I was a pretty good kid, standard-issue teenage grumpiness aside, and when I think back to my youthful forays into rebellion, they came almost exclusively in the form of how I chose to dress. Looking back on my clothing choices now, they seem quaint, bordering on adorable. Wide-leg purple corduroys (yikes!), too-tight band t-shirts (they only came in one size!), armfuls of plastic jewelry, half a stick of black kohl round my eyes. The usual “I’m from a small town but I’m unique and have feelings, Mum!” uniform. But it was also my first attempt to stand out from the crowd in a way that I controlled myself as a young, visibly disabled woman in a society where inclusion and acceptance of difference is hard to come by.
As I got older, I realised that I didn’t go about this in the most positive way. My ethos as a teenager straddled the line between “if they’re going to stare anyway, I’ll give them something interesting to look at” and “maybe they’ll see me as a freak instead of the disabled girl” (let’s not get started on the history of the word “freak” here, or this essay will turn into a dissertation). It is only as I reached adulthood and became interested in disability as a social and political issue that I began to see how problematic these thoughts were, and started to think about things such as body image, fashion, self-presentation and the way these interact with my disability in a more thoughtful and critical way.
Clothing and fashion are often seen as frivolous things to be invested in. Paying attention to your appearance is considered by many to be vain and pointless. What those who claim this fail to consider is the way in which our clothes are a marker of our identities, and identities are nearly always political (unless you are fortunate enough to have a “naturalised” identity, i.e. white, male, straight, cis, abled, etc.). We cannot deny that clothing is political in a world where people are profiled, abused, attacked and murdered because of the clothes they wear, whether they are mini skirts, hoodies or hijabs. Our clothes form and reflect societal attitudes around gender, class, race, weight, nationality, religion, and disability, and can be a source of both pleasure and anxiety for us all.
One of the things that is rarely considered in discussions of disability is the emotional exhaustion that can come from it, part of what academic Donna Reeve calls the “psycho-emotional dimensions” of disability. Constant negotiation of dominant ableist discourses can have a lasting effect on a disabled person. We are essentially invisible in mainstream culture, and representations which do exist are nearly always along the inspirational/tragedy binary. We are subjected to constant surveillance (whether it is through medicalisation, our appearance, by being stared at, or being told our behaviours are inappropriate), and negative stereotypes (the tragic, sexless disabled person, the bitter, resentful cripple) can be internalized and wreak havoc on our self-esteem.
I am currently undertaking a PhD which explores the relationship between clothing and identity for women with mobility impairments, along with an examination of representations of disability in the fashion industry. I chose this topic partly because of my own experiences and difficulties in buying clothes, but also to try and find some answers to the questions I’ve been pondering since becoming engaged in disability activism. Why are non-normative bodies considered less worthy? Why do so many people feel that there is only one way to be beautiful? Why do I struggle to think of more than a handful of beautiful, accomplished disabled actors or models? Why is disability nearly always considered a bad thing? And, most importantly, what can I do to challenge this, for my own and for other’s wellbeing?
Being able to wear the clothes I choose, and to express myself through my appearance is one of the ways I choose to explore and challenge dominant discourses and stereotypes surrounding disability. Even today, it is rare to see disabled bodies represented as anything other than medical curiosities. Most disabled people are taught from a very young age to “normalise” themselves, to conceal what makes them different, to not stand out any more than is necessary. As Reeve suggests, this can be exhausting. To dress in a way which makes me feel good is a form of self-care, it reminds me that my body has worth and is deserving of being made to look beautiful, whether that is by painting my nails or wearing my favourite pair of shoes (bottle-green Dr. Marten boots in case you were wondering).
I am less concerned with the skinniness of my legs or my knobbly knees when I’m wearing an amazing skirt and cool shoes. The right outfit can give me the confidence to face the stares of strangers on the street. Red lipstick can protect me from patronising attitudes. My clothes, like my tattoos, are a “fuck you” to a world which would rather I hide away. And for some disabled people, who may rely on assistance for many day-to-day activities, such as bathing and dressing, clothing can also be a way of regaining autonomy, of making an all-too-rare choice over what happens to their body.
I think back to my attitude as a teenager. In many ways it saddens me that I had internalised so many of the negative attitudes surrounding disability, but I also look back on myself then with the sort of fondness that only time allows. I admire the fact that I never thought to shrink away, make myself inconspicuous; an attitude I have carried over to today. My sense of style may have improved (I hope), but I still want to express myself through my clothing. I’ll never be inconspicuous; I’ll never blend into a crowd, especially now that I’m perched on top of a sixteen-stone, bright red electric wheelchair most of the time. And why should I be inconspicuous? I deserve to be seen as much as anyone else, as does anyone who doesn’t fit in to the stiflingly narrow views of beauty and acceptability.
I can’t single-handedly change the way I am perceived as a disabled person, but I can do what I can to create my own narrative. I am influenced and inspired by the people I see, online and on the street, who go against the grain, proudly and determinedly. It is the resilience, creativity and beauty of these people that I think of when I get dressed in the morning.
 Donna Reeve (2002) Negotiating Psycho-emotional Dimensions of Disability and their Influence on Identity Constructions, Disability & Society, 17:5, 493-508