For most young girls, the prospect of growing up to become a model—getting to wear fancy clothes and patrol catwalks for photographers and adoring spectators—seems like nothing but a life of glamour and material fun and luxury.
When it comes to model and Illinois native Gigi Cunningham, though, every gig she takes on does more than just provide an opportunity to showcase the latest fashions and trends. For Cunningham, her career as a model is a chance to erase stigmas and raise awareness for a community that often gets unfairly maligned and underestimated.
Cunningham has Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that affects as many as 1 in 700 babies every year. The disorder, which is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21, causes physical abnormalities and cognitive delays that range from mild to severe and can result in speech problems or lower thresholds for life skills development.
These easy-to-identify physical characteristics and the cognitive delays caused by the disorder tend to create a serious stigma for individuals with Down syndrome, which results in struggles to gain employment and discrimination in everything from extracurricular activities to social situations.
As Cunningham learned as a child, that can mean more than just limited job opportunities. For the now-21-year-old woman, there was plenty of bullying in school to overcome—but instead of letting it get her down, she decided to build up her confidence and show the world that Down syndrome can be beautiful, too.
“Gigi understands that there are some cruel people in the world, but that you do not let that tear you down as a person,” said her mother, Eric Butler, in an interview with The Mighty in 2015. “Always approach your obstacle with a ‘I can’ attitude and with a smile on your face because you are worth it. My belief is that you can do all things through Christ and with prayer nothing is impossible. Never give up and if no one else believes in you I do. We are winning. I am determined to help change the face of beauty.”
With the support of her mother, Cunningham started modeling as a young teen, making it her mission to change the way people view the Down syndrome community. She walked the runway at the Be Beautiful Be Yourself fashion show in 2015, and hopes to continue modeling as she gets older while simultaneously serving as an advocate for acceptance and inclusion.
“Gigi has been turned away from many opportunities because she has Down syndrome,” Butler added. “She has been told she is not what we are looking for and that people like that should stay at home, or she is not beautiful. People have said many cruel things and Gigi does not let that stop her from what she is destined to be and that is greatness. Every morning before she goes to school she looks in the mirror and says I’m beautiful and we high-five each other.”
It’s a way to help the community learn to accept and embrace someone different, but it’s also a way for Cunningham herself to gain self-confidence.
“I love that I can inspire others to make a change and love the skin they are in,” she explained.