Joan Vennochi

A magazine with style, but no taste

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / July 21, 2011

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WHEN GQ magazine recently unveiled what it deemed the 40 worst-dressed cities in America, Boston topped the list. Sartorially-speaking, the city was described on GQ’s website as suffering from “a kind of Style Down Syndrome, where a little extra ends up ruining everything.’’

That cruel joke about life with an extra chromosome upset many relatives and advocates of those with Down syndrome. One of them was Brian Skotko, a physician at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Down Syndrome Program, whose sister, Kristin, has Down syndrome. In a blog posting headlined “Mock my pants, not my sister,’’ Skotko issued an eloquent response to GQ’s scathing fashion critique.

“Go ahead, GQ, and mock my blue whale-emblemed Nantucket red pants. Laugh if you want at the loud argyles that I prefer to wear with my black suit, ’’ wrote Skotko. “. . . But whatever you do, do not mess with my sister.’’

Skotko then went on to explain from a very personal perspective “what Style Down Syndrome really is.’’

It’s “smiling when everyone prefers to frown. It’s spending three summers, in sheer determination, learning to ride a bike because you want the freedom to be like everyone else. It’s singing tunes from Grease’ at the top of your lungs with your friends. It’s celebrating a third-place victory at a swim meet with as much gusto as a gold medalist. Style Down Syndrome is strong-willed, persevering, and forgiving - because it has to be.’’

Skotko said he is amazed by the response to his post, which has had more than 40,000 hits. “Parents, brothers and sisters and grandparents have said, ‘We will not take it anymore,’ ’’ he said. “I think the disability community has been insulted one too many times.’’ He also sent a letter to the editor to GQ, and received what he describes as a private apology.

GQ removed the offensive line from its website after complaints poured in. But it did not publicly apologize for it, nor explain why it was originally deemed fit for inclusion. Did no editor see the irony in allowing writer John B. Thompson to call out Boston as a “bad-taste storm sewer’’ when it comes to fashion, at the same time GQ let him lower the taste bar when it comes to fashion review?

A Condé Nast spokesman, responding via e-mail, said, “The author has personally responded to the people who reached out concerning this matter.’’

There’s a fine line between wit and witless, and this crosses it. GQ pitches itself to an ultra-hip audience. Does that audience really think it’s cool to turn intellectual disability into a play on words, making a punchline out of people who can’t punch back? As Skotko also notes, “If my friends who are black were mocked, they would not take it. If my friends who are gay were slurred, they would not take it.’’

The common use of the word “retarded’’ in song and conversation is another sign of the cultural disregard for the mentally challenged. The thoughtlessness stretches to the famous in all walks of life. Last May, basketball star LeBron James ended up apologizing after he blurted out, “That’s retarded,’’ in response to a question during a postgame press conference in Boston. In 2009, President Obama apologized after he went on “The Tonight Show’’ and joked that his bowling is “like the Special Olympics or something.’’

Skotko said he does not know if his letter to the editor will be published. In it, he invites GQ to introduce its readers to real people with Down syndrome through the My Great Story campaign of the National Down Syndrome Society.

That is really his larger point.

To know someone with Down syndrome is to appreciate the joys, challenges, and grit that are part of their everyday life and the lives of those who love them. To know someone with Down syndrome is to understand that style is more than a dress worn by a princess and more than conventional measures of beauty and success. It is about attitude and when it comes to Down syndrome, the attitude is not humorless. The roller coaster ride offers a lot to laugh about.

But people with true style know that’s a lot different than being laughed at.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at