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?  

Monday, August 13, 2012

See my Story on ABC's 20/20, THIS WEDNESDAY NIGHT!!!

Exciting Announcement!  THIS WEDNESDAY NIGHT (August 15th), ABC's 20/20 will be featuring a story about my no-mirrors experiment!     I'm nervous and excited.

So far it sounds like the theme of the show will be "Obsessions," with my story as an example of conquering an obsession.  I'll keep you all posted as I learn more.

Friday, August 10, 2012

10 Steps To Positive Body Image

The list below was compiled from the National Eating Disorder Association.  I love all of the suggestions, and hope you'll try at least a few! 

FYI, If you like #2, you should gather a group of friends and try my "Best Body Positive Group Activity Ever" version.  Also, for help developing your "critical viewer of social and media messages" skills (#8), check out About-Face, my all-time favorite body-positive nonprofit organization.

Monday, August 6, 2012

What I REALy think of REAL Beauty

Below are some images you may recognize, along with my responses to them, in pictures.  I just joined Pinterest so I'm all about the visuals these days!

#1: Dove's concept of "Real Beauty"
Image found here.

My response:
Image found here.

#2: An image circulating the web at this very moment.
Image found here.

My Response:
Image found here.

If you like what you're seeing, check out my new 
Body Positivity Images folder @  I'm collecting body-positive images and messages that inclusively celebrate the variety of bodies out there. I'd love help gathering more amazing and inspiring images for my growing collection!