Disability As Beauty

A statute of Allison Lapper in Trafalgar Square. The nude statue depicts the famous disability rights activist during her pregnancy.

Most depictions I see of disabled bodies are not presented in the context of ‘natural beauty’ or examinations of the diversity of the human body. When you do see them on display rather than covered up and hidden because they are frightening and wrong, they’re classically provided as curiousities and objects to gawk at, not the bodies of actual living people. And while there’s much talk of positive affirmations and making people feel good about their bodies, rarely are these bodies described as beautiful or compelling in their own right.

I have trouble with the concept of ‘beauty’ and the cultural constructions surrounding the need to be beautiful, and thus I find it a hard subject to talk about. But I take particular exception to the idea that beauty is a smooth, orderly, and symmetrical thing, and I have a hard time with the way many people talk about reframing beauty. Because so many of those discussions leave out people with physical disabilities entirely, or include them in a way that feels patronising and borders on the offensive; look at them, they’re so unique, their bodies are so interesting.

Some of my most favourite works of art are not those that are filled with sweetness, light, balanced colours, and measured perfection. They are the works that are dark and messy and complex and I find them beautiful, compellingly and mesmerisingly so. When I look, for example, at images of women from the Adipositivity Project, there are some who make me breathless with their beauty. And not in an ‘oh, how brave, she’s so beautiful on the inside, her inner spirit shines out’ and other such hoo-ha sense, but in a genuine sense; these are beautiful women with beautiful, fascinating bodies. I love looking at their slopes and planes, their rolls, their eyes, I am enthralled by how their bodies are constructed and how they carry themselves. They are beautiful.

And I see the same thing in some people with physical disabilities; they aren’t beautiful ‘in spite of their disabilities’ or ‘because of their strong spirits,’ but because their bodies are beautiful, and to me, disability can be beautiful. Hauntingly and compellingly so. Yet, almost never do I see people discuss this, or when they do, the language they use to describe it is deeply troubling, dehumanising, and alienating in many senses. I don’t get the sense that they think a disabled body is beautiful, but that they think they should say so in order to satisfy a perceived desire from audiences and observers.

Thus the nondisabled observer looks at yet another freak show of disabled bodies assembled for ’empowerment’ and goes ‘oh yes, these people are beautiful,’ but doesn’t actually look at their bodies, and doesn’t actually mean it. The observer doesn’t take time to linger over the details, doesn’t observe puckered skin or curving spines, scars and foreshortened bones. The attitude is often that the observer must look past or through the disability in order to see the ‘inner beauty,’ rejecting the outer beauty, and the complexity and amazing diversity found within people with disabilities.

Beauty is a strange and awkward label as well as a weapon; sometimes a person I perceive as beautiful isn’t considered such by other people, and that person wouldn’t appreciate the label, either. The assumption in such situations is often that people hate themselves too much to accept compliments or consider their bodies beautiful, not that people have carefully considered the label and personally reject the idea of beauty for themselves. Especially when one considers that the system as it stands is not one some people may want to participate in.

When someone says that a disabled person is ‘beautiful,’ for example, it can be difficult to determine what kind of beauty that person means, and what, precisely, is intended by the comment. It’s not as harmless or as complimentary as it might appear on the surface; is someone genuinely expressing awe and astonishment at someone’s beauty? Or suggesting that it’s time to cheer up because you’re lovely on the inside and people see that in you even if they think your body is horrid?

And why is disability never included in discussions of natural beauty, when disability is natural? Why, when people describe ideals of natural beauty, are people with physical disabilities entirely left out?

Advocates for shifts in the way we think about beauty and society often claim to be opposed to surgeries and other procedures intended to change the way people look or change the way their bodies function, arguing that this is a violation of nature and that people are ruining their natural beauty.

What should people with physical disabilities take away from this line of thinking? That they can never be natural if they choose to wear prostheses or get surgery to correct a medical issue that makes it hard to survive? If they use chairs for mobility? If someone has surgery to address facial variances that interfere with breathing, talking, and chewing, is that person excluded from the natural beauty sweepstakes now because some of that corrective surgery included cosmetic elements to change the appearance and structure of the face? Are people with surgical scars on their spines from scoliosis procedures no longer natural?

What do people mean when they talk about natural beauty, and who is eligible for consideration under the rubric of natural beauty? Who gets to decide these things, and what happens when people push back against them and challenge people to rethink their framing and notions of beauty?

Image: Allison Lapper, Andrew Warran, Flickr