When I was a little boy -- about four or five years old -- people would walk up to me and say, "I saw your picture, you are so cute!" I learned years later that a poster-size photo of me hung in pharmacies all over Southern California. I was, in fact, a child model.
Looking back, I was actually one cute little boy!
As I got older, I remember feeling insecure about my looks and feeling ugly. I liked nothing about my body. In my 20s, I was slender and had washboard abs, yet drank protein powder and worked out so I could bulk up and be a "muscle man."
Looking back on my 20s, I may not have been an Abercrombie & Fitch model, but I could have landed a catalog or two. It did not help that I worked for International Male and was constantly comparing myself to the top male models of my day.
I also recall my sisters and my gal-pals starving themselves so they would look perfect like the size-zero models walking down the runways of New York, Paris and Milan.
That is why when this year's New York Fashion Week featured plus-size models walking down the runways, I was elated. I knew that for millions of young women, their self-esteem would go up and had hoped that perceptions of beauty were about to change in the world.
So, when I got a call to attend a photoshoot for Infantino and Step2 -- makers of products for babies and kids -- I was intrigued. The companies had made a conscious decision to use not just the perfect looking children you are used to seeing in advertisements, but children with Down syndrome and other special needs in their product packaging and marketing campaign "Everybody Plays."
When I thought about it a little more, I realized my thinking was programmed. The "perfect" kids were no different than children with disabilities because all children are perfect, and (as the campaign suggests) everybody plays the same way. Society has placed children that are different on the little-yellow-bus... but why?
I had always been segregated from people who were different. But look at what is happening in today's society. The younger generations are friends with their classmates who are "different," and even making them prom queens and kings. They are embracing what was once considered different, and making it the new normal.
"We have the power to help foster the acceptance of all kids by ensuring their representation in all forms of advertising," said Infantino's Colette Cosky. "Our intention is to make reality the new norm and reduce the stigma that often surrounds children with special needs."
At the photoshoot, I looked at these toddlers from all walks of life, I learned something -- the children saw each other as playmates, not as different. These perfect, beautiful children laughed, smiled and had a delightful time. For a moment I even considered what it would be like to be a father.
Then I remembered what my sister Donna had once said -- people who are different are not here on this planet for them to learn from us, they are here for us to learn from them. The only thing a child with Down syndrome wants to do is love and be loved. A hug makes their day perfect.
Why can't the rest of us, who are disabled from our own insecurities, learn from them?
I guess the author Robert Fulghum of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was right.
I spent my whole life wishing I was someone different and thinking if I could only change this or that about me. Hopefully I can learn to look at the current pictures of myself and learn to love me for who I am, accepting the imperfections and all.
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