Let's Rock & Roll!

by Bethany A. Hoppe

News Flash:  We have skipped Spring. None of us are swimsuit ready! I have bought Zumba for my Wii and a DVD of Intro to Yoga for Toning and Shaping.

Clearly I've been thinking about body image. What we think about our bodies, what we think about other people's bodies, and what maybe-kinda-perhaps other people are thinking of our bodies can be overwhelming.  

That's an awful lot of people thinking an awful lot about bodies.  

I don't know about you, but when I think about my body I find sometimes we're friends. Sometimes we're enemies. And sometimes we're frenemies.  It depends on the day, the occasion, the weather, the moon phase, the tide, the year, the age, the color of the sky, the traffic, the atmosphere, the mood, pre-or-post coffee, the season, and most particularly what major event is coming up.  

To name a few factors.  

Women have more body issues than men.  Men, however, are catching up with women when it comes to dealing with body issues.  The more media displays the ideal male - aggressive, muscular, traditional-typed masculine traits - the more men are beginning to believe that this is the way they should be in order to be desirable.  

Women have dealt with this since God gave birth.  

Women are much more wiling to alter themselves, at whatever the cost, to fit what they have been told is the ideal woman.  Eating disorders teach us that women will starve their bodies, damage their growth process, hinder their childbearing years, and even die to look thin. The billion dollar diet industry succeeds in selling us pills, lotions, potions, drinks, powders, and lists of off-limit foods that will cause base-line chemical imbalances to our system, and cause damage our livers, kidneys, and digestive tracts, just to look thin.  

Powerful advertising frequently tells us this girl is popular, this girl gets sex on a regular basis, this girl is successful, this girl gets drinks bought for her, this girl gets the job offers, or this girl is trustworthy.  We take that information and ask ourselves where we fit in on that impressive spectrum, and frequently find we're not this girl.  But we often want to be.

Soon, we learn, pretty passively and without too much effort on our part, that we can be just like her if we buy what she has.  

I often wonder where women with disabilities fit into this. If nine out of ten women can immediately point to a physical flaw they wish they could make go away, then what do we women with disabilities point to? If women walking among us are unhappy with their healthy thighs, how do women feel about their thighs that aren't as muscular or mobile?  

In the many conversations that I have had with both standing and seated women, I have found that more often than not, we even the score for one trait or another.  I can envy another woman's height while she is envying my...uh....endowment fund. Basically, whenever you get a group of women together, disabled or not, we will end up sitting around offering to trade each other what we think the other has more or less of:  I'll trade you my calves for your butt!  

I have struggled with body issues in the past, as I tried to logically place myself in a taller, standing world. The first step for me was just physical acceptance. Being born with Spina Bifida means that my current physique is all I've ever known; I didn't have the life-altering experience a spinal cord injury might impress on someone. Therefore logic tells me that since my disability has always been there, it should be settled in my mind that it is what it is. Regardless, it still felt like there was a lot to grapple with growing up, such as confusion and anger over physicality and body image.  

I am very happy with myself, and I am extremely comfortable in my own skin. Just like anyone else, that was a process. And just like anyone else, I know there are all sort of ways that I can help or hinder what I have. Eating well and exercise (on whatever level possible) makes a huge difference in our positive self-perception, which is also rated "E" for Everyone.

Feminist studies research tells us that for women with disabilities to be visible, to compete for mates, relationships, jobs, or media portrayal and basic representation, they must do a hundred times more than their non-disabled peers to even begin to be in the player's circle. It's known, academically, as double-oppression. Obviously it should not be this way, but unfortunately it frequently is.  

Sometimes it seems that women in general, and more specifically women with disabilities, often have to rock-star it out and always be dialed to "ON," by making sure we're well dressed, our hair is in place, and our makeup is on. During a time where many women are taking a stand against feminine stereotypes, media portrayals still dictate to all of us how we should look, be shaped, and behave. In terms of women with disabilities, it is almost as if mainstream society requires us to be loud enough and relevant enough to bring them up and over the hurdle of disability and difference, by looking beyond exceptional by working what we've got. Yet, from our own personal perspectives, we've already been there done that, and certainly see no need to constantly work it just to maintain status quo.  

From our standpoint, we're fine. We've got our lives and goals totally under control. But because we're often not seen, heard, or represented in the media frequently enough to be simply considered part of the tapestry, we find ourselves filling the constant role of being educators who jump on each teachable-moment that we can. Quite honestly, we frequently really just want to zip into the grocery store on our way home to buy chips and salsa, not take the time to always "represent."  

When we are out and about, whether we like it or not, we experience our own mini-version of a body scan. The assessment is quick and calculating. Simply put, we get stared at. And those staring moments are teachable moments, especially if for some odd and tired reason, we are one of the only people with a visible disability someone has seen or interacted with. At first it's easy to think that it's impossible to be the first person with a disability that others may have encountered. If I earned a dollar every time a cashier, student, taxi driver, or waiter has mentioned to me that I am the first person they've ever met/helped/waited on that had a disability...my credit cards would be paid off. Take it as sad, or take it as a bit of a giggle-ha-ha...it is true.

My sister Becky once said to me, "People are going to stare at you. You're different than they are. Make damn sure you're giving them something really good to look at." That stuck with me. I was sitting on the side of her bed watching her put on her makeup, getting ready to out with her friends. I couldn't wait to start playing and splashing around in makeup as it was...and her advice, which I truly absorbed, only made me want to scour her clothes closet and makeup drawer all the more.  

It isn't a matter of "makeup and clothes makes the person." We know that the spirit and internal self is what makes the person. But I have self-experimented with my sister's advice. Coming from a place of confidence, I have gone out on errands without much thought to my general appearance, and noted dramatic differences in general reactions to me. More small children verbally asked their parent what was wrong with that woman while pointing from a distance, I got a lot more down-played verb-cap (sugar, honey, sweetie, hon), and males averted their gaze quickly. Now, granted, I didn't look like an ogre...I just was a few clothing options shy of fun pajama bottoms, a ripped up sweatshirt, zero makeup, and a granny bun hairdo. Please keep in mind I come from a fabulous line of women who never left the house without lipstick...this was not easy for me to do.

Coming from the same place of confidence I have gone out on errands where I'd dressed with intention, did minimal makeup on purpose, and did something my hair - as 1950's and archaic as that sounds.  (And yes-I-had-to-had-to-had-to-wear-lipstick).

Keeping in mind that I internally felt the same about myself so that there wasn't any emotive projection going on, I found small children waved at me shyly and asked me directly what was wrong. Some approached and wanted to move the tires, which I let them do with guidance. I've had random children actually clamored onto my lap after they start talking with me - their mothers were horrified at first, but I let them know that its perfectly fine. Maybe my standard answer of, "I use my wheels like you use your legs...only a bit faster...like a race car!" is too inviting for the tiny tots. So, I make race car sounds as I wheel them the two or three feet back to their moms, who are by now smiling, relieved I'm not offended or that I'm not a four-wheel drive child abductor.  

I also found that the sugar-honey-sweetie terms morphed into mostly ma'am. Then again...I do live in the South, so granted there will always be some sugar, honey, and maybe even a baby girl nomenclatures tossed in there...albeit with a totally different tonality. Honestly, I'd be worried and offended if I got through a day without hearing some of my favorite Southern sounds, actually.

In terms of men, males stared, only they didn't avert their eyes quickly. Instead, they smiled and meandered on their way through the produce aisle. From time to time I like to think that I just got checked out....yeah...still rockin' and rollin' in her fabulous forties! 

Either way...I still got stared at...only differently, which held some great importance and value to me, and it may be the same for you. In fact, I would gamble on the fact that all of us put value and importance on getting positive feedback, kind looks, and sociable words when we're out in public. And that has nothing to do with disability. It does however, have everything to do with humanity.

I'm not advocating that women with disabilities have to look their utmost best when they go out. In fact, I  think that women - regardless of disability - should not have to play the visual games we find ourselves playing. But moreover, women with disabilities should not have to play those games harder than your average woman.  

They should just be able to be.  

My Gender Communications class  studied media, gendering, and body types this week. I specifically asked them whether or not they found themselves truly represented in the ads and shows that they watched. Not a lot of them had. They identified with personalities or characters...but they didn't feel like they saw themselves actually represented. I agreed with them and said I hadn't either, until now. Then I played the teaser for the upcoming reality show Push Girls and asked what their opinion or personal knowledge of people with disabilities - outside of myself as their professor - and specifically women with disabilities was, after they watched the clip.  

Their reactions were interesting. They all agreed it was about time a show featured people with disabilities - so kudos to my students for recognizing that, and being impressed that such a show was coming to television. They were for it, which I was happy about. I am encouraging them to watch it this summer, and thus far their feedback has indicated they are interested in watching more. We all are!  Because just like my students feeling like they don't see themselves represented in media, neither do I. Push Girls will be the first time I will ever see real women with disabilities, who are active, who are strong females, representing women who happen to have a disability, who are also fashion conscious, on television which has literally hundreds of channels. It will be the first time I will be able to see me in the media. It will be the first time women with disabilities will see themselves collectively, in the media.

Interesting enough though, one of my female students made a strong point when she said, "I think it's awesome...but it is doing what all other media does...I mean these girls are hot! They all look like models, and unfortunately, I think they have to be in order to start to make change in people's perceptions of women with disabilities. I don't know how realistic it is...but I almost think it has to be that way to get the attention of television viewers."  

I agree....to a point.  If the fact that the ladies of Push Girls are indeed hot, and do in fact rock star their lives...does that somehow translate to the idea that the social perception of women with disabilities is normally frumpy? Is that what media has taught us? If so, then that means women with disabilities are in the same tank as their able-bodied peers:  They're held to a norm that sets the bar at an either-or scale: Appealing or homely. Sexual or frigid. Intelligent or dumb. Powerful or weak. When in reality, none of us are any of those extremes, but are instead each in a different place on a spectrum scale.  

I once pulled into an accessible parking spot, and before I could pop my placard up on the rearview, a woman was rapping on the passenger window. I rolled it down enough to hear her rant at me, "Hey! You can't park here! This is for the handicapped!"

I smiled, held up my tag and said, "I am. Just hanging up my tag..."

Her eyes popped open and then narrowed. And then she har-humphed and stated, "Well. You don't look handicapped!"

Wow. Okay. Whatever.

Body image is important to a lot of people. I like to bring it every day. I like to inspire others to bring it every day. Not because I have a disability, but because grabbing life by the horns and living with intention is just so vital for all of us. I think that Push Girls is a step in the right direction, and that it will bring more attention to all of us who live our lives in ways that celebrate life.

This approach to my life is my center. It is who I am. I am glad that I will see myself reflected in television. I am glad that you'll see yourself reflected in television.

A woman...who happens to have a disability.  

A woman who takes that disability and makes it rock....and roll!

Check out author & speaker Bethany A. Hoppe's website Raspberry Vogue, www.raspberryvogue.com, the Lifestyle Blog of a Rolling Diva!

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