Ableism is so woven into the beauty standards of my culture, it’s hard to know where to start. Others have written before about the sexism and racism in those standards. Those problems are genuine and worth looking into. For the purpose of this post, I’d like to focus on the anti-disability bias in beauty ideals.
For men and women, the standards are narrow and surprisingly similar – white clear skin, straight full hair, long lean muscles, minimal body fat, and able. No glasses or canes or wheelchairs populate this ideal. People who do not fit into the two main genders are either ignored or punished for their failure to meet a gendered version of this ideal – with slightly bigger muscles and little more body fat allotted to men, and smaller portions assigned to women.
It’s easy to look at depictions of masculinity and standards for adherence to it and see how it is ableist in many ways. A cultural gender identify predicated on muscular-skeletal structures is necessarily going to bias in favor of some and discriminate against others based on physical aptitude and impairment. Likewise, defining womanhood or femininity by uterine fertility is necessarily biased for some and against others based on things entirely outside their control. Cultural preference for a certain female form are often defended with the argument that it is natural to be attracted to signs of fertility. The unspoken implication is that infertility is ugly. Various disabilities can impact fertility and the wisdom of continuing pregnancy.
Stray too far in either direction of an ableist standard and you deviate from beautiful. Baldness is considered ugly, outside of a few inspirational cancer research fundraiser images. Yet “excessive” body hair is considered a problem, with many products for sale promising to be the solution. Pale, white skin is preferred, but not so white as too look “unhealthy”. You don’t want a “sickly palor” after all, but a “healthy glow”. Diet aids promise to make you look “healthy” with the understanding that “unhealthy” is ugly. As a chronically ill person, I feel decidedly excluded by such messages.
Women especially are not supposed to weigh “too much” or be “too large” but they also mustn’t be “too thin.” As people love to say “the important thing is being healthy.” Fatness in particular is policed under the guise of concern for health, despite the fact that weight is not a good predictor of overall health and the fact that weight gain can be the result of taking a healthful action, like going on antidepressant medication.
So what’s the solution? How can we weaken the power beauty standards (which are capitalist, intentional, and exploitative by design) in our lives? How can we embrace differences in beauty? Obviously, you can’t just decide to be attracted to someone, if my years in the closet are anything to go by. At the same time, you can decide not to exclude a whole category of people based on their disability. I know some people can’t really imagine themselves being attracted to someone in a wheelchair, but I’ve never lost attraction to someone when they sat down, so I don’t really get it.
Our disabilities are varied and so are our looks. Don’t assume that all disabled people are alike, look alike, or even “look” disabled”. We’ve got cultural standard beauties and rare, unique, beautiful people who don’t fit into the narrow confines marked “Beautiful” by society and advertisers. Be open to the idea of finding disabled people attractive.
Recognize that disability aids can be cute or fashionable. From custom prosthetics to sticker decorated quad canes to steampunk back braces, our aids can express our personalities and our sense of style while helping us live our daily lives. People are coming to embrace the idea that glasses can be cute, especially when the frames flatter the face of the wearer. But other disability aids are not depicted as positively or as often, and certainly not when related to sexuality or sexy people. At the same time, don’t be a creep about it. If the only reason you’re with someone is because you find their wheelchair sexy, you’re objecting that person and need to stop. They deserve to be with someone who loves their whole self, not just their disability.
Disabled people can be beautiful, both by the limited standards already out there and by standards that embrace difference. Depictions of beautiful and sexy disability are needed, particularly to counter infantilizing and objectifying tropes. Some of our cultural beauty standards are ableist as a consequence and others by design. Celebrating a variety of bodies – including unhealthy bodies! – is important to reducing the power of beauty standards in all our lives.