I am small, disabled, and weak. Not one of those words is me insulting myself. They are facts. I am frail. I need these words to describe my truth. But people have used the words scornfully enough over time, and existing biases are so prevailing, that calling myself “weak” often inspires lovely, well meaning people to assure me reality isn’t real. That actually I’m strong.
But I am not strong and I never have been. As a child, before juvenile arthritis kicked in fully, I was less weak. I was less weak eight months ago when I felt up to near daily gym visits. I am more frail in cold temperatures. My degree of weakness fluctuates, yet srong has never been an accurate word to describe me or my body.
Perhaps they meant some type of emotional strength or were otherwise using the concept of physical musculature and ability as a metaphor for other things. That doesn’t erase the ableism of the idea. If anything this puts “strong” with other ability metaphors: blind to the truth, deaf to pity’s name, sinister and twisted. The metaphors rely on ableist views of blindness, deafness, left-handedness, and twisted forms.
Likewise when people assure me I’m strong and not weak, despite how kindly they may mean it, what I hear is “You can’t be weak because I like you and I don’t respect weakness.” It reminds me of the bigots who kept me in the closet by assuring me I wasn’t too queer for them to love, that I was straight and thus loveable. It makes my acceptance conditional on not being something I am and can’t change.
We can see this same idea with the adjective “fat”. In the sense that Fat and Thin are the words we use to describe each end of a weight and size spectrum, it can be an accurate description. Some people are fat. But so much hatred has been heaped on heavy folks that if someone describes herself as fat, this is taken as self-hatred and low self esteem. This is where we get statements like, ” You’re not fat! You’re big boned/full figured/a real woman/Rubenesque.”