In the popular media, so-called “body positivity” campaigns leave out disability to a remarkable extent. The body about which we are supposed to feel positive is nearly always the able body. That body might be fat or thin, white or black, Hispanic or Asian, tall or short, rich or poor, but it is almost always able.
For example, the following meme takes issue with the narrow imagining of beauty evidenced by the Victoria’s Secret Love My Body Campaign and, in the process, substitutes its own narrow imagining:
In the Dove graphic, all of the bodies are apparently able-bodied. They are all standing. They are all young. No age-related disabilities appear. No congenital disabilities appear. No visible disabilities of any kind appear. The graphic appeared on a Facebook page called All Bodies are Good Bodies – a page in which there are no images of visible disability at all. Judging by who is left out, the message of the page seems to be that all bodies are not good bodies.
Of course, we really shouldn’t expect too much from a Dove ad. Dove sells beauty products. If we all embraced our bodies just as they are, we’d never buy a Dove product again. Except maybe soap.
Let’s see what happens in more enlightened circles:
What’s most striking to me about the I Am Beautiful photograph is that, as in the Dove ad, all of the women are apparently able-bodied. They all have two arms and two legs. They are all standing, and they are all standing up straight. Where are the wheelchair users? Where are the crooked bodies? Where are the people missing limbs, the people who drool, the stroke survivors, the quadriplegics? Where are the people with severe disabilities?
The I Am Beautiful photograph comes from the Facebook page for the Positive body image campaign – All shapes and sizes are beautiful – another page on which visibly disabled bodies do not appear. Visibly disabled bodies are also absent from such pages as Real Women Come in ALL Shapes and Sizes andWomen of All Shapes and Sizes. This absence implies that real, beautiful women only come in able-bodied shapes and normatively able-bodied sizes.
If you speak to the necessity of incorporating visibly disabled people into body positivity images, most nondisabled people will respond with a visceral “Ew. We don’t want to see people with disabilities. Disabilities are depressing.” They may not say it out loud, but the impulse is there. Why is that?
The answer is complicated, but one part of the reason, as disability studies scholar Susan Wendell points out, is that most people associate disabilities with suffering, loss of control, and death (Wendell 1996, 94) – all of the things that we in America relentlessly struggle against. We associate disability with what we most fear, even though disability does not always mean suffering, does not always mean loss of control, and certainly does not always mean death. The belief that we can control our bodies, stay perpetually young, and put off death indefinitely results in disabled people being shunted off to the side in both the media and the culture at large (Wendell 1996, 85).
Of course, suffering, powerlessness, and death are intrinsic to life itself, and our struggle against them results in a truly astonishing level of cultural denial about the realities of living in a body. We don’t want to see disabled bodies. We pretend they don’t exist. They remind us too much of what we want to forget.
Given the ways in which disabled bodies stand in for all that our culture most fears, the question arises: Can disabled bodies be beautiful, too?
The question is more fraught that it appears at first glance. Even if the answer to the question is a resounding yes, that yes raises other questions: Is beauty a construct we should even be embracing? What does it matter whether a body is beautiful or not? If all bodies are beautiful, isn’t saying so giving power to the notion of objectifying bodies, of looking at them from the outside, or judging them? Why should we be judging what bodies look like at all?
This is a huge issue for disabled people because, for all of the cultural forgetting that goes on about disability, our bodies are always being stared at, interpreted, and intruded upon. People want to know the story of our disabilities: What happened? Have you always been this way? Wouldn’t you rather be normal? Would you take a cure if one were offered? The media uses disabled people as cultural tropes: tragic figures, objects of pity, opportunities for charity, avatars of wonder, long-term sufferers, villains, inspirers, overcomers, supercrips, bitter crips, narcissists. People stare but they don’t see; they look at the disabled body and can’t see the person, and then insist that to see the person, you have to overlook the disability. Our bodies becomes front and center in ways entirely out of our control – in ways that have little to do with our own internal experiences of living in our own flesh.
With regard to the internal experience of one’s own body, disability raises and complicates other questions: Is everything about a body really worth being positive about? What if your body is in chronic pain? Can you feel positive about such a body? And if you can, do you have to? If you don’t, have you failed? Can you love some aspects of your body, but not others?
At the basis of these kinds of question is an essential problem: we tend to think about the body in binaries. You’re either beautiful or you’re ugly. You either love your body or you hate it. You either have a positive body image or a negative one. You’re either whole or you’re broken. It’s as though there is no territory between these poles – or outside of them. What if the terms we use to define bodies are too limiting? And what if those limits hurt us – not just people with disabilities, but everyone – by keeping us trapped inside the same narrow constructs?
What if we simply said that we love our bodies because they allow us to experience earthly life for the short time that we sojourn on this planet? What if we said that they are beautiful because they enable us to act with love for other people?
What if that were enough? What if we were enough, just as we are?
[Cover Image: Photograph depicts model Jillian Mercado, she is a Latina woman who uses a wheelchair. She is against a brick wall. Her hair is in a blonde updo. She is wearing a black shirt with white letters and a black jacket. She also has on a sheer purple skirt and red flat shoes. Her hands are in her lap.]
Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.