A Stumble Through: Body Image and Physical Disability*

I am 14. My family and I have just gotten back from a folk festival, and my mom yells to me from the next room “You should try on the dress!” I look over to the blue silk knapsack and excitedly pull out the beautiful halter neck my mom gifted me earlier in the day. I undress and slip it on, liking the way the fabric feels against my skin. “Let’s see!” my mom calls again. I walk over to her, standing across from her bed, staring into the mirror hanging next to her on the wall. My face falls. “Ohhh Sonya, it’s so pretty” my moms oozes. “You don’t like it?” She asks when she sees my face. “Not really” I respond hollowly. “It makes my knees look-” My breath catches in my throat. Small, quick tears find their way onto my cheeks. I struggle to find words as my focus stays on the lower part of the dress, where it clings to my bent knees and crumples upon tightly meeting the outline of braces just below. What was supposed to be smooth and polished looks like a crumpled throw blanket. “You don’t have to wear it, honey” my mom says gently, a little surprised by my reaction. “I’m sorry” I say, as I leave the room to change. I don’t put the dress on again.

What it was about the image in the mirror that made me so suddenly emotional is still a mystery five years later. I don’t know what I expected to see, but it wasn’t that- my differences in form so brought to light. In a way, this story may sound unremarkable: teen girl gets upset over an unflattering dress. But for my young self who lived among people with straight knees and no braces, it was an abrupt, uninhibited confrontation that my figure did not and would not mirror all the smooth lines of those around me. This I knew on some level, but that dress was a reality check nonetheless. I knew I had Cerebral Palsy, and I actually had really good spirits about my identity as disabled person in the day to day, for a 14 year old at least. I’d accepted I was never going to wear a pair of Ugg boots that were all the rage two years prior, I accepted shopping trips that would last for hours, trying on piece after piece that hung the wrong way on my tilted hips, and didn’t have any particularly pressing negative generalizations about how I looked, disability and all. But for some reason, having such a vivid image of what that identity looked like in this dress was my tipping point.

It was because of this type of visual confrontation that for years, I couldn’t watch myself on film. When I came onto the screen in home videos, or would appear in the filmings of school plays, I’d find a convenient reason to leave the room, or would just close my eyes and offer small groans. The rhythm of my step next to that of the 50 other Who’s in Seussical echoed a little too loudly, and I was always surprised by how exaggerated my body seemed next to the other 11 year olds. The surprise was most likely the fact that my legs didn’t physically feel bent when I walked, but actually were bent. As one may imagine, this presented a lot of confusion, having been raised to believe there was nothing “wrong” with me. So, having such insecurities seemed to contradict the sense of beauty that many women in my life had consciously tried to cultivate in me. This dillema of “not seeing myself as disabled” raised the (very personal) question: What does it mean to look disabled?

Now safely outside of puberty and the adolescent pressures of middle and high school, I can definitively say that there is really no such thing as “looking” disabled (see: invisible disability, passing). But getting to a place where I truly understand this, and really actually enjoy the body I’ve been given, took a long time and was exhausting in the face of a beauty industry that churned out abled reality like it was going out of style. The short answer to how I found real, non cliché, more-than-a-Dove-ad self love, was by ripping off the band aid and forcing myself into the discomfort of actually looking at myself.

I started small, focusing on my face and my hair. I took note of my big brown eyes and the way my long locks fell when I flipped it against the part. Then, I developed a new tactic: I’d look at my legs each morning, accept that it didn’t mirror how I physically felt I stood or saw myself, and then only consider myself from above the knees in determining whether I “looked good”. Regardless of how I felt about my legs in the grand scheme, they were going to be the same day to day. So without ignoring it entirely, I stopped stressing about the constant, and turned my focus to the variables- the parts of my personal presentation that I could choose. Much of these choices included my CP, because my legs are not the only part of my body affected. This was an imperfect system, but choosing to acknowledge a particular part of me in a limited way let me stop obsessing. I focused on the rest of my body, and consequently, my thoughts on my legs or others perceptions of my legs became a minuscule part of my day.

My latest step in self love has been seeing the crookedness as pretty; finding the lines my body cut in the air as delicate. This started by accident. I was getting out of the shower once about two years ago, when instead of habitually looking at the floor, I lifted my head and looked in the mirror, sort of randomly. I stopped moving, and paused to look at the figure. She stood there in the glass frame without bracing or crutches or anything, and I realized I liked her as a whole. My legs were just a part of a larger whole, and I liked what the two planted feet held up. It helped, I think, that who I saw was post-puberty and post- operations; I liked the curve of my hips, as uneven as they were, I liked the smoothness of my belly, how faded the scars on my legs and hip were, remembering how angry and pink they once looked. My tree stood tall, even if there were some twists in the trunk, and I was no longer startled by the tension or the lopsidedness that stared back at me.

After that, I made a habit to put myself in front of full body mirrors, so that I could see myself in my body’s wholeness as much as possible. I got comfy with nakedness, so that I knew what I looked like in the absence of the shapen shirts and pants that distorted or covered what my body actually looked like. The shapes my body made slowly became routine in my mind. This eventually led to my taking my shoes off in front of others like it was no big thang, because I had an applied understanding that my feet and legs are just feet and legs, and any reaction bigger than that had more to do with the person reacting than my body itself.

Just because I like my body right now doesn’t mean I’m done with the issue of body image. I haven’t found all the answers, and my understanding isn’t complete, wrapped in a bow. More specifically, I’m still grappling with finding peace with how my body and self are seen externally. I’ve been taught that if you have love for yourself, then the world will have love for you too. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel “unloved”. But I do think I’m less likely to be seen as a sexual being or a romantic option by virtue of my disability. So, I am learning to find or live without that validation, as so many able-bodied people are. I don’t know if I “see myself with a disability”. But I do know that now, I not only see my body as it is in reality, but that I actually particularly like that reality. Am I 100% happy with how I look all the time? No, of course not. But with some tender love and self care, I generally feel pretty proud of my physical vessel.

Today, this is where she stands

~Sonya

*I originally posted this on Spastically Yours quite some time ago- see it here

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