Beauty And You

‘Our bodies are where self-esteem, desire and sexuality come together. The more attention we pay to our needs, the better we are able to take care of ourselves.’

FromThe Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, ed. Kaufman, Silverberg and Odette, 2003


I’m never going to look like the women in advertisements and posters, and this makes me feel really bad about the way my body is.

Join the club. The ads you see and hear are designed to sell products, and they’ve figured the best way to do this is by lowering women’s self-esteem. By equating certain types of bodies and looks with pictures of happiness or love, women feel like they must look like those pictures in order to be satisfied or loved. As a woman with a disability, this can become even further complicated. Not only do you get the message that all women are receiving (‘your body isn’t beautiful’) but an added one as well – ‘your disability means that you can never be beautiful, so we’re not even including you in our target audience.’

The people setting the standards for beauty are not interested in making us feel good about ourselves, and while it’s far more easily said than done to reject these ideas, it’s important that we try. Becoming familiar with or sharing experiences about other women’s bodies is perhaps the best way to realise that the images of the female body we see around us have very little to do with real women’s bodies, which are more textured and beautiful than the most intricately Photoshopped model can ever be.

My body looks and functions differently. Can anyone ever be attracted to me?

es, of course they can, and rest assured (or be appropriately disconcerted) that you aren’t alone in your self-doubt. The unattainable standards of physical appearance set by the images and messages around us makes it hard for all women – disabled and nondisabled – to see that there really is no connection between desire and ‘beauty’ as it is defined by popular culture. All around us are images of sexually aroused women with seemingly ‘perfect’ bodies – and it makes many of us believe that in order to achieve this ecstasy or love, we have to look like them.

But in reality, desire and sexual attraction are far more complicated than popular culture or visual media would have us believe. Cast aside for a moment those images and ideas, and think about what desire – as a physical sensation: a tugging of the heart or a throbbing of the loin – means for you. Is it a glossy magazine page of a semi naked person? Perhaps instead it’s the slight smell of sweat on someone you are sitting next to on the train. The sound of a thunder storm. The jumping sensation in your stomach each time your best friend holds your arm. Attraction is a multifaceted arena where different senses collide with memory, thought and sexual fantasy – and these imposed beauty standards may have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Isn’t beauty supposed to be an important part of life? If all these ideas of beauty are so false and misleading, what, or who, can ever be beautiful?

Okay, so start by thinking about an older woman you love and respect – it could be your mother, an aunt, a caregiver, or a school teacher. Imagine the lines on her face, the touch of her wrinkled skin, or her slightly rasping voice. Is she beautiful? What about some of the most energetic, passionate or kind women with disabilities that you know? Can you sense beauty there despite falling hair, aged skin or prosthetic limbs? I’m sure you can. The saying that ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’ is overused – but that’s because it’s true.

Societies set false standards of beauty, against which women with disabilities are often harshly judged. But the real beauty secret is not Fair & Lovely cream, rounder breasts or a perfectly straight back – it’s that beauty itself has no definition, no standards and no rules. This can be hard to understand given that our eyes and senses are trained to see certain kinds of bodies or faces as beautiful. Many women with disabilities are using online spaces, art, and writing to put forward their own ideas of beauty.  For instance New Mobility wheelchair blogger Jamie External Website that opens in a new window  has created a site called ‘I Look Good Today’ where she uploads attractive images of herself along with fashion advice. In another blog, MelinaExternal Website that opens in a new window, an artist who has scoliosis says she always believed that ‘only the “perfect” body should be represented in art, [but then] started painting bodies with scoliosis…and discovered that it gives a magnificent flow to the body.’ Or look at Bodies of DifferenceExternal Website that opens in a new window , where Ashley uses photography to explore the relationships between disability, sexuality, self-esteem and body image, while expanding ideas of what it means to be beautiful.