Dear Aerie: Thanks for showing, once again, that real beauty doesn't fit in a box.
In its latest viral ads, the brand that's celebrated beauty of all shapes, sizes and colors is featuring the differently abled in a beautiful way. The new Aerie ads show real women from all walks of life proudly displaying their disability, condition or illness — and they're pretty darn inspiring.
From a gorgeous gal with Down Syndrome to a beauty rocking her insulin pump, the new photos show that it's time for more ad campaigns to embrace all forms of beauty.
Gaylyn Henderson, who appears in the ads with her ostomy bag, told TODAY Style she's excited for the opportunity to turn a condition that's often deemed negative into a positive.
"Having the support of an influential brand like American Eagle to promote positive ostomy awareness has already changed lives, and I know this because of the feedback I am seeing and receiving," she said.
After being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1998, Henderson underwent several surgeries and procedures, including her latest surgery, a total proctocolectomy, a surgery that removes the rectum and all or part of the colon. As a result, she has to wear an ostomy pouch.
"I held on as long as I could to my colon because if this surgery didn’t work, then what would come next? I was still striving to be 'normal' by clinging to the very thing that was killing me. But there came a time where I had no choice, and it was the best thing that has happened to me," Henderson said.
After hesitating to get the procedure because of the stigma surrounding it, Henderson decided she had to do something to change the ostomy conversation.
"Even though ostomy is life-saving surgery, many are reluctant to receive them because of the negative stigma. I didn’t want others to suffer unnecessarily as I did because of the negative stigma surrounding having and living with an ostomy," she said. "There is little to no positive awareness or programs specifically targeted at increasing self-worth as it relates to living with an ostomy. So, I started the organization Gutless and Glamorous," she said.
The mission of the organization? To empower those living with or contemplating ostomy surgery due to illness or injury and to erase the negative stigmas and misconceptions of living with an ostomy.
After seeing Aerie post an open call for models in their new bra campaign, Henderson submitted a video and was thrilled to be chosen.
"To have this opportunity is surreal! For Aerie to give me this opportunity, I'm beyond grateful and thankful they would give someone like me a shot," she said.
Other models on set felt the same way, too.
"There was an unspoken feeling in the atmosphere that couldn’t be described. Many of us, myself included, struggled with self-acceptance due to illness and the devastating physical and psychological effects that it can cause," Henderson said. "We understood the magnitude of what this campaign meant and how very special it would be!"
One of Henderson's fellow models was Chelsea Werner, a Paralympic gymnast who has down syndrome. Werner and is represented by We Speak, a model agency that represents health-conscious models of all sizes and backgrounds. Werner told TODAY Style she was thrilled to partner with one of her favorite brands.
"I was so excited when I heard I was going to be part of this campaign! It got even better when I was shooting it. I got to meet others who have challenges in their lives and my idol Aly Raisman," Werner said. "I feel so proud to be part of this. I hope this spreads a message that we are all unique and beautiful and love to be represented."
The new campaign is just the latest example of Aerie's dedication to real beauty. The brand recently featured a model showing off her bacne in a swimsuit ad, and Aly Raisman and Rachel Platten also starred in a Photoshop-free ad for the brand earlier this year. In a statement, Aerie told TODAY Style they relish the opportunity to celebrate a range of beauties from all different backgrounds.
"As a brand, Aerie has been a leader in empowering women and celebrating inclusivity and body positivity since our launch of #AerieREAL in 2014. Our newest bra models are part of our brand's ongoing commitment to show real, authentic and unretouched women, who are at the core of everything that we do," Jennifer Foyle, Aerie global brand president said.
By starring in the new ad campaign, Henderson is inevitably providing a voice for countless women with similar backgrounds.
"By bravely and proudly showing her ostomy through this campaign, Gaylyn is raising awareness and combating the stigmas that surround IBD and ostomies," said Michael Osso, president and CEO of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. "We applaud Gaylyn for helping create a world of acceptance and body positivity for all patients dealing with chronic diseases, and thank Aerie for including an IBD patient in their new campaign."
Looking back on the experience of modeling in Aerie's new ad campaign, Henderson said it's encouraged her to reach for the stars. So it's safe to say, the campaign has had its intended effect.
"If you would have asked me this last year, I would have never thought someone with an ostomy would be in a national campaign modeling underwear. So honestly the possibilities are endless, the sky is the limit!