When I take that selfie and share it, I am saying that this disabled body is beautiful and admirable.
Is voicing your dissenting opinion on appearance more important than someone else’s discovery of their own happiness and power?
You would like to think that woman-on-woman crime is a thing of the past. After all, didn’t we all see Mean Girls?
But that leap of faith into the waiting arms of fellow sisters is still something that I would hesitate to undertake with an unfortunate number of ladies that I encounter.
Part of this is particular to my experience as a self-identified disabled woman, and part of this is shared with all other self-identified women in general. However, there are ways in which these two marginalized identities intersect and create a specific pain.
The one I’d like to talk about right now has to do with makeup, fashion, and a little thing called #hospitalglam.
I am a rather heavily-femme lady. I enjoy makeup, dresses and skirts that wiggle down my hips or flare out in a big swoosh, the feeling of my hair swirling into curls after a night spent sleeping in rollers, and sparkles on my nails.
This is not for everyone. It’s not even for all burlesque performers, which is something that we sometimes forget in my little community — glitter isn’t actually mandatory.
There are so many ways to be a woman.
This kind of outward appearance can take time and effort. Those who have spent mornings with me know that there is A Process to getting myself ready for the world and you do not want to mess with my Process. While it can sometimes be inconvenient to spend this extra time in the morning, I enjoy my Process, just as I enjoy the products of my labors.
I view that time spent in front of the mirror as self-care; I’m delighting in both my magical powers of transformation and in my Self and my body. These two sources of happiness, the feeling of power and control that I’m exhibiting through hair rollers and contouring, and the appreciation that I exude and is reflected back to me are of particular significance to me given my disability.
I have a troubled relationship with my body. I feel like this is natural, considering the pain I am feeling on a regular basis and the difficulty I experience moving through spaces not designed for my mobility needs. My body can sometimes feel like some alien being trying to communicate with me through tension and spasms — something at the very least that is wildly unpredictable if not actively hostile. It is certainly never “under my control.”
Some might say that the idea of a body being under “control” is inherently futile; it will always operate in the way it needs to, regardless of what the rest of us might think we want, and believing otherwise contributes to a Cartesian dualism that overly separates us from the realities of the material world.
However, I think most non-disabled people relish to some extent the feeling of being able to will their body to do something and have it happen. Just think of the alternative for a moment: You want your hand to reach for something and it decides instead that it will wave in circles in the air. That doesn’t sound ideal, does it?
I think to myself, body, let’s walk to the kitchen. Instead, it decides that the muscles and tendons connecting hip to knee will spasm and then go weak. My body is uncontrollable, though I do my best to consider life a collaborative effort between me and this benevolent though misguided alien being.
This leads me back (finally) to the issue of appearance and woman-on-woman crime.
Part of the reason that I love my time spent in front of the mirror, watching my magic powers transform frizzy curls to sleek straight locks (or vice-versa), is that those are the moments when I can recover some of that feeling of control.
Illusory or not, the sense that I can still will something into place in regards to my alien life-partner is especially comforting to me. Look, with just 15 minutes I can make my eyes look wider, my cheekbones look sharper, my lips stained dark and mysterious. How amazing is that?!
So this is why, when women look at me out and about in the world and say things like, “Who are you so dressed up for?” or “I don’t know how you have the time to do all of that every day — I can barely brush my hair,” or even “I’ve felt so free since I stopped feeling like I need to wear makeup,” I remember Mean Girls and want to sigh. I don’t feel the need to look at a woman wearing no makeup and ask her why she didn’t feel the desire or need to primp in the morning like I did. So why does she need to vocally “marvel” at my love of a dramatic cat eye?
Yes, there are issues of gender afoot here. Yes, makeup, fashion, and hair products can be tools of oppression when they are enforced by an external patriarchal force.
But they can also be an artist’s tools, as well as an essential source of joy to some people who have so few opportunities to delight in the ways their bodies can be the conveyance of art.
I understand that a lot, if not all, of the incredulity at the femmes who fancy themselves up is veiled insecurity about alternative forms of self-expression. But I hereby solemnly swear that I do not and have never viewed my female friends who choose the path of fewer accessories as lacking in feminine graces. There are so many ways to be a woman. I feel like that’s so essential that it should be a mantra, a giant blazing sign in the sky: There are so many ways to be a woman.
And no matter what “kind” of woman you are, you know that it is damn hard to love yourself as a woman in this world. There are so many voices screaming at us constantly that we are inadequate, that loving ourselves is delusional or conceited, and that we have to tear each other down if we’re going to grab those scanty scraps of love.
The solution, as we’ve seen in the body love movement generally, is to love ourselves first — then, through that healing love, begin to love other people too. We have to break the cycle that says love is limited and handed out by some higher power and start creating our own instead.
This brings me to “hospital glam,” which is one of my favorite things in the world right now. We’ve heard of how selfies can be a form of self-love; hospital glam is one outcropping of that belief system. Disabled or chronically ill women are taking to Instagram and Facebook in their backless robes and their IV’s with lipstick, mascara, and rhinestones. It’s fabulous. Seriously.
If you need an example of how vicious the lady crimes I’m talking about can be, think about shaming a girl on her third day in the ER for taking a picture of the manicure that she pulled together the energy to give herself, and sharing it with pride to her friends on the internet. Yes, that was emotional blackmail, but it’s valid — why would you want to take away someone’s hard-won joy that way?
Practice this mantra: “Good for you. Not for me.”
Is voicing your dissenting opinion on appearance more important than someone else’s discovery of their own happiness and power? Is what you really mean that you don’t think that Process is worth the time, that you think you know what is worth spending energy on and this other person is clearly deluded?
Here’s a question for you: Why does it matter so much to you? What is she stealing from you by having a different set of priorities?
Remember how I said that there were two ways disability and gender intersect when it comes to the glam? The second is about self-love and self-appreciation. In addition to all of those voices telling me that I am inadequate and weak and half a person because I am a woman, I also have those voices whispering other insidious things, like that because my body is broken, it is undesirable. It is unattractive because it exists as a reminder to non-disabled people of pain and death. It is death; it is age and disease. It should be hidden away out of sight so as not to upset or inconvenience the superior walking masses.
Spending time in the morning to put on eyeliner and lipstick is a fierce fuck you to those voices. I am saying that I believe my body is worth spending time and energy on. When I take that selfie and share it, I am also saying that this disabled body is beautiful and admirable — NOT at the expense of other women — but in addition to.
So this is my plea to put an end to at least some of those woman-on-woman crimes that you may have committed, or might commit in the future. Practice the mantra Amy Poehler includes in her book Yes Please: “Good for you. Not for me.”
Always begin with that first one — what she does to make her feel good is “good for her,” even if it’s not what you would do. Restrain the part of you that says only one of you can be right, only one of you can get that love and joy.
Her selfie doesn’t invalidate your selfie. (See how ridiculous that sounds?)
Let’s just leap into a pile of loving lady arms together.