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How opening a First Nations runway show helped one boy’s social anxiety

IMAGE VIA FIRST NATIONS FASHION AND DESIGN
WORDS BY ELLA TAVERNER

“That’s why I thought it was important for him to be involved with anything that’s showing diversity and body positivity – to make sure other kids can see that catwalks aren’t just for your average, able-bodied model with blonde hair and blue eyes.”

Fashion Journal is proud to continue an ongoing partnership with First Nations Fashion and Design, launched during NAIDOC Week 2020. It follows past mistakes by Fashion Journal that caused hurt to the First Nations’ community (you can read our apology in full here), and we are proud to be moving forward collaboratively with such talented Australian creatives. 

It was 2020 when the gut-wrenching video of bullied Murri boy Quaden Bayles captivated the attention of millions of viewers across the globe. The harrowing image of a distraught and emotional Quaden in response to years of school bullying is something most viewers will be hard-pressed to forget. 

At just 10 years old, Quaden’s carefree childhood has been tainted by an overwhelming reminder of the space he occupies in the world. From as young as three, Quaden recalls feeling acutely aware of eyes on him, being watched and gawked at as a result of his condition, achondroplasia. 


Interested to hear how others navigate the world? Head to our Life section.


Quaden’s experience highlights the cruel reality of growing up in an ableist society where fitting into the mould is so desperately alluring while individualism is repudiated. But Quaden is determined not to let his struggles define him. Flash forward to 2021 and Quaden has gone on to become an advocate for anti-bullying and body positivity while finding fame as a social media influencer.

Earlier this year, Quaden stole hearts across the nation opening the First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD) Walking in Two Worlds show in Brisbane. Last week, I sat down with Quaden’s mum Yarraka to discuss his bright future and how putting himself on centre stage has helped with his social anxiety.    

Tell me a bit about Quaden. What are his passions and interests, what’s he like? 

He’s definitely not your typical 10-year-old kid. He’s very wise beyond his years. He’s an Aboriginal boy with dwarfism trying to navigate a very Western, atypical world which is difficult, being a minority in a minority. But that’s what I try to explain to him – you might not see it as a blessing at the moment, but that’s actually your superpower.

He struggles with his identity and his diagnosis, and the fact that he’ll never be tall and play football and do things that regular boys love to do. That’s why I thought it was important for him to be involved with anything that’s showing diversity and body positivity – to make sure other kids can see that catwalks aren’t just for your average, able-bodied model with blonde hair and blue eyes. Teaching him to accept himself for who he is, that’s the goal. 

I recall you speaking about his social anxiety, do you think that’s been triggered by his experiences?

Definitely. He always stands out in a crowd. He is half the size of an average ten-year-old. I have a two-year-old granddaughter and they’re the same size clothes. So even for a ten-year-old boy with achondroplasia, he is tenth percentile. He really struggles with social anxiety and more so since the video went viral, with a lot of the conspiracy theories and death threats coming from England and America. And we still get those.

I still have to report constantly and screenshot the death threats. Cyberbullying is out of control, it’s pushed him to the brink of suicide again, it was that bad. He’s with me 24/7, he’s homeschooled because the anxiety of even a uniform triggers him. Every single day there’s different triggers that will give him a panic attack. So he prefers to stay home, that’s his safety and comfort zone. But I’m constantly reminding him, nothing grows in your comfort zone. This is character building. Your pain isn’t in vain, you’re going to be able to strengthen so much through this experience.

You’ll learn to love and embrace yourself for who you are. As smart as he is, he doesn’t want to be different, he doesn’t want to have dwarfism, it’s difficult just trying to navigate around a house and a world that isn’t designed for short-statured people. Looking at someone who’s different from you truly put things into perspective for me and made me appreciate the things we take for granted. 

It’s beautiful that you have such a close relationship. Another part of his story that really interested me was that opening the runway helped ease his social anxiety.

Definitely. I was more nervous than him, I was giving him the pep talk before he went on, like ‘Whatever you do, just don’t run off the stage’. And he was just so comfortable, he owned that stage, I couldn’t believe it. I was so nervous for him, thinking that he might have a panic attack or anxiety attack because everyone would be looking at him, and it was just like a whole new boy on that catwalk.

Now more people know who he is, and are asking if they can say hello or shake his hand or take photos with him. It’s given him more confidence that he can do things. He’s grown up seeing his sisters in the fashion industry. It’s something that he’s always wanted to do but just needed that opportunity. The FNFD team didn’t push him to do anything he didn’t want to do.

They made him feel so comfortable, and as soon as he’s comfortable, the barriers come down, the trust is there, and that’s all he needed to thrive. And I think that’s all anyone really needs – to be made to feel comfortable. He was the star of the show. I was so proud. I was actually laughing and crying just watching him. It was the proudest mum moment ever.

He absolutely owned it, you could just tell there’d been a level of trust and confidence instilled in him – he looked like he was flourishing. 

And that was the whole crew, wardrobe, the volunteers, the makeup artists, all the other models. Every single person could not have been nicer, you couldn’t have asked for a better crew for his first experience, which has made him hungry for the next time. It built so much confidence and self-esteem in what was such an anxious little boy that was so self-conscious. It was like he just threw that all away as soon as he walked out. 

I imagine you would have been absolutely beaming. And how has he been since?

I mean as long as he’s with me or his sisters he’s fine. But he’s strengthening every day, he’s maturing into a young man, he’s auditioned for a few roles and been successful, so there are some huge announcements coming. I think that’s really his career now, whether it’s modelling or acting, just that creative space where he’s able to express himself without actually having to do much. He’s a natural-born entertainer.

He says he wants to be a comedian because he loves making people laugh. I think of people like Robin Williams and comedians that have taken their lives – it’s usually the ones that have lived through so much pain and trauma, and that’s why they love making people laugh. 

He’s always been the class clown. So I think it’s definitely shaped him to dream big, and know that he can do it. He’s grown in leaps and bounds in the last month since that experience. So it was just a really good experience for him to build his confidence and a great stepping stone. 

Tune in to NITV on Wednesday November 3 to watch a screening of the Walking in Two Worlds show. 

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