I was talking with some of my disabled friends the other day about body image. One of my friends said they were always worried about looking fit because, as a wheelchair user, they feared that any extra weight would be perceived as the result of laziness and possibly part of the reason they needed the chair. Someone else mentioned that she avoided short haircuts because of the institutional association; the way that a person who is visibly disabled and female-coded, wearing short hair, is assumed not to have chosen the style for herself, and therefore assigned less autonomy in people’s perceptions.
When it was my turn, I told the story of my hyper-vigilance around spilling food and drinks on myself. I have multiple disabilities that cause both physical and cognitive problems, and it’s all added up to me being a seriously floppy, clumsy, twitchy person. Any time I eat I’m likely to have my hand jerk or my wrist collapse or my swallowing mechanisms decide to cop out at the wrong time and end up with part of my lunch in my lap. It doesn’t help that restaurants tend to have those tables with one big leg in the middle that I can’t fully fit my wheelchair under because the footplate hits the table leg. That leaves me rushing to the bathroom in guilt and shame, scrubbing at my clothes with whatever towels or tissues they have available and often making a bigger mess than the one I started with. I’m always afraid of the stereotypes of disabled people as sloppy or dirty, remembering my days as a kid in special education classes when the “mainstream” kids wouldn’t even touch us because our disabilities were seen as “gross.”
Like everyone else, we as disabled people have to struggle sometimes with self-acceptance around our insecurities related to body image. But the attitudes of ableism that infect our society so much that it’s virtually impossible not to internalize them add another layer that’s uniquely ours to have to fight against. Because we live in a world that hates disabled people, we become conditioned to hate everything about ourselves that marks us as one of those disabled people: the ones who are despised and ridiculed, the ones that everything around us tells us are so other as to not even be human in the same way that they are.
It’s hard to separate wanting to love ourselves for who we are, as we are, from the thoughts we know that certain people will have about us if we do. If we give in and embrace our disabled bodies, including all the parts of them that are most off-putting to abled people, will the rest of the world ever see us as valid, as desirable, as worthy of love and of being valued as human beings? Our fear that it won’t constantly holds us back from true self-acceptance, because we’re afraid that if we truly love and accept ourselves, we might be the only ones who do.
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How can we, as disabled people, divorce our sense of self-worth from the restrictions of our own internalized ableism – ableism that not only hurts those of us who are able to “mask” and attempt to fit in with abled people, even at great physical and psychological cost, but further marginalizes those of us who aren’t able to do so?
I don’t have all the answers, but I think it has to begin with learning not to care what abled people think about us. For many of us, this means unlearning a lifetime’s worth of conditioning to care about standards that we continued to try to reach even when we knew we would probably never be able to. Where and when I grew up, special education kids like me were the absolute bottom rung of the social ladder. We were so low we didn’t even qualify as a social class on most of the other kids’ radars: there were the nerds and the losers, the kids who were picked on and teased, and then there were us, so far below those kids that we were mostly just avoided as if the more popular kids (which, again, was everyone) were afraid our disabilities were contagious. Caring what people thought didn’t feel like something you could opt out of, even when it was futile because no one was ever going to think anything good.
But caring about the opinions of people who hold me to a standard I could never possibly live up to has broken me in so many ways over all these years. I have lost so much of myself just in trying to erase all the pieces that didn’t fit in with a mainstream, abled narrative. I have distanced myself from disabled friends when I was young because when two or more of us got together we attracted exponentially more hate than one of us alone. And even though it’s too late to try to undo the damage of those years, there’s something that feels very liberating about no longer caring to make people understand and accept me when they don’t want to. I’ve started trying to reclaim things that mattered to me that I disowned in hopes of fitting in, like incorporating comfort objects and coping mechanisms into my life that help me even if the people around me think they’re weird. It’s been slow progress, but I’m taking steps.
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This isn’t about not liking abled people or not thinking I can have meaningful relationships with them, but it is about realizing that it is not healthy for me to measure myself by their standards. Because ableism is so deeply woven through those standards, trying to live up to them for all these years has embedded that ableism inside me. Now I need to unlearn all the ways that I learned that disabled people were less worthy and less desirable, so that I can grow to believe that I am worthy without having to change who I am first. I’m trying to learn to be gentler and more forgiving with the ways that my body sometimes refuses to bend to what’s expected of it; to learn to love it not only in spite of its differences but because of them, because they are a part of who I am.
To radically love ourselves as disabled people means to dig to the roots of all the things that we dislike about ourselves and find those dislikes that were planted there by other people and by society’s systemic and ingrained prejudices against us. Unpacking years of learned biases and finally discovering which parts of myself I had only hated because of the ableism that stigmatized those things and made feel unworthy for having them has been an unexpectedly liberating thing for me. Once I examine those things outside of the context of it, I often find there’s nothing there to hate at all.
[Featured Image: A photo of a person sitting on the ledge of a building. They are wearing a dark hoodie. They have short hair. The photo is shot facing the person’s back. In the background is a cityscape. Source: pexels.com]
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