#DisabilityBeauty, Reclamation, and Radical Pleasure

Last week I was lucky enough to take part in one of Easter Seals Thrive’s regular Twitter chats on disability. The subject this time was beauty and clothing, tackling things such as disability representation in the fashion industry, our personal relationships with fashion, the near-universal fugness of assistive equipment, and our favourite clothing hacks (leggings, leggings, leggings). It was a great conversation and you can (no, should!) check out on Storify here, or by searching the #DisabilityBeauty hashtag on Twitter. 

It was an honour to be asked to take part in this conversation and have the opportunity to connect with some great people. Twitter’s brilliant and fast-moving, and fantastic for getting conversations rolling, but it’s exhausting trying to say everything you want to in the space of an hour.

I had made notes on the questions before the chat started, but looking back at them after it was over I realised I didn’t get to expand on some of the issues as much as I’d like to have done. Obviously, I’m a) a disabled woman who loves clothes and b) writing a whole doctoral thesis on the subject, so I have some pretty #deepthoughts on the topic. One of the hastily scrawled notes (written during a lull in a seminar I attended a couple of days before) simply read “NEVER FORGET THE IMPORTANCE OF PLEASURE!!!!”, and although both myself and others alluded to this in the chat, I want to briefly expand on what I mean when I say that there is a radical potential in taking pride in, and gaining pleasure from your appearance when you are a disabled person.

One of the things that was brought up in the Twitter chat was that the failure of the media and fashion industry to reflect bodily diversity can lead to feelings of shame with our own (disabled) bodies. If we are not presented with bodies which look, speak or move like ours, how are we meant to know that we can look good, can feel good about them? One tweeter suggested that this can lead us to alter ourselves or attempt to hide our differences. I’ve written before about the expectation of normalcy, the pressure this can have on those with bodies which exist outside the norm, and how clothing can be a tool to “reclaim” our bodies from societal standards. When these standards tell us that our bodies are wrong, taking pleasure in them and how they look can be truly revolutionary. We can do this with the clothes we wear, but for many of the participants in the chat, this was also done through customising, decorating, and generally blinging-out their assistive equipment (and if you click the link to the chat posted above you will see a picture of a truly amazing bedazzled wheelchair).

This is a perfect example of the ways we can reject norms and enjoy the things we are “supposed” to be most ashamed of. As was pointed out in the chat, assistive equipment carries the stigma of medicalisation, and with it comes the bland, beige boringness of things which are meant to blend into the background. However, as some participants pointed out, this isn’t always the case. Just think of  the ways in which glasses are coveted as a fashion item. When, for example, we cover our canes, wheelchairs, walkers and braces with rhinestones, we’re finding the joy in our differences, and doing our part to break down the stigma associated with equipment necessary to our day-to-day lives. Every day we are seeing more and more challenges to these norms online, through conversations like the one above, and via movements such as Hospital Glam and Cripple Punk, with their focus on reducing shame and stigma around chronic illness and disability and all the things which go along with it, reclaiming medical spaces and equipment for ourselves.

Once again, I’d like to thank Easter Seals Thrive for facilitating the chat last week, there’s always so much to talk about on this subject, and the conversation gave me a lot to think about. They regularly do chats on issues relating to disabled women, so follow them to keep up to date with what’s going on and get involved yourselves!

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