Body Positivity & Disability
The body positivity movement is an extension of the fat acceptance movement, but designed to be more inclusive to all body types. The goal of working towards loving your body for what it is, rather than what it is not, is laudable and a state of being I would love to achieve for myself one day. It sounds like a really useful arena for visibly disabled people to counter the negative looks and comments that come with it and also a really useful tool for every person living with chronic health conditions that cause pain, fatigue, discomfort, and other often unwanted and unpleasant effects.
Sadly the movement is based in an unequal world, and is therefore shaped by people who often have internalised disablism, sexism, racism, and a whole host of other issues too. It unintentionally forms barriers to disabled people and I want to take a few minutes to talk about them.
The Health Fixation
This is such a trouble some area. Phrases like “health at every size!” and “I can be fat and healthy!” create an atmosphere where health gets hailed as the new moral gold standard. No longer do you have to be a certain kind of thin to be viewed as someone without lax morals, now you just have to be healthy. Many non-disabled people ask me why setting health up as a moral high ground is problematic – surely being healthy is great and something everyone should aspire to? The trouble is it forgets people with health issues, especially chronic ones, that will probably stay with them for life. The message to them becomes ‘here is yet another gold standard that you can’t meet’. Not only do you have society pressuring you to magically transform your body, you now also have the folks that are supposed to help with that pressuring you (often inadvertently) to magically become healthy too. Health ain’t all that. Living as comfortably as you can is way more realistic for many of us. Learning to love our bodies even though they are not the healthiest things in the world is what we need, and statistically speaking, it’s what half of the folks currently hailing health as the new thin are going to need before they die.
This is pretty obvious, but if you want to include and inspire disabled people to love their bodies, then including images of disabled people would be a good start. And not just thin, photogenic white women (more on this in the next section), but very fat, or thin disabled people. Those with scars, disfigurements and so on. Help us to normalise our bodies not only in our eyes, but in the eyes of your non-disabled readership. Not only do you make your campaigns more inclusive and more accessible to disabled people, but you help fight institutional disablism too by combating the erasure of disabled people from the public eye.
Perpetuating Beauty Norms
There is a tendency for the movement to focus on icons, for example those who are fat, white, photogenic, with an hourglass shape, perfect skin, and a very conventionally beautiful face. Normally these women dress in very femme styles, and enjoy elaborate hair and makeup. And good for them, this is no criticism of their looks, choices, or lives. No, here the criticism is of the focus on a very narrow range of women that, with the exception of not being built like Katy Perry, reinforce every other beauty norm. Wear make-up, make sure you have manicured nails, have perfectly clear skin, be rounded rather than lumpy, have a strong waist:hip ratio, have styled hair, wear dresses or other feminine clothes. These beauty norms are often further out of reach for disabled people than they are for non-disabled people. It’s hard to have your carer/PA make you look like Dita von Teese when they’ve only got 30 minutes maximum to get up up, washed, dressed and breakfasted. It’s hard to do that stuff when pain and fatigue get in the way. It’s nigh impossible to change bone structure, regrow limbs, or to make scars or other skin blemishes vanish. If you want to be more accessible, then you need to think about the images you are using to illustrate your points.
I’m not say never use conventionally attractive women that follow societal beauty norms, I’m suggesting that if they are the bodies you most frequently use then it’s time to ask yourself “Why?”;
- Is it that you think they will be more palatable to people that are against body positivity for all? Using someone that is both fat and conventionally attractive is a tactic often used to convince the unbelievers. Of course, you need to remember that there are a) disabled people in that camp you need to reach, and b) the consumers of your pieces are more often converts and they might well be disabled too.
- Is it because you think those bodies are hot? Or the kind of body that you want? If so, then cool. Glad you know what you like! But if you want your work to go much further then you need to start challenging yourself to include other bodies and to find ways to be positive about them if you can.
- Is it because, on some deep (maybe even subconscious) level, part of you actually doesn’t think disabled bodies are particularly positive? It might feel like a terrible thing to admit, but we’ve all been raised in societies that treat disability as something to be avoided at all costs as it’s a tragedy, or a burden, or a curse. It’s actually pretty normal to have internalised those messages. Have a think about it and try to challenge yourself to see beyond those prejudices.
- Is it because you don’t see them as often? Well, we are 10-20% of the population, so we’re not the majority. But disabled folk are so often told that we are ugly, unlovable, and that we should fight our treacherous bodies that many of us really struggle to get involved with these movements. On top of all the other stuff regarding gender, size, or race that gets thrown out, we also have the disability hate we’ve internalised to deal with. It all makes us a bit less likely to take photos and share them publicly. This means if you want to help us counter those messages you’ll probably have to go out of your way to search for images to share. Some of those people may have invisible disabilities, in which case sharing that they do would also help.
We live in a world where disabled bodies, especially visibly disabled bodies, are viewed as lesser things that should be avoided at all costs. If you want to be part of the solution rather than adding to the problem, think about us and show us. Help normalise disability, help us celebrate our bodies too.