Friday, March 28, 2008

Compared to what?

An odd week, much sleep, and this is just musing on several posts by other people.

First off, both Andrea M. and Sage have been writing about the way we compare ourselves with others when considering our own body image. Sage has written about the different aesthetic ideals she and her teenage daughter have selected, whilst Andrea, who ought to write a book about her Internet Dating experiences, has written about how we select the "relevant others" to whom we compare ourselves, concentrating on the game of sex and romance

Earlier in the month, Ruth wrote about a cosmetic surgery which corrected the appearance of people with Down Syndrome, such that they no longer looked like they had Down Syndrome. My reaction to this was one of stomach-churning disgust, mostly because this was done to a child who had no say in the matter. However, would it be fair to be disgusted if this was an adult making the choice? After all, I don't have Down Syndrome and people with Down Syndrome are one group whose faces provide a visual clue to an impairment which meets with a great deal of discrimination, mockery and fear. Obviously, I would much much rather live in a world where a person was not judged by the ...contours of their eyelids but the content of their character, but still.

Then there was the story of Natasha Wood, covered by both Wheelchair Dancer and Disability Bitch. Natasha Wood is a disabled actress who has had breast enlargements and lipo-suction and features in an appalling article on the BBC News website. Now Ms Wood didn't have anything done which disguised her impairment; she's still a wheelchair user, but apparently now more shapely than nature intended. The lady hasn't had anything done which other women haven't had done before her, and one presumes that her motives are much the same as those non-disabled women who make the same choices. In many ways, disability is of limited relevance to her story, except if that were acknowledged there would be no story. Instead there is an article, which ought to win some sort of prize, celebrating the fact that, as Wheelchair Dancer puts it,
"Ms. Wood is too weak to even lift "a pint of milk." And yet... couldn't you just hear it coming? So weak, so disabled, but even this woman wants a sexy body."
My response was pre-empted in the comments to WD's post, where Gaina said (a little more harshly than I would);
"Well, it's nice to see disabled women [...] can be equally as vacuous as able-bodied ones when it comes to image."
I suppose I do naively imagine that people with physical impairments would generally care less about the body beautiful. I don't imagine we care any less about presentation, but having had to come to terms with the physical limitations of our bodies, we might accept the our own aesthetic limitations a lot easier.

But our self-assessments of beauty are all about comparisons, as Andrea and Sage's posts point out. I've written about this before and the importance of our choice of object, most recently about The Grotesque Old Woman. However, I do wonder whether people with physical impairments use the same objects as others. Are we comparing ourselves to mainstream images of masculinity and femininity or are these ridiculous ideals just a little too ridiculous for us lot? Do we instead compare ourselves to other beautiful people with impairments?

I have no disfigurement, no twisted spine or spastic limb, but I am sat down almost all of the time. In aesthetic terms, sitting down seems a greater disadvantage than, for example, walking with a stick. However, I never think that (well I just did, but only just there) because if I were to compare myself to other disabled people, aesthetics simple wouldn't feature. I want the more comfortable, less restrictive impairment, not the prettier one.

I do envy other disabled people who are more beautiful than I am, but this is almost always muddled up with impairment. Wheelchair Dancer is a hot crip, but then I'd love to be able to self-propel a wheelchair, let alone dance as she does. Which isn't to compare our lots - I really don't mean to do that - point is that I can't really differentiate between wishing I looked like that and wishing I could do that.

And of course, I would like no impairment at all, so I could be more comfortable and have the capacity to do a great deal more with my time on Earth, not so that I could look better - although I undoubtedly would.

I imagine the rationale is similar for many of us, perhaps especially those of us with chronic pain and fatigue, progressive and life-threatening conditions and those of us who have experienced the ordeal of surgery in circumstances where there was no choice at all. The question of if I could change one thing about my body has a very different answer and vanity seems a preposterous indulgence.

And yet, as Wheelchair Dancer says;
"I have, like many other women and, in particular, women of difference, felt the pressure to change my body. There have been many times in my life when I have wished to be slimmer, whiter, less curvy, more curvy, less disabled, etc. In fact, I often think that the primary thing stopping from actually doing something surgically is the opinion of people around me."
Personally, I've never begun to contemplate surgery, but I've certainly felt wretched about some supposed flaw or other, despite everything I've learnt. So do we have an advantage in this? Or will the article about Natasha Wood's surgery inspire all number of disabled women to address their self-esteem issues with surgery?

On the subject of surgery of a far less frivolous nature, Sara has returned to blogging with a big kickass scar. Which is officially the best news since... when Alexander was born. Not the scar, but the fact that Sara no longer has a brain tumour.


Anonymous said...

The scar is okay! I will not be having plastic surgery to reduce the appearance of the scar! ha ha ha

But I'm really happy not to have a brain tumor anymore, also. Thank you.

And I am still very, very sad about any woman getting breast implants. Because honey, I don't care who you are or what the rest of your body looks like; I swear you don't need them. Really. Promise.

Never That Easy said...

This is such a strong post, and has got me thinking about things I don't especially want to think about. Thanks for that ;) ... No, seriously, body image is such a hard concept for me, because I think one way about it, but I feel another way. I don't want to feel that way (the inferior way), but I do. And I think that you've really touched on a lot of interesting points here. Hmm, fishy, why must you make me think??

Ruth said...

You make a good point about the link about surgery for kids with Down syndrome - it is a different issue for adults and I also feel less strongly than I do when it's done on kids, who have no choice in the matter.

I'm glad you wrote about "wishing I looked like that" and "wishing I could do that" and how you don't differentiate between those. I don't either.

Reading this was a bit hard because I know I "have issues" with body image as a quad because when I played wheelchair tennis (against paraplegics) I was always trying to pass as a para, not a quad and some of that was about appearance - however I think it came back to function level and wishful thinking. For example, I didn't want to eat in front of anyone because I struggle a lot if my food isn't cut up for me. (Actually even if it is, I still struggle to eat physically.) Anyhow if I didn't eat, I could "pretend" I was a para.Was some of it about how it looked? Yeah, but it was also wishful thinking about function level.

Mary said...

If it makes her happy to have bigger boobs, she can have bigger boobs, I don't give a monkeys' bum. Just like I don't care if she wants to wear makeup, or shave her legs, or dye her hair purple. She can look however she wants to look. I even get that in her role as a presenter, she wants to look much like the other presenters as she can (honestly, I have trouble telling most female newsreaders apart lately and I'm sure it's not just my brain).

I just got... well... more confused than angry, I must say... about it being linked in to her disability the way it was in that article. As if having bigger boobs was somehow going to mean that she suddenly could lift a pint of milk, or something. Like it should be part of standard therapy for disabled people.

Anonymous said...


The Goldfish said...

Thanks folks.

Sara - Oh, I think the scar's kind of cool. You've certainly got some serious pirate kudos going for you there, although I imagine you'll need to make up a explanatory story involving a shark (It had me head in its jaws, so pulled off me leg and struck it in the goolies kind of thing).

Breast implants are something I really struggle to understand, for a variety of ideological, physical and aesthetic reasons. And yes, it is sad that a person feels the need to do something so drastic to make them feel better inside. I wouldn't stop them, but I would suggest a number of alternative strategies.

NTE - Thank you and sorry (kind of). I know exactly what you mean about the difference between what you think and what you feel...

Ruth - it is strange how this stuff still kicks around. Among disabled people, one might imagine we'd be far more comfortable as we are, but of course it is more complicated than that.

Mary - Exactly. And yes, they do all look the same don't they? Bring back Moira Stewart!

Andrea - Thank you. :-)

Anonymous said...

I hope you can join us on in our community: "Support People with Disabilities"

Will H.

Wheelchair Dancer said...

Of fishes of gold, the dearest...

Thanks for the compliment .. :-)

I am so intrigued by this post about looking and doing. Because looking and doing are externally connected too. If you look at certain way, society permits you to do. If you don't look "right" somehow, it becomes harder for you to do what you want.

I'd like to think that as disabled women we have become so attuned to the politics of the body that we can turn a highly critical eye on such stuff. But we can't. In someways, I think we can't -- or at least, i know I can't because I use my face and body to compensate for the disability stuff.

Sigh. Swings and roundabouts.

quick hug