Cara Delevingne, Gigi Hadid, Rihanna, Kate Upton, Oprah, and now Sinéad Burke: these are just some of the names behind the faces that have been on the cover of British Vogue. But while you may know most of the celebrities in that lineup, you might be asking yourself, who exactly is Sinéad Burke?
Burke, who hails from Ireland, is a writer, lecturer, and diversity advocate who was most recently placed on the cover of the September issue of British Vogue, titled “Forces for Change.” This particular issue happened to be guest edited by HRH the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle.
Not only did Sinéad make it onto the cover, but she also made history in doing so. Burke is the first person with dwarfism to be featured on the cover of Vogue.
Yet, this wasn’t the first time Burke, who stands at 3’5”, made history as a little person. She was also the first person with dwarfism to attend the Met Gala, where she rocked the carpet in a custom Gucci dress.
This all originated with a surprise encounter between Burke and Meghan Markle in late 2018, when the Duchess was on a royal visit to Ireland. After their meeting, Burke suddenly found herself modeling a custom Burberry silk trench dress in front of world-renowned photographer Peter Lindbergh.
Fourteen other women were also on the cover along with Burke, and all fifteen were described by Meghan Markle as “trailblazing changemakers, united by their fearlessness in breaking barriers.”
Being on the cover of Vogue is an incredible accomplishment in and of itself, but being on the cover of the September issue is a particularly greater triumph. According to the Irish Times, the September issue of Vogue is the “most important issue of the year.”
In a tweetfollowing the cover announcement, Burke also highlighted the personal and wider importance of the September issue. She said, “I’ve been collecting the September issue of Vogue for as long as I can remember. They were my gateway to a world that I couldn’t visualize myself within. Those September issues still line my bookcases at home and now, I’ll get to add one more to that collection!”
Not only was being on the cover such a noteworthy personal accomplishment for Sinéad Burke, but it was also a great victory for the worldwide dwarfism community.
It isn’t uncommon to see little people being represented in negative ways or treated as the “butt of a joke.” This treatment dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt where, in the courts, dwarves were “collected, indulged, sometimes abused, and sent by royalty as gifts,” accordingto researcher and scholar Betty M. Adelson.
When P.T. Barnum and his circus rolled around, dwarves became part of the show, often putting on some sort of act intended to make a joke out of their short stature. This type of representation isn’t just historic either. Little people are still discriminated against and used as puppets for comedic purposes.
For example, just over a week ago, popular country group Zac Brown Band performed at Fenway. Toward the end of the show, the band took a break from their music to have a “fan,” who was really just an actor, pretend to crash the stage. As the intended punchline of this act, ZBB brought out a man with dwarfism dressed as a security guard and had him “wrestle” the actor. The sole purpose of the act was to get audience members to laugh at this man, solely because he was doing this as a little person.
As a person with dwarfism myself, I was at a loss for words when this act occurred and it made me regret spending money on a band that chose to dehumanize people like me. (It is worth noting that ZBB didapologize for their actions at the concert. If you want to hear more about what happened from another little person who also witnessed it, watch this video).
This story and the story of Sinéad Burke call to attention the importance of representation in the dwarfism community. There are people with dwarfism who choose to represent themselves and the rest of the dwarfism community in comedic ways, but there are also people like Burke, who choose to represent themselves and the community in trailblazing and empowering ways.
The opportunity that Meghan Markle gave to Sinéad Burke to be on the cover of British Vogue is a great win not only for Burke herself, but for the Dwarfism community as a whole.