Discovering Your Body
‘It’s often assumed that disability creates a split between a person and their body because of the things they “lost.” While this may happen to some, for many of us it’s more true that learning to live with our disabilities brings us closer to our bodies.’
From‘The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability,’ ed. Kaufman, Silverberg and Odette, 2003
I don’t look like everyone else, and my body works differently. Am I normal?
Despite what you may have been told or shown, difference is completely natural – bodies come in varying shapes and sizes, and no two people look, feel, smell, taste or sound exactly alike. There’s no ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ body type, even though everything around us from magazines to family and friends may make us feel like there is. Many women – with or without a disability – feel like their bodies are abnormal. If you are taller than all the other girls in your class, you may feel like you are ‘abnormally’ tall. If everyone around you weighs a lot more or less than you, you may feel like you are ‘abnormally’ fat or thin. Check out this blog post for one person’s relationship to her body – is it really that ‘abnormal’ to be different? What is it that makes your body different? Are your arms of varying lengths? Is the shape of your back different? Is it that you can’t always control your hand movements? Or that your eyes are never focused on anything in particular?
It is a misconception that a disabled body is a deficient body. In reality, almost everything in your body works in almost exactly the same way as any other woman’s. Your internal organs, reproductive organs, and most other body parts may not be affected by your disability. So even if you have a disability, you don’t need to think of your body or yourself as deficient or lacking.
I can’t see, feel or hear different parts of my body. How can I tell what it’s like?
Everyone can explore and discover their bodies in limitless ways. Your body is unique, and the way you learn about it can be equally personalised – whether or not you have a disability.
If you are in a wheelchair or have limited mobility, ask a friend or caregiver to help you see yourself from different angles with a mirror. If you can’t see, you can explore your body by running your hands and fingers over different parts. In fact, there are resources and models available that can help you learn about the human body. For example, here’s a handmade book of nude photographs for visually challenged people. It’s totally natural to be curious about your body – it’s yours, and you can learn about it however you feel comfortable, taking as much time as you need.
Is it okay to explore my private parts?
Many women feel that certain body parts – like the breasts or the genitals – are dirty or shameful, and should remain hidden from view or touch. Despite what you may have been told, these areas are just as much a part of your body as your hair or eyes, and there is nothing shameful about them. If you want to explore parts of your body that are ‘private’, start by finding a safe place (the bathroom, an empty room, or even a time of the day when everyone is sleeping). Are there areas that are more sensitive? Some that hurt? Some that cause a sensation of pleasure?
If you have limited mobility and can’t reach these parts, maybe you could ask someone you really trust for help? This may feel somewhat awkward, both for you and for that person, so keep that in mind. You could also surf the internet to see what these parts look like. Check this site for clearly labelled pictures of female genitals, or this one for pictures of different women’s breasts.
My daughter is going through puberty and she is asking me questions about her body. I don’t think she’ll ever lead a normal woman’s life, so what do I tell her?
For starters, you need to accept that your daughter is becoming a woman , just like any other girl. What would you tell her if she did not have a disability? Would you talk to her about the changes her body is undergoing and explain why these take place? Discuss how her emotions and feelings would change? Tell her it’s natural to experience different kinds of thoughts and desires? Why not do exactly the same thing even if she does have a disability?
As far as possible, give her the information that she needs according to her age and mental ability. Here is a useful resource for parents on sexuality education . If your daughter has an intellectual disability, you may need to give her more basic information about her periods, safety, and masturbation. Try and satisfy her natural curiosity. Encourage her to talk about her feelings and ask questions. Let her go out with her friends, have fun, and find her own feet. It’s exciting to be a teenager, and by equipping her to do all the things she can, she’s more likely to lead as ‘normal’ a life as any other young woman.
While your daughter will go through most of the same changes as any young woman her age, her disability may raise other concerns for you.Various sources report some of the most common concerns as menstrual management, delayed or early onset of puberty in children with developmental disabilities, ‘inappropriate’ sexual behaviour, susceptibility to sexual abuse and overall changes in behaviour. Check out the tips at the end of the Knowing Your Body page for more disability-specific information about puberty.