportunity to model for your current #anniversarysale catalog. And thank you @global_disability_inclusion For your statement! It's thinking like yours the will help reshape the world! . . "We commend Nordstrom for its leadership role in featuring diverse models in their catalogs," said Meg O'Connell, President of Global Disability Inclusion. "Many in the fashion industry are hesitant to feature models with disabilities. Shaholly is the perfect example that beauty and disability are not mutually exclusive." . . . . #shaholly #amputeegirl #model #nordstrom #inclusion #disability #bodypositive #fashion #acting #awarness #ashleygraham
For years, Ayers struggled to cope with the fact that people treated her poorly simply because of her disability. At the time, there was nothing she wouldn't give to change their perception. "I remember sitting in class in junior high this one time and really contemplating being different because at the time there weren't any Amy Purdys in the world—or at least they weren't showcased, which made me feel like a complete outsider," Ayers recalled. "Everyone was picking on me, from my classmates to my teachers, and it made me feel like a horrible person even though I knew I wasn't. It was in that moment that I thought, 'What can I do to change people's minds about me and how they look at disability?' and I knew that it had to be something visual."
That was the first time the idea of modeling crossed her mind, but it wouldn't be till much later that she'd actually act on it.
"I was 19 when I actually had the courage to walk into a modeling agency," she said. "But right off the bat, I was told that I would never make it in the industry because I only had one arm."
That first rejection hurt, but it only gave Ayers the strength to keep moving forward. "That was the biggest moment for me because that's when I knew I had to make it, to prove them wrong and everyone else who doubted me wrong," she said. And that's exactly what she did.
After sticking to her career for years, she finally got her first big opportunity in 2014 when she was featured in Nordstrom's Anniversary Sale catalog. "I'm super grateful to have such an awesome opportunity to work with Nordstrom," she says. "They've asked me back multiple times throughout the years and that just shows me how dedicated they are to making a change and it proves their investment in diversity." (Related: I'm an Amputee and Trainer—But Didn't Step Foot In the Gym Till I Was 36)
Ayers was just featured in her third Nordstrom catalog, where she was seen wearing her prosthesis for the first time.
Growing up with my disability I was constantly told what was and wasn't possible. My dreams were always challenged or heavily scrutinized. The most prevailing of all was this notion of beauty. I can't count the number of people, mostly strangers - who would approach me with, “you'd be so pretty if you had two arms.” Somehow missing a partial limb was a determining factor of the quality of my appearance. It took years and many tears before I realized that it wasn't others acceptance of me that I needed to attain, but my own. What helped me forge ahead through dark times was my ever present motto, "different is beautiful!” I continued to model despite the many rejections and I'm so thankful that I had. Around 2014 I met Global Disability Inclusion, the first company to take a chance and believe in me. After working with them I've walked in NYFW 5 times, modeled for Nordstrom multiple times, garnered international press and what's more, proved to myself and naysayers that beauty is not a rigid standard in which we measure ourselves against but the power of self acceptance. . . #Tbt: to NYFW 2016 For @ftlmoda and @global_disability_inclusion wearing @hendrikvermeulencouture Photographer: @2dominic . . . . #NYFW #fashionweek #model #amputeemodel #inclusion #bodyposi #disabilityawareness #disabilitypride #disability #amputee #selfacceptance #instagood #selflove
While it's amazing to see a huge brand like Nordstrom represent a disabled model, Ayers notes that it's one of a few to make a solid effort. "Nordstrom has been a trailblazer but the goal is that other big companies will follow suit," she says. "It's one thing to include disabled models from a representation standpoint, but from a business and financial perspective, disabled people are one of the biggest minority groups in the world. One in five people have a disability and we buy products, so in that respect it's a win-win for other big brands who are currently lacking diversity in their national campaigns."
Ayers hopes that as diversity and representation in the fashion world increase, people—disabled or not—will become more accepting of their flaws and differences. "All of us feel like the oddball at some point in our lives," she says. "But as difficult as it is to live with our oddities, I've learned it's always better to just embrace them and not be ashamed."
"It's a journey getting to the point where you are comfortable in your skin," she shared, "but continue to work on it and you will get there."