Monday, October 27, 2014

The Pretty Cripple, or, But You Look So Good!

The other day, I was riding my scooter along the sidewalk on the main strip of my neighbourhood. Four very large, very drunk young men in their 20s were whooping it up in front of me, blocking my way and utterly oblivious to my presence. I said nothing until one of them actually fell on my scooter, at which point I said, in my very best teacher voice, "Okay, boys, you have to pay attention to those around you."

To his credit, the man who fell on me was profusely apologetic, but in that obtrusive way of drunks, his very apology a kind of domination of my space and energy. "I meant no disrespect," he kept saying. I guess somewhere along the line he learned that it's not nice to be mean and disrespectful to the cripples.

I made to cross the street to get away from him and his buddies and he asked me to stay, saying that they'd be very careful now. I said I'd rather cross the street. He kept promising that he and his friends would now would behave.

Then he stopped, looked closely at my face, and said, with enormous surprise, as if he were giving me a precious gift even better than an apology, "You're pretty!"

Now, it was a beautiful, autumn day so I was already feeling good.

And I was wearing one of Beau's very favourite dresses. Before I'd left, he'd waxed eloquent about how beautiful and sexy I looked.

So, yeah, I felt pretty. I even knew I was pretty, a rare thing for me.

The question is: Why was the drunk young man so surprised that I'm pretty? It clearly came as a complete shock to him that a disabled woman can be attractive.

And why did he say it as if his noticing and commenting on it was something for which I should be grateful, as if such a compliment were like precious rain to a woman parched for affection?

Dress: Gigi; Sandals, sunglasses, earrings, brooch and bangle: vintage; Right hand ring: Effy; Engagement ring: Britton Diamonds

I get comments like this a lot, especially after I tell someone about my struggles with chronic pain and consequent limited mobility. "But you look so good!" they exclaim. I never know quite what they mean when they say that.

How, I wonder, do they expect a disabled woman to look? Decayed? Half dead? Hideous? Certainly not an object of desire, not someone they'd want to date or, shudder, fuck.

I'm disabled, not dead. Why shouldn't I look good?

Are disabled people not supposed to have any sex appeal?

Are we assumed to be sad and lonely, with no sex life and no-one to love us? I guess I didn't get the memo.

I met Beau after I became disabled. It never gave him a pause. Check out his shadow here as he craftily and playfully photographs my cleavage. He knows that a cripple can be hot.

Was I supposed to stop caring about my appearance after I became disabled?

Was I supposed to have no pride in my physical appearance? Was I supposed to forsake beauty and self-esteem to fit someone's notion of how the disabled should look?

I did, for a while. I was in so much pain, and in such dismay over what had happened to my body, that I did give up. I wore old sweats, t-shirts, and hideous runners. I didn't think I was worth beauty anymore, let alone that I was beautiful.

But that was my depression speaking, not truth. Disability is not, after all, a death sentence on beauty, style, self-worth, confidence, and attractiveness. Yet I sometimes feel like people think it should be.

I do understand that many people say, "But you look so good," as a compliment, and I try to graciously accept their comment as such. Yet their compliments betray their belief that the disabled generally don't look good. Really? We don't?

It also comes dangerously close to the classic statement of disbelief that so many of the invisibly disabled face: "You don't look sick," or, "You don't look disabled."

It is said as a refutation of our claims of illness and/or chronic pain. It is a kind of diagnosis by those in no position to make a diagnosis: You don't look like my idea of the disabled; therefore, you are not disabled and you are making it up.

Recently, I met a major union figure in a café and got to talking to him about how my own union had helped me with the disbelief and ill-treatment I received and still receive through my workplace. I told him about the physical pain I regularly endure and why I can't work. "But you look so good!" he said, right on cue. He then proceeded to tell me about all the "fakers" who are on disability, and the "quack" doctors who support their claims.

Then, wait for it, he asked, in all seriousness, "Did you ever think of trying to get better instead of being on disability?" No, of course not. I prefer to be in pain 24 hours a day.

This from a union head, the very person to whom the disabled are supposed to turn if they are experiencing prejudice, including disbelief, in the workplace.

Would he have said this if I did not "look good"? He was almost indignant about it. I wasn't supposed to look good and, if I did, well then, I wasn't really disabled.

Now, I have an invisible disability. My body looks "normal," whatever that means, and, to the lay person, moves "normally." (Anyone trained to notice such things can see the myriad ways I've changed the way I move to try to reduce my pain levels.)

Perhaps when people tell me I look good, what they mean is that I don't look like someone whose disability is visible, which, to them, is the only kind of disability that is real.

But what does that say about their feelings about those who are visibly disabled? Are they saying that such people don't "look good" and can't be "pretty"? Are they saying that they perceive the visibly disabled as unattractive? Wow. If this is so, it's damned sad. And, from what I've read and seen and heard, I think it probably is so.

I am quite sure that the big drunk man on the street would not have shown surprise in the fact that I am pretty if I had not been in my scooter. I wonder what he would have done if he'd found a visibly disabled person pretty. Yelled in shock? Felt weird that he was attracted to a "freak," as the visibly disabled were once called?

We should never be surprised if we find a visibly or invisibly disabled person attractive. We should never offer our attraction as some kind of rare, benign gift. And we should never question her disability just because she looks good.

The disabled won't take kindly to such condescension. Does that surprise you?

(I'm linking this up with Visible Mondays on Not Dead Yet, and Spy Girl.)


  1. What to tell you, Charlotte. I do believe in best intentions when people compliment you, or comment about getting better, but I understand that you sense their disbelief and that it hurts and annoys you, and rightfully so. You DO look beautiful and wonderful, and yes, the stereotypical picture is that disabled people do not pay as much attention to the way they look. We all don't look our best when we don't feel our best, when we are sick, exhausted, stressed out etc etc... On the top of which, there are tons of all sorts of stereotypes - about age, body types, weight, abilities etc etc. Some people just are not very sensitive and it's hard for them to be empathetic. I think you help to overcome some of those stereotypes when you take a good care of yourself, smile and put on a pretty dress like this one, and go out in the world, and take photos, and then blog about it. Showing is one of the most effective and yet subtle ways to make big changes in the world.

    On the lighter note... this dress is one of my favorite on you too - it hugs all your beautiful curves, and compliments your hair and complexion. No wonder you are getting so many compliments when you wear it!

    1. You know, I should mention that I do know some disabled people who don't "take care of themselves" when they go out. These are generally people more disabled than I am, who are not getting the home care they so badly need, and who are not receiving anywhere near enough money. Between the two, it's bloody hard for them to go out at all, let alone look good doing it.

  2. I hear you! (Hmmm, I seem to have said this to you before!) i have a totally different disability, but it's still invisible. Just today I had another of my typical responses "I would never have guessed!" Are they complimenting me on looking "normal" or doubting my disability? By the way I don't get "but you look so pretty". :-( Probably because I don't! :-D I will echo Beau and Natalia and say this style is very flattering and colour is lovely on you. Maybe a variation of this style for your wedding dress? Hope your day improves/d. xo JJ

    1. It's driving me crazy not showing you guys my wedding dress options and getting your input! I'm pretty sure I know which one I'm getting. Doesn't look anything like this dress but it will knock your socks off.

  3. I think it is just typical for the type of men you describe here to comment on women's looks. Any woman's look... And they may think, and expect the woman in question think, that they are giving her a great gift by complimenting her looks, maybe she should even feel she owes them something for such kind words... Just think of all the times you hear middle-aged drunks colmenting some poor young girl's appearance. And yes, I am conscious that I am totally type-casting these men here, that I have a very prejudiced view of them. But, like you, like all women (whether disabled or not), we have all been at the reveiving end of such compliments, and most likely found them offending for some reason or another (as in " how dare such a vile creature think I should feel sympathetic towards him just because he throws me a half-hearted compliment"). I know I have... So, maybe some comments directed to you have nothing to do with disability and everything to do with you being a woman...

    1. I think I now deal with sexism and ableism and they kind of bunch up together in one package. What's different now is that I get fewer comments from men and, when I do get them, it's their surprise in finding me attractive that is different from before. I never go that surprise before.

      And yes, you're right: a certain kind of man thinks that it is his absolute right to loudly and publicly rate women on their attractiveness, as if our only reason for being is to be desired by men. Not!

  4. I'm LOOOVVVVIIInnng it!
    You handled that fall on your scooter better than I might have. You sounded very patient and calm.
    I cannot believe that union rep would admit those thoughts out loud to an actual disabled person, no less. WOW! That's so deflating that people really think that. Frustrating beyond measure. And i don't really have any more room for frustration in my life!
    You are so right about the: "you are too pretty to be so sick" issue. I've had so many doctors especially say that to me. I think people out in public haven't ever grasped my chronic illness for that very reason, despite crutches for years and then a wheelchair and now bedbound. So whenever I see a new doctor, I always hear that after they see my chart :/ Being attractive doesn't stop you from getting hurt or becoming ill. I never know how to respond. It's a complement they think I'm pretty, but it sort of sucks that my face is all cooped up inside every day any more, lol.
    That's right about having sex appeal and being disabled though. We can still be sexy and sickies ;)
    Great post!
    I'll be sharing one of your posts on my blog coming up!

    1. I can't believe even doctors say that to you! I've had the same GP since I was fifteen. I think that helps. She's witnessed a lot of my struggle and knows I'm not faking it. She's also seen the physical changes in me, especially in my weight. She was very concerned that I was underweight before because I exercised so much. I'm not underweight anymore!

  5. Hi Charlotte,

    Obviously people have a lot of prejudice in mind about the disabled. But in this situation, the men were drunk and this kind of morons, as an other comment said, always do these remarks cause they like to think that a woman needs to be told pretty to exist. And yes, it's thanks to these same men that some women are obsessed with their physical appearance. And thanks to them that I destructed my body for instance and that is forever now.

    The way is still long to hunt the stupid prejudice about disabled people, and why ? It's part of education. I remember when I was a child I was feeling scared of any disabled people, because I was told around me what is good in life (success, health, beauty) by all medias and the behaviour of others around me. But I was a child, and the men you met are probably no more mature than children.

    However, it's a satisfaction to me that you feel your beauty and your effect on others. Because each time I see your beautiful skin, I'm completely envious. As I destructed my body, it's forever now that it is ugly. And it's a real weight for me, not because I agree the society vision of beauty, but because I used to feel good in my body when I was a teen, when I didn't damage it. It's better for mind to feel well in the body. So I'm glad that you know the chance of beauty, it's nice to feel attractive when we have someone. I've been in couple for 7 month now, but I don't trust myself, I always feel I'm going lose my boyfriend when I see "normal" girls around. I know I will never love myself anymore on a physical plan because I see the damage on me everyday. So I guess we never know our chance in life until we meet someone that hasn't the same condition than us :) But for sure there is much more that was the eye is seeing...

    1. If you feel comfortable telling us how you "destroyed" your body, I'm curious. But it's up to you.

  6. I wouldn't listen at all to a bunch of drunks! You look gorgeous in this dress...and you are pretty...and who cares what they think! You are inspiring and helping so many...just carry on!

  7. I do so hope that I am helping people. I'm trying.

    I don't really care what those drunk guys thought of me. But they are an example of, indicative of, a larger problem, so I used them as an illustration of that problem. I got it again today, from a guy who had just seen me on my scooter but didn't recognize me as the same person when he saw me walking in a café. Argh.