There was a summer afternoon a few years ago that I’ll never forget. My best friend – who also uses a wheelchair – and I were in a coffee shop when a woman came up to us and nonchalantly gave us what she most likely thought was the compliment of our lives (it wasn’t). What she said was this: “You girls are so pretty. It’s a shame you’re disabled.”
Even as I write those words, something deep in my gut clenches. It’s not just that I know she was trying to be nice, but ended up unwittingly insulting both my friend and I despite her good intentions. It’s not even that she said what she did, and then went on her merry way, not even engaging either of us in conversation – she just said what she said, and that was it.
It’s that she had an image of a disabled person in her mind, and neither my friend nor I happened to fit that image. So instead of challenging that image, she commented on how she “thought we should look” as disabled persons instead.
And, apparently, disabled people aren’t supposed to look pretty.
I’ve struggled to feel beautiful all my life. Intrinsically, I know I am a beautiful person – it’s taken me a long time to realize this, but I know I am, even though it’s still hard for me to come out and say it often. However, it’s still hard for me to appreciate – and trust – when others think I’m beautiful.
Society says that beautiful women are, essentially, whole people. It’s hard to be looked at as whole when you’re sitting down all the time. It’s hard to be graceful when you rely on a motor to get you from one place to the other.
And then there’s the attractiveness factor, which, believes me, complicates things to no end. Not to paint a bad brush over the guys out there, but when they’re intrinsically “taught” from a young age what’s beautiful and what’s not, a woman in a wheelchair who doesn’t hit all those factors has a hard time living up to our peers.
After all, we’re not supposed to be pretty. So it’s little wonder that we’re not at the top of the list for men to call us out as being attractive when we’re not supposed to be.
And maybe it wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t such an emphasis on coupling in society, but unfortunately there is. And all that pressure to be in a couple? Disabled people aren’t immune to that. But it’s hard when the onus lands on us to “make our case” for why we should be considered attractive.
I haven’t done a very good job of that, I have to admit. Inevitably, I’ve felt like that’s been my fault at times. I’m slowly beginning to realize it’s not, and I’m also just beginning to realize it’s ok to talk about this kind of stuff. It’s not my fault that this stuff is uncomfortable to bring up. And I shouldn’t feel like I have to apologize for it, even though I still sometimes feel like I have to.
I know that it’s people like that stranger in the coffee shop who are to blame for my insecurity, not myself.
And part of that’s a victory. The other part of that victory is when I finally do find that guy – and I know he and his friends are out there – that isn’t afraid to stand up and say that my disabled peers and I are attractive, and he isn’t afraid to admit it.
Not because I need to hear it, but just because it’d be nice to hear it.
“She wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.” ― Naomi Wolf