This isn’t exactly about Dove’s latest beauty campaign (I’m not their target demographic, by a long shot) but it is about choices.
The campaign was, basically, about women choosing to walk through one of two doors, one marked “Beautiful” and one marked “Average”. My mind immediately went to three things; Firstly, to the idea of being literally forces to assess your own attractiveness before going into work just because of your gender, which I thought was a fairly neat metaphor for women in the workplace anyway. Secondly, to the idea of self-determination of attractiveness, something tht disabled people are assumed not to do, and thirdly the idea of choice in how you percieve yourself.
I’m not an attractive person, society tells me this all the time. It tells me this every time someone’s blind-date in a sitcom turns out to have a mental illness or to be in a wheelchair. It tells me this every time the crippled main character turns away sadly from someone who they were romantically interested in, who has just brought home their Royal Marine boyfriend instead. It tells me this every time there’s a programme like The Undateables, or a survey listing how many people would consider dating someone with a disability (Apparently 70% of the UK wouldn’t, according to a poll in the Obsy in 2008. Sobering statistics.) and that’s before we get to the really creepy assumptions that’re made about disabled people’s relationships.
People assume some strange things – The classic one is that the first thing a physically disabled person is looking for in a partner is “kindness” or “understanding” or “gentleness”. Let me be the first to shatter that bubble – I am as fond of vigorous buggery, and as prone to picking my partners largely on a combination of shared interests and physical attraction as the next person.
The other, thankfully less common nowadays, assumption is that mentally ill people are hyper-sexual, and that we will throw ouselves at anyone that smiles at us and indulge in a spot of instinctive frotteurism before even introducing ourselves. Possibly whilst dribbling.
But, effectively, society is telling me that I’m more of an ugly, sexless, infantile mole-rat than average.
If I was a small, cute woman, there’d be the added edge of “She’s so cute and small and helpless but still so cute and attractive!” which leads towards fetishism, Devotees (note capitalisation), abasiophilia and, kegadoru. I know enough disabled women, especially in the EDS community, who spend their online days fending off huge numbers of men asking to see their braces.
Increasingly, much in the manner of the German craze for renommierschmiss, if I was a well-muscled sapper with a limb lost to an IED and a dark tan from three tours in the Gulf, I’d also have some representation of myself as attractive and worthy (See Bryan Adams’ portraits of disabled soldiers, some of which just ooze eroticism, intentional or not).
On one hand, this is fantastic – more disabled people being able to see themselves as beautiful. On the other – Sometimes it’s beautiful because or in spite of their disability, rather than just beautiful and, unrelatedly, disabled.
For example – My partner is ethnically Serbian. He’s not beautiful because he’s Serbian, or beautiful despite being Serbian, he’s just beautiful, and incidentally (when filling out forms that require me to spell his surname) I remember that he’s Serbian. It’s not “I don’t see him as Serbian!” it’s just not something that comes up very often, and pretty much only in relation to practicalities (like spelling his name on forms). I’d sort of like disability to be treated more like that, as unlikely as I know that is, when considering someone’s attractiveness; This is Ben, he’s a stand-up comedian, he really likes short women and maple syrup. Fancy him? Awesome, how about a meal out? Incidentally, can the restaurant be on the ground floor, since he’s going to bring a wheelchair.
I know it’ll never happen.
But anyway, back to the doors. Do you know what usually happens when a disabled person calls themself beautiful? Publicly and in a forum where people can comment, I mean, not just in the privacy of their own head? Even if by “calling themself beautiful” I mean something closer to “Posts a photograph of themself, even if the focus is the landmark behind them rather than their own appearance” They run the risk of being attacked. There’s the chance that their photo or video will be taken and turned into a meme – I’ve seen a couple of “Haha, white people dancing!” memes attached to a video of developmentally disabled teens at a disco. I’ve seen any number of disabled people’s faces being used to convey “hurp a durp” or “LOLwhut”, and of course the classic of any wheelchair user standing up by their chair being labelled with “FAKE” or “LOL IT’S A MIRACLE”.
We like to feel good about our appearance, and for enough of us, especially the chronically ill, our “self image” doesn’t include the disability – We want to be seen standing, or with our stoma bags tucked away, or with gloves covering the worst of the peeling skin. For the first few months when I walked with a cane, whenever I needed a photograph taken I would tuck it up under my arm, or do my best Andrew Eldritch impression, just to save myself the indignity of being seen leaning on it. I know plenty of disabled people are very open and honest about their orthotics, but it’s not something that we’re all comfortable with.
Can you imagine how hard it is to feel attractive, when literally everyone like you in the media is a punchline? Fat women have plus-size pinups, even if they are counterculture, there’s plenty of Mr and Ms Gay events – We know what attractive LGBT people look like, and the same applies for BAME people. They’re all pretty broad categories. But there’s no movement that shows attractive people who just happen to be disabled, other than the externally-imposed fetishisation of either katawa shoujo and its ilk, or the incredibly-conditional “You can be attractive and disabled if you picked up your disability by doing something heroic”.
If I walk through the beautiful door, I risk being a punchline. If I walk through the “average” door, that’s an obvious lie – I would kill to be average, average doesn’t have blisters on its skin from old physio tape and bruises and threadveins from manipulating its joints back into place. I am given a choice – I can pretend that this lanky malfunction that I live in is normal, or I can pretend that it’s sublime.
That brings me back to the second point, actually – that disabled people are assumed not to have Thoughts about how attractive they are, in themselves. In most media, when an ablebodied character tells a disabled character that they’re beautiful, it’s supposed to be a shock and a revelation for the disabled one, because they’ve never really considered how they look before. Fun fact number two – We worry about how we look, just as much as everyone else. Some of us do think we’re attractive, some think we’re hideous. Some of us like things about or bodies that you’d not expect (I love having see-through skin, being able to trace every vein across my chest, having turquoise-blue highlights in anything that I wear just by rolling up my sleeves) and some of us would list Appearance Problem Number One as being something not disability-related (If I could have a less severe hairline, I would).
I don’t know. Maybe my point is that self-determining your own attractiveness is more dangerous and/or difficult and/or groundbreaking for some people than for others, or maybe my point is just that I’ve had a lot of morphine and ginger beer today.