Category Archives: feminism

Missing Bodies: Where Are Disabled Women in the Body Positivity Movement?

Line drawing of Anna with devil horns. A speech bubble proclaims RAAAWR

This essay was originally posted on Disability Intersections in 2014. Since then, there has been a lot of (rightful) criticism of body positivity–read Evette Dionne’s “The Fragility of Body Positivity” and Amanda Mull’s “Body Positivity is a Scam” for more. 

Love your body! Stop hating your body; start a revolution! These are just a few of the popular third wave slogans that are fairly well-entrenched as directives, or at least as aspirations, within feminist activism both online and off. There’s Love Your Body Day, sponsored annually by the National Organization for Women (NOW), Love Your Body weeks on various college campuses around North America, and thousands, if not millions, of web pages, graphics, and digital art pieces online that celebrate this theme and encourage women to do so every day. Many liberal feminists have proclaimed that body image –and a matching emphasis on loving your body–is “the” issue for the third wave, as this widely-anthologized essay by Amelia (Amy) Richards explores.

At a basic level, LYB discourse can be a positive thing, and it’s often a good stepping-stone for women who are new to feminist ideas. But it’s this very basic quality that can limit–and does–which kinds of bodies are acceptable to reclaim, have pride in, and even love. A cursory Google search for “love your body” brings up a plethora of images of white, visibly abled, young, cisgender, straight, and/or acceptably thin women encouraging other women to love their own bodies. From this cursory Google search,  I found one image–-the NOW Foundation’s LYB 2009 contest-winning poster designed by Lisa Champ-–that shows a variation on the woman clip-art symbol with a (visible) disability. This single image (now offline!) was more than I was expecting to find, but even with this limited representation, there are still problems in how LYB discourse is built for and around abledness–not least of which is its leaving out of disabled bodies. The complex relationships that many women with disabilities of all kinds have with their bodies are left out as well.

Many of us who have disabilities, chronic illness/pain, or mental health issues actively struggle to love our bodies for a whole host of reasons. Disabled bodies, unhealthy bodies, sick bodies; like other bodies that deviate from the “norm” (that is: white/abled/cis/acceptably thin) that liberal feminism so often reinforces instead of dismantling, our bodies may be accepted by feminism, and other feminists, at a surface level, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of what loving non-normative bodies actually entails…well, feminism doesn’t know how to deal with that.

To use a personal example: I look like your “average” youngish white feminist. While I’m not thin, I’ve never had a stranger comment on the overall size of my body, my eating habits in public, or my clothing in the way that people so often comment on the bodies of fat women.  (When I do receive unsolicited advice, curiosity, or commentary from strangers, it is usually about one of three things: my pronounced limp, my cane, or the size of my breasts, although those are stories for another post.)

With the exception of my use of a cane, I have a body that is able to fit in reasonably well when I’m in public. Take away my cane, and I might resemble what an average person might expect a “young feminist” to look like.  Here, too, is where I  depart from all of the well-meaning messages in love your body campaigns. My average appearance and weight are the easiest things to accept about my body, but my disabilities? Less so.

My body itself is in constant pain, and is usually fatigued, thanks to fibromyalgia. I don’t like being in pain all the time; in fact, part of my medical treatment is dedicated to reducing this pain via the use of certain medications. On the other hand, being in pain has shaped my personality in a variety of ways. Having fibromyalgia is not “empowering” in the usual ways that LYB discourse demands of bodily acceptance for women.

Oftentimes, fibromyalgia is horrible. But having it has also made me a fiercer advocate for equal rights for people with all types of disabilities, access to proper pain management for people with chronic pain (many of whom suffer from pain on a daily basis), and related causes. I’ve also been experiencing mysterious and severe allergic reactions for over a decade; these do not happen every day, but when they do, they are usually debilitating.

What qualities are we supposed to love about our bodies, anyway? I am grateful that after an allergic reaction, my face reverts to its “normal,” non-puffy look after 12-24 hours, mostly because the swelling around my eyes often does not allow me to see very clearly (and is also uncomfortably itchy when it happens). I appreciate the fact that during a reaction, my body tries to get rid of whatever’s caused that reaction–but this doesn’t mean that I have to love sitting on the toilet for hours while my intestines empty, and as I become increasingly dehydrated.

LYB discourse instructs us to to love surface things about our bodies: skin, limbs, stomachs, thighs, hair, freckles. . .the list goes on. Or what “our” bodies can do: run, jump, hike, exercise, dance, appear strong; again, it’s a long list. Many bodies can do all of these things and more. But what happens to the bodies that cannot do these things?

Despite having to work around the fibromyalgia to do so, I am able to exercise, but if I decide to go on a two-hour hike on a whim in addition to my carefully planned exercise routine of daily yoga and walking my dog, that addition is going to land me in bed for a few days, and I’ll be in too much pain to move during that time. The call to love your body and celebrate your body, in those instances,  rings hollow to me. I can’t even get out of bed, and you want me to sing kumbayah in celebration of my body? Some days, I’m in terrible pain even though I didn’t do anything to exacerbate my existing pain levels. There are a lot of things that my body cannot do because it’s in near-constant pain, but I’ll be damned if feminism even comes close to acknowledging that, because it never does.

Loving your body at such a surface level is all well and good when you can run and jump and not be bedridden for days afterward, but try explaining what chronic pain feels like, day in and day out, to a healthy love your body-supporting feminist and see how fast she screws up her face, as if to say Why are you telling me this? Feminism has traditionally been terrible at validating women who have complicated relationships with their own bodies, and LYB discourse is merely a pretty pink symptom of feminism’s–and feminists’–inability to accept, or even barely tolerate, any experience of the body that can’t be spun into New Age-type rhetoric having to do with loving oneself against societal odds, or triumphing over the odds. Gender and disability oppression combine into a toxic goop here, and the resulting mix can start to resemble the second-wave anthem “I Am Woman” combined with Supercrip.

During allergic reactions, I hate my guts that keep me confined to bed or to the bathroom, my ballooning face that begins to horribly resemble the moon in A Trip to the Moon, my lungs that feel like they’ve magically shrunken to the size of quarters for no apparent reason. Very often I hate my fibromyalgia-ed muscle fasciae because they make me physically hurt. I hate the sensation of fatigue that makes me feel like I have a tremendously heavy coat on, in addition to the pain. The thing that many feminists do not understand is that these feelings aren’t caused by the media, by fashion magazines, by impossibly thin models and actresses, by advertising-–no, not even by Big Pharma!

LYB grossly oversimplifies the problem of women’s self-hatred, reducing it to a sort of you just need to try harder pseudo-New Age self-improvement goal that pits “women” as a group-–really middle-class, abled, youngish white women–-against oppressive, sexist social and cultural norms, advertising, and so fourth. But it does not teach women to be accepting of sick bodies, disabled bodies, bodies that don’t work perfectly; much of it is merely another air-thin platitude to which to aspire in order to attain self-acceptance. LYB discourse has even been corporatized; look no further than recent Special K cereal ads so bravely proclaiming “NO FAT TALK,” and those insipid Dove soap campaigns that are supposedly so “body-positive” for proof. Such a corporate vision of “positive” body image only offers body acceptance and self-love as goals for a very specific type of body, as scholar Sarah Heiss convincingly argues in this 2011 article from Disability Studies Quarterly.

It’s not so outlandish to ask whose bodies are positioned as worthy of love, of self-acceptance, of peace in LYB discourse. If you already look like the young/white/cis/abled/average-sized woman for whom these messages are designed to appeal,  body acceptance is probably easier for you than it might be for someone who doesn’t fit into one or more of those categories. I am not trying to dismiss the body image struggles of women who do fit into those categories, often through no fault of their own–it’s just that, like a lot of things in mainstream liberal feminism, LYB messages are made to appear inclusive without actually doing that work in any substantial way.

And when this appearance of inclusivity makes disabled, sick, and invisibly ill bodies not appear outright, well, after a while that’s how you end up with healthy, nondisabled feminists who just don’t understand why disability rights are a feminist issue, or who don’t get why women with pain, fatigue or other chronic health issues can’t just love their bodies instead of letting physical or mental problems and/or what the media says about disabled bodies (and the bodies of disabled women) affect them so much. Or they ask how disability pride could possibly exist since disability always creates “suffering,” as Sierra at RH Reality Check does in this article–-because shouldn’t eliminating disability be a goal for a more feminist and pro-choice world? (You can probably guess my answer to that question.)

In their insistence on uncritically parroting and supporting LYB discourse as it currently exists, some feminists inadvertently reinforce the idea that certain bodies are easier to love–and, conveniently, many of them already fit into what the mainstream designates as worthy of acceptance and love. Those with complicated bodies, ill bodies, disabled bodies–and the attendant complex relationships with their own bodies–are often not so lucky.

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Nervous Systems: Chapter 3–Fibromyalgia (and Afterword)

Previously: Chapter 1; Chapter 2

Image descriptions can be found under the read more tag.

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Nervous Systems: Chapter 2–Allergies and Anaphylaxis

Part 1 can be viewed here. Image descriptions can be found under the read more tag.

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Quick update: My work, elsewhere

Hi, readers! I know I’ve been neglecting ye olde blog (and hopefully I will start to do better on the whole “updating it regularly” thing soon!), but I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of things in which I have been involved lately:

Last week, I wrote a guest post for Tiger Beatdown on Lars von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist, and how it relates to the pop cultural depiction (or lack thereof) of depression and pain, women and emotion, plus the unintended backlash that the expectation of “strong lady characters” has wrought. Go and join the discussion if you feel so inclined. Content warning for discussions of some graphic violence that the film depicts.

s.e. smith and I recently wrote an article (on disability culture on the internets and online feminism, naturally) for the latest print issue of Bitch Magazine, which is currently available for purchase or download. I also did the illustrations, which is kind of (read: EXTREMELY) exciting for me. We were interviewed at length by Kjerstin for the Bitch Radio podcast as well. Hooray!

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Hidden costs: On Lilith Fair and subtle exclusion

HEY LADIES AND THE FOLKS WHO LOVE THEM, REMEMBER LILITH FAIR? I certainly do, as I once had visions of attending it — visions which, like the proverbial sugar plums-dancing-in-childrens’-heads-come-December, did not materialize. Now that I think about it, this probably ended up being a good thing.

Well, the women’s music festival that isn’t that other one (and Lilith Fair, to its credit, does not have exclusion policies based on what gender an individual was assigned at birth) is back and it is BIGGER THAN EVER. It is going to be in my neck of the woods (the venue, however, happens to be about two hours away from where I live) rather soon, and it is going to be stopping at a pretty large outdoor arena that also happens to be built on a landfill.

As will quickly become apparent, I’m not a huge fan of Lilith Fair; I have some highly specific problems with it which, gasp, are not all about the music! With regards to the actual music, I don’t want to just throw my hands up from my keyboard and be all UGH SOME OF THE ARTISTS ARE SOOO TERRIBLE AND BORING NEENER NEENER. I used to rely on that sort of argument with some frequency, and, let me tell you, not doing that is so much more exciting, because it means that I can write long-ass posts on things that I find problematic in some ways (and, often, not completely without merit) instead of going THIS TOTALLY SUCKS WHY WOULD ANYONE LISTEN TO IT BAH and having that be the end of my opinion. I also don’t think that wholesale boringness, or totally sucking, or being the musical equivalent of Grocery Outlet (in which you think you are getting a good deal, but really you are just buying close-to-expiration-date food items — and, for God’s sake, be careful with those reduced-price dairy products!), is the case with many of these artists. I may not be a fan of, say, Norah Jones, but I can acknowledge that she is very good at what she does; she has struck a chord with folks for a reason that may, actually, be deeper than the popular music industry’s tendency to latch onto a trend and push it until it becomes the peat moss in the ground of modern music.

Here’s one big issue I have with Lilith Fair, in terms of social inclusion: Despite its attempts at “diversity” in its most recent incarnation, the roster of performers for 2010 is still fairly…white. And middle-class — just look at the ticket prices, for one thing. And, presumably, able-bodied. And, tangentially: if Sarah McLaughlan were diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome or something, you KNOW she would be all over raising awareness of that condition like hippies on a drum circle, perhaps appearing in a high-profile ad campaign of some kind. She is great with that kind of “raising awareness” stuff — see, for example, her tear-inducing recent ads for the ASPCA. While I do have problems with the whole “raising awareness” activism/charity model for a lot of things — including for PWDs and people with chronic illnesses/health conditions — overall, I respect Sarah immensely for her activist work, my own issues with the charity model of activism aside.

However: even if some of the artists whose music I actually enjoy (Erykah Badu, Sia, Janelle Monae, or Gossip, for example) were going to be on the roster for the day that the Lilith caravan-slash-sleek tour bus makes a stop at the legendary Landfill Amphitheater, I still would not go. Because the roster would still seem, to me, pretty white, middle-class, and abled — and, more crucially, it seems made for that exact kind of audience.  It is, ultimately, a kind of weird “elitism” that masquerades as Lilith Fair’s (promoted) status as a Music Festival For All Women.

I do think that this sort of “elitism” that Lilith Fair is promoting is almost painfully subtle. It is made for an audience that can, first and foremost, afford to be there —  Lilith Fair offers several ticket packages, from the nosebleed $36 lawn tickets to $756 for something called the “Diamond Package.” I am one of those people who usually gets nosebleed tickets, because most of the time, that is the only thing that I can afford. Of course, only a small percentage of concertgoers will probably buy the “Diamond Package” tickets; more folks will buy the less-expensive tickets. But even with the “lower end” tickets, one must still purchase them and, in all likelihood, pay for a bunch of things like processing fees and all that, which of course ups the prices of even the “inexpensive” tickets. If you can afford to pay those “convenience fees,” you’re good.

If you can’t, or if the fees put you off of buying even the “reasonably priced” tickets, the festival may not look so reasonably-priced after all. For some (middle-class) folks, getting concert tickets may not be that big of a deal, but what happens to those folks who aren’t middle class, and may have to do things like take time off of work to go to this festival? There are also probably many hidden costs that I am not considering here, such as transportation. Simply put, the cost(s) of going to a “diverse” and “inclusive” festival that unproblematically presents itself as For All Women can add up to way more than the ticket price.

The ability question is also worth considering in-depth; as far as I know, Lilith Fair does not specify any policies or instructions on its website for people with disabilities who may need special seating or other accommodations. This is problematic for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the message seems to be, in the words of my friend and awesome FWD co-blogger Anna, that people with disabilities “don’t exist.” In Lilith Fair’s super-woman-power-goddess universe, women with disabilities are left out, thereby not exactly contributing to LF’s supposed standing as a music festival For All Women. If you are leaving women with disabilities out, you are leaving some women out of your musical utopia. Certainly, accessibility policies will vary from venue to venue, but because LF is so huge and is of such note, I believe its coordinators have a responsibility to reach out to people who have, traditionally, been ignored, left out and/or forgotten about by major music festivals — and that group includes people — women — with disabilities.

If Lilith Fair wants to be truly radical and different, it will take steps toward being for a wide variety of women, and people, instead of simply promoting itself as such. There is a huge difference between presenting an event or group as being For All Women and actually taking steps toward real inclusion. So, Lilith Fair coordinators, what are your policies on wheelchair accessibility? Interpreters for the hard-of-hearing? Seats for people who can’t do the “standing room only” thing because of chronic pain or mobility issues? These, of course, are just a few questions about accessibility; there are many, many more facets of accessibility that I have not mentioned here.

One final note: Before anyone accuses me of “not supporting women musicians” because of my issues with Lilith Fair, my fannishness and support of many women musicians is fairly well-documented — among them Tori Amos, Alanis Morrissette, Nina Simone, Jesse Sykes, and many, many others — so that argument will not fly with me. In my view, the whole “you’re not supporting women musicians if you have issues with Lilith Fair!” is the penguin of arguments about women musicians — it may be cute and kinda funny at times, but it cannot fly. And in my view, neither can Lilith Fair’s consistent trumpeting of itself as For All Women, when it still has so far to go.

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Crowdsourcing: GRAPHIC NOVELS! Edition

Here’s the scoop: Despite the fact that I am sort of a cartoonist and “into” graphic art, I am, sadly, not totally on the up-and-up when it comes to comics and graphic novels! So, I need recommendations from you fine folks for a project that I will be starting on rather soon. I am mostly looking for autobiographical comic/graphic novels, comics/graphic novels having to do with illness or disability, race, and/or gender and sexuality (I prefer non-fiction for these categories),  and comics/graphic novels that cover awkward situations in childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood (fictional or not).  Also, how-to books (such as Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, which I already own and have dog-earred to infinity) are also welcome as suggestions, as I will definitely need inspiration for writing a long-form graphic piece.

Here’s a list of stuff I already have that is in one or more of the above categories: One! Hundred! Demons! (Barry, 2002); Fun Home (Bechdel, 2006); Funny Misshapen Body (Brown, 2002); The Spiral Cage (Davison, 1992); Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person (Engelberg, 2008); Jokes and the Unconscious (Gottleib and DiMassa, 2006) Stitches (Small, 2009), American Born Chinese (Yang, 2006) [thank you Anna for reminding me of this one!].

PLEASE, SUGGEST AWAY!

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BADD 2010: “Exhibition”

For Blogging Against Disablism Day this year, I thought I’d share a poem that I wrote a while ago that I haven’t shared until now. I was going to turn it into a spoken-word piece but never got around to it. Better late than never, I suppose.

Exhibition

On my side
side/ways
eyes brain neck
spinning along with
everything else
and I haven’t even been drinking

this is not a workout
and yet, I am sweating
the body over (re)acts
does not know quite how to
respond
and I wish I
could say to
every non-believer, every “skeptic”

everyone who’s ever asked:
what’s wrong with you
why do you walk like that
is something the matter with your foot
what is it
why aren’t you getting better
why isn’t your attitude more positive
why can’t you

almost always accompanied
by one of these:
at least you can walk
at least you’re smart, so you can deal with this
at least you’re not homeless
or starving
or living in a Third World country
you’re luckier than most
how bad could your pain be?
just take some aspirin
stop complaining
why
why
why

for every
you should take vitamins
just work through your pain
I have pain, too
you’re too young to have something
like that
why are you so bitchy
that I hear
I smile a little bit, inside

because: someday
many of these people
will also know
pain

but for now
this is my reality
and I wish you could see it
feel it
for only a minute
and then maybe you’d
think before you
talk at me
or offer meaningless platitudes

every word that exits your mouth

random stranger,
friend of a friend,
asshole on the street who tells me to smile
because it can’t be that bad
every word
means less to me
than I do to you

I’m not your vehicle for
public service
I am not to be used
to show the world

what a great “liberal,” progressive kind person you are
or to be subjected to
your pity
masked as concern
so please step out of
my way
once I can stand, that is
for now—lucky for you
I am confined to vertigo
In my own carpeted purgatory

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