By Josh Saunders
A mum with a missing arm she used to hide behind clothing and photo angles has fulfilled her dreams to walk the fashion catwalk.
Jaleesa Graham, 27, from Robbinsville, New Jersey, USA, struggled with insecurities because she was born without the lower half of her right arm.
Throughout her younger years, she would cover herself with long sleeved tops and carefully photograph herself not to reveal the limb difference.
She found empowerment walking for local fashion shows, but feared her dreams of becoming a model would be dashed because of her ‘flaw’.
But over time, as she start to hide her arm less, until she eventually felt proud and decided to show it off – seeing herself as unique and beautiful rather than weird.
Earlier this month, she strutted the catwalk in Tommy Hilfiger for The Runway of Dreams Foundation Fashion Revolution – a non-profit that promotes models with disabilities.
She hopes her success will encourage others to follow their dreams and love their differences too.
Jaleesa, an actress and model, said: “The runway made me feel alive, this was my first time wearing the Tommy Hilfiger adaptive clothing line and it was an unforgettable experience.
“I’ve spent my life adjusting and figuring out how to make things work as far as the clothing that was available to me, so to have an outfit created with someone like me in mind, was amazing.
“On the runway I felt, beautiful, included, and proud of who I was. My uniqueness was like a badge of honour I wore proudly as I strutted down the runway.
“The audience had a great energy, cheering me on, encouraging me, to be me, and that’s something we all need.
“I’m completely opposite to how I was growing up, I love being different and showing that I am different from everybody else.
“Before I would take pictures from the side, so others couldn’t see my arm, but now I proudly show it.
“I always had friends but was insecure and would try to hide it with long sleeves, it took a while before I was comfortable.
“I didn’t like the fact that I was different and not like other kids, so I would hide my arm to fit in and be more like them.
“I didn’t have confidence in myself, was very shy and didn’t want people staring or looking at me, it caused me to have less confidence, as I didn’t see my difference in a positive light.
“Although I was shy, modelling made me feel confident and special, which wasn’t something I always felt before.
“At auditions there were times when people applauded and respected me being there with my limb difference and other times I was overlooked because of it.
“My limb difference doesn’t make me weird, it makes me beautiful.
“I want to show people to love yourself and accept yourself we are all different, I was made how I was supposed to be made. You have to love who you are.”
Jaleesa’s perception of her limb difference began to change after moving to a new school in her teens.
She decided to not cover her arm in long sleeved clothing and would also model in catwalks for her local church.
Jaleesa started to work on her self-confidence, which over the years would lead to have enough confidence to model.
She said: “I had to go through a lot of years of finding myself to be comfortable with who I am, then I had to learn to love myself.
“Now when I walk into a room and people stare or ask me about my arm I don’t take offence, I go about my day.
“I don’t hide in my day to day life, I’m being me, not afraid on social media sites.
“I’m very different to who I used to be, I love to show off my limb difference.”
Growing-up, Jaleesa never saw anyone else with a limb difference, which has led her to try to inspire others and show them not to be limited by disability.
She hopes her pride while walking on the runway will inspire others and change society’s perceptions of beauty.
Jaleesa said: “It’s an opportunity to show I can model and how I love and celebrate myself.
“In the past I haven’t always loved myself.
“I hope when seeing me, give others the permission to love themselves, their flaws and the bodies they have been given.
“I’m opposite to how I was growing up, I hold my head up high and love my limb difference, it makes me who I am.”
Jaleesa is an ambassador for the Runway of Dreams Foundation, aim to help the community by providing tools to embrace who they are.
They help by supporting stylish adaptive clothing through grants for aspiring designers, symposiums and workshops, community-driven programs and initiatives that give people with disabilities employment opportunities in the fashion industry.
Mindy Scheier, 47, founder and president said: “Jaleesa is a continual inspiration for people with disabilities, and the more time I spend with her the more I am in awe of her dedication to integrating people with disabilities into the mainstream fashion industry.”
For more information visit: www.runwayofdreams.org