As the beauty industry tightens its chains on all women – not just the disabled – we need to reframe the definition and discussion around beauty, where the disabled body is reconfigured as equally valued and natural as the able body
The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself…The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human. The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain…Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly. Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength…There is only the illusion of solace in beauty. If age and disability teach us anything, it is that investing in beauty will never set us free. Beauty has always been hurled as a weapon. It has always taken the form of an exclusive club; and supposed protection against violence, isolation and pain, but this is a myth. It is not true, even for those accepted in to the club. – Soo Na, 2012
The linguistic, visual, political, and social constructions of the world are forged through – amongst other things – a framework of largely unquestioned able-bodiedness. The mentally and physically able body is a widely accepted norm, from which a divergence is monstrous; ugly. And ugliness – and more specifically, female ugliness -- in this day and age, simply cannot hold. As the pervasiveness of the beauty industry tightens its chains on all women – irrespective of disability – it is paramount to bring together struggles that seek to dismantle the effects of beauty ideals and those that fight for a social model of disability rights. This feminist-disability theory can then become a framework to describe, analyse and critique social systems and material practices that stigmatise certain kinds of bodily variations (Heiss, 2011). It can forge a place from which to reframe the definition of and discussion around beauty, where the disabled body is reconfigured as equally valued and natural as the able body.
The beauty industry is a powerful system of violence that feminists from the Global North have been attempting to subvert and circumvent for decades. In countries like India, there has been a sharp increase in the number of beauty products advertised – from anti-ageing creams to the usual Fair and Lovely to hair conditioner – that offer the ultimate promises of happiness and love through the elusive ideal of Beauty. Happy families, happy couples and happy individuals are loved because of the way they look. Advertising, here, serves as the handmaiden for this singular Beauty. The billboards, posters and television commercials espousing these ideals are no longer a part of our environment – they are our environment – and their effects are as widespread as they are harmful. Thanks to the technologies of Photoshop, airbrushing and extensive touch-ups, we are increasingly confronted with taller, skinnier, fairer, prettier, younger, and more ‘perfect’ models than ever before. The representations and constructions of women in advertising are most frequently polarised into mothers or item girls, and the ability to be either (or both) these women defines for the popular imagination what womanhood itself is. And while the battles by women’s movements against these false notions of what it means to be a woman have been strongly and consistently fought, what many of us have failed to address is the fact that these women – or constructs of women – are without question, nondisabled. Desire, sexual relationships and a happily married life are not only for the beautiful, but for the able-bodied. And while they sell us clothes, shampoo or perfume to ‘help’ us become more desirable, the miracle cream for disability-removal (just about as plausible as age-reversal ointment) is simply not available in this market of whiter skin and false dreams.
But would including women with disabilities in advertisements change very much? In response to a long-standing disability rights movement and its subsequent gains, Western advertising companies have created ad campaigns targeting people – particularly women -- with disabilities. But presented as flawless apart from their impairment, airbrushed as much (if not more) as nondisabled models, and living completely ‘regular’ lives, Garland-Thomson believes that this is a ‘naïve integration’ that gives disabled people – and other marginalised groups – ‘the false expectations of equality and opportunity’ (1). Until we reshape our attitudes, policies and beliefs about disability, many believe that the inclusion of impaired bodies in beauty advertising will only pay lip service to another potential consumer market, rather than actively contributing towards either a broader definition of beauty or an empowerment of disabled people.
Assuming that Beauty – in its monolithic, cruel and singular definition – is in reality unavailable to all of us (or transiently available at great personal and monetary cost), what does it mean to navigate a world where even the false hope of beauty is not availableto you? The visual beauty culture in which we live not only forms society’s ideas of beauty, but also impacts on how individuals value and identify with their own bodies. Following a chilling act of domestic violence that has almost become a trademark of South Asian patriarchy, Shirin Juwaley’s face was disfigured beyond recognition by her husband, whom she had asked for a divorce. He threw acid onto her face: a final act of cruelty, so she could ‘never forget’. She talks about her experiences of her disfigurement as a disability she would carry with her forever: “For me [at first] I was almost happy to be burnt because it meant freedom from my husband…It was then that my face started distorting and contracting. I had to take this face out to people, and it was challenging to live the life that I used to live. People were really scared of me because the face had really distorted to the extent where it looked horrific…I was horrified as well because I was deviant from whatever was considered symmetrical [and beautiful]. And it wasn't a pleasant sight. So for me it was justifiable for people to be afraid of me, and to think of me differently. But the scale of it was something that really traumatised me.” The trauma of disability here, as for many people, is not the actual impairment, but the disabling prejudices surrounding their handicap. After the often arduous journey of personal acceptance, people living with disabilities must face an intolerant-about-ugliness and unforgiving beauty-conscious world.
What is also at the heart of beauty is desire. The increased availability of beauty pornography that is everything from a Bollywood poster advertisement for Jism to the pictures in Femina magazine has created an artificial linkage that never existed before: to be desired, you must be beautiful. The female body has historically been seen as something overflowing, oozing, and needing to be actively contained. So with a combining of the two most profitable industries today – beauty and pornography – the uncontainable female body is de-haired, de-wrinkled, downsized and upsized (depending on the body part), all the while giving women the message that unless they conform to these standards, they will never be loved. This has a pervasively dual effect – it determines who we are more likely to desire, and it gives us a framework for us to see our own desirability. So in the case of the even more monstrous-because-disabled body, this discourse of beauty tells us that fundamentally, disabled people can never be attractive, desired, or sexually loved.
Malini Chib, a disabled activist and author with cerebral palsy writes in the Mumbai Mirror, “I am a 45-year-old female. Above average IQ (double MA). Attractive. Witty. Yet I have never had a romantic relationship. I want to be touched. I want to be loved romantically. I want to experience my sexuality. But I can't. Because I am disabled. It takes courage to speak out. I will continue to do so, even if it seems scandalous, because I understand the pain of this denial — for many like me who may not be able to express it. Deep down I hate to think of it in that way, but it's true that the outward appearances still matter a great deal.” Despite the fact that sexual attraction is a multi-faceted arena where senses, thoughts, moods, and memories all come together, outward appearances carry a great weight, and inflict an even greater burden on those who cannot lay claim to them. For many disabled people, Beauty – or the lack of it, as it is constructed through popular culture – is the most profound impairment of all.
The time has come for us to expand this conversation further and further across a diverse range of platforms, countries and cultures, until we can shatter the myths of beauty. That beauty has a singular definition. That beauty, in this definition, equals desire and elicits sexual attraction. That disabled people can never be beautiful. And while we subvert these myths, we must stand with disabled people across the world as they forge new spaces for beauty – spaces that can empower us all. Positive representations of women with disabilities – not as objects of beauty pornography, but as individual beings in their own right – can create potential sites of social change that are more than skin deep. Shirin talks about a turning point in her life: “There was this one gesture [that really had an impact on me]. I was standing at the bus stop, and a lady just came up to me out of nowhere and said, “You know what, I think you are so beautiful with your scars.’ And then she went away. That's all she said, you know. It did wonders for me, because an absolute stranger who didn't know how I looked before could see beauty in me now. And that really helped, you know; it really made me feel good about myself.”
We must – all of us -- pursue beauty to her lair. Beauties that existed before they were photographed, packaged and sold with a label and a capital B. We must reframe the discourse around desire and sexuality to include all bodies – the dark, the overweight, the disfigured, and the impaired – to broaden the terms and limits through which we understand, and embrace, human diversity.
(1) Garland-Thomson (2002), Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory, NWSA Journal 14(3), 1-32
(Richa Kaul Padte is a freelance writer and feminist activist living between Bombay and Goa. She was the co-author and project coordinator of www.sexualityanddisability.org, an online initiative by Point of View and CREA)
Infochange News & Features, September 2012