Some Notes on Disability and Body-Positivity

Disclaimer: The following is based upon my own experiences as woman with recent experience of physical disability. Please do not assume that my experience is exactly representative of all disabled women. If there is a disabled woman in your life, the best care you can give her is to be discovered by listening to what she has to say about her own experiences.

One of the most important strategies for coping with disability and illness is maintaining a positive attitude. This is not only fairly obvious to most observers, but also conforms to standard medical wisdom. Unfortunately, it’s also a hell of a lot easier said than done, in part because people with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, are constantly bombarded with messages of varying levels of subtlety that tell us our bodies are less valuable than those of people with perfect health, and that our accomplishments will always matter less, and that our relationships will always rest on a fragile foundation because of conditions that may be out of our control.

Unless you live under a virtual rock and just emerge occasionally to read blogs on WordPress (which might be a really healthy lifestyle, given the net these days), you probably use some service on the internet which tracks information about you: an online retailer, an email service, social media, online news sources, or any one of a variety of other websites that keep track of who reads what and what interests might overlap. The ads you see and the links with which you are presented are often selected to match specific data about you (sometimes with hilariously wrong assumptions – Facebook in particular is known for this). If you have a disability, chances are this information has made it into some kind of data aggregator and affects the messages you see.

These messages are crafted primarily for the groups in the world who possess privilege: white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, prevalent-religion-following (Christian, in the USA), vernacular-speaking (English, in the USA), wealthy, employed, non-single men. Some messages are specifically crafted for a group that changes one of these categories; the easiest example to find is advertisements targeted to a female audience – though even those usually contain messages that point women in the direction of pleasing men in some form or other, and conforming to male-dictated standards. Racial diversity is becoming more common in advertising and promotion, but still has a tremendously long way to go. It’s still a huge deal when a homosexual couple or family, particularly one raising children, is shown in advertising.

And here’s where intersectionality becomes important. When advertisers only have 30 seconds to get their message across, they don’t prioritize positivity toward not just women, but transgender women of color with disabilities, just to give one very complex possible example. Even simpler examples, combining only two of these categories, are hard to find in commercials in ways that really matter beyond basic representation (which is a vital step, but not the be-all and end-all).

As a disabled woman, I am constantly presented with “feminist” and “body-positive” ads that show women’s bodies being “amazing,” doing things that I can’t do. I see an ad of a woman running a race or climbing a mountain, and I’m told, “see, your body is incredible.” And the message underlying that, to a disabled woman, is “your body would be incredible, if it could do this; as is, sorry, that kinda sucks.” I am presented with “reasons you know your marriage will last forever,” that consist of “because you do X thing,” that… I haven’t been able to really do in years.

People around me see these messages as well, and it affects their attitude toward me and my body. This contributes to the fact that, when I use a wheelchair, employees at a grocery store tend to talk very! Slowly! And! Loudly! In! Small! Words! As if, because I am in a wheelchair, I can’t understand their speech.

It is very hard to maintain a body-positive attitude about my own body when I am constantly told by society that my body is lesser than other bodies.

Disabled bodies are not lesser than other bodies, any more than darker-skinned bodies are lesser than lighter-skinned bodies, or than female bodies are lesser than male bodies, or transgender bodies are lesser than cisgender bodies, etc.

I’ve seen this discussed in many an article, and most of them stop there. I’m going to continue by giving some positive examples of attitudes and expressions toward a disabled person’s body.

The degree to which I am currently disabled is a relatively recent development, and so it’s something that I’m still getting used to, both as a concept in my head and as a practical living situation. It hasn’t been easy, and I know I haven’t always made it easy for those around me. I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by supportive family, both family of blood and family of choice. These people have helped me maintain something of a positive attitude, though it is still a daily struggle for me.

I have friends who tell me I look great when I show up wearing the new outfit I’m excited about, or when I’m dressed up for Renaissance Faire. They don’t focus on what today’s mobility situation might be. They tell me I’m fun to be around, to do things with, and reassure me when I wonder aloud whether my lack of mobility sometimes holds them back from doing things.

I have parents who tell me they’re proud of me, and who are proud to point out ways I look like them.

On the front lines of this fight with me, every day, is my husband. He tells me I’m beautiful, and when I sometimes stare at him incredulously, he insists, “Even though you may not feel it right now, you are beautiful.” He doesn’t let me get away with hating my body. Hating my body is a bad habit that I can fall into easily, and he knows it. His response: “Your body is amazing. I don’t like that it hurts you the way it does, but you have to remember, that’s not all that your body is.” And the best part about hearing this from my husband? It’s not rehearsed or planned. It’s part of his attitude, and I work every day to make it part of mine.

This is such an important insight, that there’s more to our bodies than our health problems, and I believe we don’t hear it enough. Sometimes our bodies screw us over, whether we’re disabled or not. Most of us will, at some point, go through a serious illness or injury of some kind. It feels like a betrayal by our own flesh, and it’s easy to lose the trust that we once had in our bodies, and to lose a sense of ownership, and that positive attitude that can keep us healthy. But those failures of our bodies are just a fraction of what our bodies do. The human body is incredible, and science continues to explore it because we don’t really even know how incredible.

This is true whether or not we’re disabled. I’d like to see this message explored with real inclusivity, in advertisements and articles focused on something other than yoga equipment and New Age enlightenment practices.

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