Sunday, August 26, 2012

Is Vanity A Luxury of the Able-Bodied?

Feminist sociologists (like me!) do their best recognize that they conduct research from unique social positions, which allow us to see certain things very clearly, while blinding us to other things.  In the past, I've written about how my body image has been shaped by having clear-skinned privilege, by having - and not wanting to lose - thin-privilege (yes, even us size-10ish girls enjoy thin-privilege!), and, today, I'm giving some thought to my able-bodied privilege...

...which is why I'm so excited to introduce today's guest-blogger.  Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Joniak-Grant is a dear friend of mine. We met in graduate school at UCLA, and I immediately admired Liz's intelligence, compassion, and witty sarcasm.   However, what I didn't see immediately was that Liz is physically disabled, even though she looks pretty normal (okay, gorgeously, fashionably, curvaliciously normal!).  Several months ago I asked Liz if she would be willing to share some of the insights she's gleaned on the topic of body image, as a result of having a body that is invisibly disabled.  Here is what she wrote:

When Kjerstin asked me to write an entry for her blog, I wondered if I had anything to contribute to a discussion about body image and mirrors. 
Meet Liz! 

I only have three mirrors in my house. Two only show me from the chest up, and the third is a full length mirror that hangs on the back of a closet door that doesn’t open easily. The only way I can see myself is if I get into the closet (which has no light) and stand about 5 inches from the mirror.  It doesn’t provide the most useful or accurate view of my body, but I’ve had this set-up for nearly 3 years and haven’t bothered to change it.  Laziness?  Partially.  But this also derives from the unique relationship I have with my body, one that loosens me from the chains of mirrors. 

My relationship with mirrors is shaped by three realities of my existence.  

Reality #1: I’m (dis)abled (not handicapped, not differently abled, just plain old boring disabled).  What does this have to do with not looking at myself in the mirror and  obsessing less about my looks?  I just don’t have the energy.  So much of my time is spent in doctor’s offices, at physical therapy, and doing exercises to help overcome my physical limitations that most mornings, and especially evenings, I don’t want to waste extra energy looking at, analyzing, and comparing myself to some ideal.  In my adult life, I have been a big believer in “good enough is enough” and I do my best to embody that (pun intended!) when I can.  

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not some highly evolved being who has drunk from the fountain of “I’m beautiful no matter what!” elixir; I have doubts like everyone else.  Indeed, I’m currently designing a lovely sign to hang on my neck for all to see, that says “FYI, my recent weight gain is due to my medications and my doctor says there’s nothing I can do about it.”  I think it calls for glitter!  When I do look in a mirror, of course I notice if my makeup is smudged or if I have a spot brewing.  But what I notice more than these things is my posture.  How am I standing?  Can I pull my shoulders back more?    Are they even? Is my head sitting squarely above my shoulders? Is my chin tilted properly?  This brings me to...

Reality #2:  I use my mirrors as tools.  In the brief moments I spend looking in the mirror each day, I answer the above questions, do my best to make the necessary corrections, and then get a move on with my day (well, assuming I can actually move that day!).  My body focus is much more about function than appearance; I’ve learned that focusing on one’s appearance is a luxury reserved for those who can take their fully-abled body for granted. I don’t know anyone who, in the middle of a hideous migraine, could give two shits about what their hair looks like or if they have a pimple; they just want it to stopPain is more motivating than vanity.  This is why most of the time I spend looking in the mirror is during physical therapy.  There, I have a job to do.  I need to work on getting better and reducing my pain.  During therapy, the only comparisons I make are to myself.  Finding improvement in my body’s function, rather than appearance, is what makes me feel most beautiful and happy.

Reality #3:  I get stared at by other people.  A lot.  Even though I’m disabled, I often don’t look it.  Oh sure, I have those craptastic days, when I’m half limping and my head is completely tilted.  (Cue sympathetic stares and pushy questions like, “What’s WRONG with you?”)  But usually, if I’m feeling that bad, I just stay home.  But on most days, even though my body has severe limitations, I probably don’t look like most people’s stereotype of a “disabled person.”  And so I hear comments, generally angry, suspicious, or just plain puzzled. (i.e., “You know this parking is for the disabled, right?!,” “Hummphh, why can’t she just pack her grocery bags herself? I’m in a hurry!”) Traveling via airport is my own personal hell but I’ll leave those entertaining stories for another day (call me and I’ll tell all over a pitcher of gluten-free beer!). 

Getting back to my point, I’ve realized that no matter what I do, people will always find something off/wrong/whatever about the mismatch between my “normal” appearance and my limited abilities. So, why should I waste my time and energy staring at myself and worrying about what others see? Here’s the kicker though: the limitations of my body allow me the privilege of seeing exactly how wasteful appearance obsessions are, not just for people like me, but for everyone.  

I know I’ve got better things to do, and I suspect that you do too.  

Guilty as charged:
I love it when Liz drives because we can almost always find a parking spot!
And let’s face it, the only opinions that should really matter to us are those of our true friends and loved ones. My friends LOVE riding along in my car for the “rockstar treatment” (aka disabled parking spots) and they also don’t mind that I carry a back cushion with me wherever we go, including fancy-schmancy restaurants.  They, and my husband, love me whether it’s a good day or a bad day and whether I’m rocking no makeup, a lumpy ponytail, and practical shoes, or if I’m done up to the nines.  I am loved for my inner beauty and that feels amazing even on my worst days.

So, what do you think? Is vanity a luxury? How has your body's dis/abilities shaped the way you feel about your looks?  


  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story Liz. I am also "invisibly" disabled, and I relate to everything you say. I feel less invisible today, thanks to your post! Take care of yourself and God bless.

  2. I have been an educator long enough to know that MOST (dis)abilities aren't immediately apparent. And you should wear that sign around your a way of letting people know that the question is inappropriate. An eye-opening post.

  3. It just dawned on me that lately I've been pre-occupied with my dress and outward appearance more so than usual. After reading this blog to me that's got to mean I've been feeling pretty good. I'm actually a little more accepting of my physical disabilities. So that now I can get on with the business of living the life that I have.

  4. Wow. Thank you both (Liz and Kjerstin) for this post. It is such a crucial topic within this whole year+ long discussion, and worth exploring further.

    I am reminded of a friend of mine who has a semi-obviously disabled leg from a stroke many years ago. When I first met her she pointed to one leg and said it was her good leg, and then pointed to her other leg and said it was her better leg.

    I was once told of a woman whose body was completely covered in freckles head to toe. People stared. But because she flaunted them and behaved as if they were enviable, well, people bought into that. She believed 100% that they were her best feature, and so onlookers picked up on that and eventually agreed. eye of the beholder and all that.

  5. Dear Liz,
    we CANNOT use the normal reversed mirror as a 'tool' for our body posture, because your backwards image gives you wrong information about it. But you CAN correct your posture in the NON-REVERSED TRUE MIRROR! I have had many people that finally saw what their physical therapist pointed out to them (one shoulder too high, head tilted to one side, etc.) but could never really see in the normal mirror.

    There are many, many more advantages seeing your undistorted, correctly positioned image (left to right/right to left view). It is like 'stepping outside of yourself, looking 'at' Liz, seeing what other people see...

    Yes, you are right, it is not so important what your image looks like in terms of concepts of 'beauty' imposed by the media or other people. After the initial 'checking yourself out with this new view of you (for you)' you can go deeper and remember who you really are! Remembering, that our bodies and everything else 'out here' is just our own reflection what is going on (relatively) INSIDE of us. That we are in truth all divine reflections of unconditional Love, expressing herself as individual, as you and me and everyone, however we are expressing...

    You also know, that you can 'talk to your pain' and asked it what its message is for you.

    You are very welcome to check out my videos on YouTube (channel: Yelapaangel) where I explain the True Mirror and the over 50 comment sheets of people who saw themselves at the True Mirror Palace in Burningman on John Walter's (he makes the True Mirror) website. (truemirror dot com).
    I've not looked into a normal mirror for 12 years! and only use my True Mirror when I have to 'go out into the world'... I have disidentified from any image (reversed or not) because who we are is not an image! Feelings come first now for me, looks second...

    I am looking forward to hearing about your experience with the True Mirror!

    Sending you lots of Love and healing Angelika (Yelapaangel)

  6. Just watched my taped 20/20 episode... anyone who missed you beauty must be blind or jealous babe!!!! Congrats and all i can say about the wedding look was va va va voom!!!! If only i could look that hot! Don't ever let folks take you down and keep sharing your insight with teens! It is important for them to know they are not alone! I am with you sister!!!! ((((( hugs)))))

  7. Wow..... sounds alot like my story! 12 years of severe health issues have caused weight gain for me too. I am on disability and seeing some of the top doctors that Massachusetts general hospital and Harvard have yet in my home town I have still had to deal with ignorance ... an emergency room doctor who claimed I had a drug over dose when i had a stroke and actually said well if you exercised more it wouldnt have happened. My disabilities are not obvious because i have a blood clotting disorder and a brain injury from west nile virus! I stand up straight, treat others with dignity and respect and always smile and say hello to others! I am the person who would help a stranger when ever i could. I am not going to waste my precious time and energy fighting a battle I currently can not win! I know i am beautiful and i am unwilling to accept the type of behavior i did when i was younger and less secure. In many ways i think having a disability gives you more perspective i value myself and my life now more than i ever did before! Even though i need to loose 50 lbs (really dr says 100-120) ..... 50 sounds good to me! ;)

  8. I lovelovelove this post. I am a 12 year old disabled girl who is totally inspired by this post!! My knees have multiple problems so I am unable to run and walk up stairs. This means I am a little larger wise {get what I'm saying}. Also taking the elevator is a pill and a complete nusices to have everyone stare at me as I limp away! Thank you so much for this post! It really helps show the modern, gorgeous disabled lady!

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