Friday, April 30, 2010

Is There Disablism in Dating?

Some women like to date effeminate men, other females are attracted to butch women, and everyone knows about tall males who gravitate toward tiny women. Preferences based on hair color, body shape, and personality type are the nuts and bolts of individual attraction and romantic partnering. Can anything based on such subjectivity involve discrimination? Do societal beliefs about disability impact the most personal of choices? Based on my personal experience, definitely.

My evidence comes in the form of the commonalities shared by all those I have known to be attracted to me throughout my lifetime. In each instance, the individual had reached maturity without acquiring all the beliefs mainstream society attempts to instill in us. Details illustrate my point best: the first two were both blind, the next string were all raised by single mothers who tended toward the unconventional, a few were raised in an atmosphere of abuse or mental illness, a couple didn't fit into accepted standards of beauty, and several had learned to reject societal beliefs as they worked through their own sexual identity issues. Male or female, each lacked the subconscious tendency to place me in the same 'don't date' category occupied by their siblings, parents, cousins, and anyone of a gender they do not find desirable.

There is no simple phrase to describe this propensity, but as they say "I know it when I see it." It isn't that these individuals missed the class about how one should view disabled people for a majority of them had other disablist attitudes when we first met. Neither did they consciously decide to see those with disabilities as potential dates. Something in the way they were socialized made their subconscious consider me in a different way.

There are a few ways this lack of acculturation manifests itself. Most people lump someone like me into the same category as small children and little old ladies -- those for whom sexual attraction is not even considered. This is not the case for those possessing the Unnamable Trait.

Such people have also avoided internalizing societal standards of beauty as their criteria to judge attraction. In this way, my scars, asymmetrical face, and odd eyes are not necessarily detractors from my other charms.

A person must also be missing another piece of socialization that relates to seeing me as a potential date or mate. Society seems to believe that I will be dependent on any future partner in a way that is both onerous and unfair. I am a black hole of neediness with no valuable contributions of my own. Anyone who would consider me in a romantic role must either not have this perception of disability or not care in the first place.

Because the application of all these standards and beliefs happens in the cobwebby back of our minds that our consciousness does not monitor, I am out of the category of datable before the individual even considers the issue. It is not a deliberate decision which makes it the most insidious and destructive kind of discrimination.

Over the years, I have been told that not dating a disabled person is a matter of personal preference which supposedly removes any blame from the equation for nobody can reasonably argue individual tastes should be this or that. To me, it is a more fundamental issue about what we are taught to like and want. the demarcation between personal preference and socially instilled standard is more an vague concept than concrete juncture, but that does not negate the existence of the distinction.

Don't find my curly hair and small frame attractive? Fine by me. Don't even consider me as a person to date? That's a problem with its routes firmly embedded in disablism.

For my emotional reaction to this reality, read Rest of the Story.

This entry was written for Blogging Against Disablism Day May 1st 2010

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Blind to the Meaning

I have a reflexive, visceral aversion to the word blind being used to describe anything other than the inability to see the world using eyeballs. And, if you happen to be acquainted with me, then right about now you are thinking, "Um, Jen, you use the word all the time in that way." Yup, sure do. Still loathe it.

I realize it is a proper usage of the word conveying significant meaning concisely. Besides referencing window coverings and a myriad of other things, blind is used to describe an inability to perceive or understand truth or reality. Think about the line in Amazing Grace "I was blind but now I see." Who, exactly, wants to be blind in that sense? Can humans separate the two meanings?

I am doubtful we can keep one meaning from flavoring the other and down the street from my home there is a pizza placed that illustrates my point. Most people assume "The Blind Lady Ale House" refers to a female who cannot see with her eyes. In actuality, the name relates to the last person to occupy that retail space – a woman who sold window blinds.

I used to think pride was responsible for my feelings because I value my ability to perceive and understand the world around me. With justification, I want nothing to do with those traits being stripped away from me. Then I read Wheelie Catholic's entry.

While about a different word entirely, it helped me clarify my own thoughts. When a word is used to describe a disabling condition, it should not also be used in ways that convey a pejorative meaning. For example, do we shower a friend with, "Wow, how blind! That's just so cool."? Definitely not.

I am not the language police by any stretch believing the intent behind words is far more important than the exactly perfect phrasing of something. However, I do believe language has power and those with good intentions should endeavor to use verbiage that conveys it. Accusing someone of being 'blind' in one sentence and then referring to me as blind in another blurs meaning. Far better, from my perspective, to use a different word when describing an inability to perceive or understand something. Adequate words such as unperceptive, obtuse, ignorant, unaware, and inattentive will suffice.

And what about Venetian blinds, blind alleys, hunting blinds and the compliment of color blind? Nobody will mistake me for a window dressing or other inanimate thing. While it is confusing, I have no objections to blind being misconstrued as a compliment. My sole concern is the use of the word as a negative. Eliminating the word from the English language except when it describes ocular issues is insane. Finding synonymous terms to hurl as insults seems far more doable.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Stories WE Tell

Because they are primarily associated with creations of fiction, Stories have acquired a bad reputation. When the word refers to events in our lives, it calls their validity into question. In this blog, I tell stories frequently in the hopes that they will convey a truth better than an explicit statement for "Truth dressed as story can be easier to embrace." The color of context, character and surroundings does not dilute or nullify the genuineness of my experiences, but it does transform it into something softer. Same end message with a more pleasant mode of receiving it.

Our lives can be framed as a series of stories we tell ourselves and others. It goes beyond anecdotes to encompass an overall message. My story, for example, is about how disability has shaped me giving it the power of a character that can impact plot. My life contains a story about how circumstances impact two people in very distinct ways. My presence out in the world tells anyone listening how what is thought to be life-ending can be the opposite.

Unspoken stories – those conveyed without me saying a word – have one kind of power. My spoken narrative, I have found, has a transformational strength uniquely its own. I can give a lecture with facts and theory that articulates why plastic surgery is a solution to body image issues that appeals because it takes less effort but also has a shelf-life because we all age. I can also stand before a room telling a string of stories about my experiences with reconstructive surgery and how I felt by it's end. Then, I can describe the various events and phases that morphed my body image into something healthier. While the same truth is conveyed, the one with greater transmutative power contains my life stories.

And then there are the stories about me that other's create. They are woven around the 'truths' of my life others believe they know, such as my life is full of hardships, I must possess special abilities as compensation, or even simply I cannot do x activity. From I cannot drive," they imagine a tragedy of isolation and loneliness with me as the unfortunate protagonist. As is the case with that example, there can be a kernel of truth in the reality they have fashioned. Just enough truth so that a vague vision gains the substance of fact in the inventor's mind.

When I run up against people who are operating based on these supposed facts, I tend to feel like I've hit an unmovable wall. There I stand, a living, breathing contradiction of their story, and yet it has no power to change the plot or elements of their tale. I often must engage in gorilla tactics to cause alteration. One always successful ploy is to say something that involves the phrase "I am the co-coordinator of the San Diego Bisexual Forum."

I would have less objection to these narratives if they did not inform action. People creating stories about my helplessness is one thing. People treating me like I'm helpless is quite another. Behavior of others evokes tears and yells, frustration and pain. Ultimately, I tend to take such events, treat them with sarcastic humor, and create my own stories to lessen their sting.

Unfortunately, sometimes the stories spun by others have sway over even me, especially when it comes to narratives about my value as a person. Often such tales begin with incontrovertible truths such as I don't work or pay taxes, I receive social welfare aid, and I need help to accomplish daily tasks. Intertwined with these truths are societal beliefs about independence, what is considered a worthy contribution to the world, and what is assumed about my ability to achieve. Suddenly, a story springs forth that has enough truth to make it as insidious as sand on a beach. One minute it's on the ground under your shoes and the next it's in your socks, stuck to your leg, and in your clothes. While you might clean it off with great dedication, it's somehow present that night when you undress.

It bothers me that other's stories profoundly effect me, engendering self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. I wish I had a way to wall myself off from all of it. But, if I am going to believe in the transformative power of my own story, then I must acknowledge and accept that the stories others imagine for me have their own influence. This is why no matter how long I live or how hard I try, I will forever be effected by what others think.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Body and Soul

We have been acculturated to think of our physical forms as separate from our fundamental nature. Religion does it by talking about the body as a glove that a hand representing our soul fills. Makeover shows tout altering the outside to match the inside. Expressions like, "she's pretty on the inside" litter our speech. We have co-opted the meaning of 'inside' to be something spiritual as opposed to the literal blood and bone.

I used to consider my body to be a distinct and separate entity from myself, hideous and deformed whereas I was smart and shy. (This is known as making the body other.) Although intended to be comforting, being told "It's what's on the inside that matters" simply strengthened my perception of the physical form I inhabited as unsightly and deepened the chasm that detached me from it. There is no way to know for certain, but I suspect all the surgery provided further reasons to consider body as other. If nothing else, I could keep the physical experience and resulting pain at bay by allowing it to happen to something that was not me.

AS a coping strategy, dichotomizing myself into "me" and "that body" served the purpose of getting me through choppy waters. In college and afterward, I did the necessary work to first like then inhabit my own skin. Now my physical form is a natural extension of me and I can no more think of my body as another entity than I can separate my heart and soul. It's all one giant work in progress.

Today, when I encounter that which implies the body is other, I become somewhat annoyed. Unfortunately, this duality is everywhere. "He's an oreo" is used to denote a black person (outside) who behaves like a white person (inside). The expression "the mind is willing but the flesh weak" is used to remove us from the equation of blame for what are bodies cannot do. We say, "she is young at heart" or "he's five going on twenty-five."

All the examples I have given share one commonality: the impression engendered by the physical form is not in sync with the perception of the inhabiting spirit. I would have no objections to this if I could find adequate evidence to prove that it is equally likely to happen when the inside fails to live up to the outside. Of the examples I've given, only 'oreo' could be considered a negative assessment of the self. Sometimes people talk of somebody being a pretty package with nothing underneath. Mostly, though, splitting the two is reserved for times when the tangible fails to meet a subjective standard. Often society defines this standard by how it assesses a physical form. The external must be ugly, old, or otherwise fall short of the mark, then it is compared with the perception of the physical form such that a ugly body with a nice inhabitant becomes somebody who is "pretty on the inside."

When this segregation is a commonplace way of thinking, it becomes simple for an individual to consider their flesh as distinct from themselves – the body as other.. Once the physical form is a separate entity, it is easier to hate it, find it unsightly, or blame it for shortcomings.

As mentioned, I think this segregation of body and spirit is detrimental to human beings. Central to my objections is the standards used to judge the physical form. Who defines attractive? Who said old was a bad thing? Why do we feel a need to explicitly identify our bodies as the source of a shortcoming? It's all about societally-defined standards and I tend to dislike them on principle. No entity, whether person government, or 'society,' should dictate what I think or by extension the criteria by which I judge.

Take a moment and consider how you think about your own body. In your mind, are you one thing and it another? Is the dislike you may have of your physical form keeping that form separate from that which you perceive as yourself? Do you look in a mirror and know the reflection to not be a representation of yourself? Have you said something like, "The mind is willing but the flesh weak" instead of simply saying, "I wish I could, but I'm too tired"?

I believe, from long personal experience, that the nature of the relationship we have constructed between body and self directly impacts our body image. In a world where more than half the women hate their own bodies, I deem it high time we start consciously finding healthier ways to think about the body that carries us through this life. Until we shed it at death, it is the only one we have and liking it will make the journey more pleasurable.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Is It Just Hair?

Haircuts. I hate haircuts. Every step of the process – making the appointment, talking to the stylist, washing it afterwards – is rotten. Yet my ends like to split and tie themselves into knots, so I endure the scissors and consequent Haircut Blues.

Before I schedule an appointment, I have to decide if I want it to be with the last person to tame my locks or with someone knew. Devil I know versus Devil Who Might Do Better. Once I have made my choice, it's on to the type of haircut I will request.

Do I want something new? Just a trim? When it comes to my curls, there are two distinct camps: those who like my hair longer and those who like it shorter. I've been told, "Jen, you don't know how it looks, so you can't know what looks best" just often enough to never quite trust my own judgment. The conflicting perspectives along with my own self-doubt cause internal chaos.

Next up: trying to communicate with the stylist. They are always very nice and try their best, but how does a blind person relay her wants? I relate to my tresses in a way distinct from the visual aesthetics of the hairdresser. Words never quite work. Pointing isn't an option. Blind faith? Pretty much.

There are a few things unique to me and my head. Reconstructive surgery has made the top sensitive to pressure of any type. Random head shaving (not by choice) has left me with distinctive types of hair with different properties such as curl quality. Scarring has resulted in some weird thin areas. So, not only is my inner emotional typography complicated, but my head is literally the same.

Of course my personal preferences do not simplify this muddle. I refuse to use anything in my hair that you can't rinse out before leaving the shower. My tendency is to wash my hair, brush it, and go without further thought. Thus, my style must work in a zero maintenance situation.

Having communicated what I could and leaving my destiny in the stylists hands, it's time for the actual haircut and yet another thorny area – the conversation. While listening to the snip, snip, I am suppose to engage in prolonged small talk with a near stranger who knows next to nothing about me. The simple question, "So, what do you do?" leads to explanations of chronic illness. Even mentioning this blog, with its unusual title, results in necessary clarification. Salon chair chatter is not easy when you exist outside of the reality most occupy. Loud music might be disorienting, but it's also my salvation.

When the cut is done, I have to judge it by touch. Should it feel "wrong" to me, I need to find the right words to elucidate the problem. If I haven't been able to convey my wishes by then, what are the chances the right verbiage will magically appear in my mind? Infinitesimal.

Finally, I pay the long-suffering stylist and go home to wash the fragrance of salon products out of my hair to prevent sneezing. I do my usual wash, condition, towel dry, and brush, then leave it alone.

Hopefully I like the results and usually, I don't. In fact, I have a Post Cut Policy. I am not allowed to form a final opinion until four days have passed. Not only does this give me time to adjust, but also it gives my hair time to calm down. At the sight of scissors, my hair seemingly shrinks back into my head. After a few days, it comes out from hiding and I suddenly discover there is more length than I originally thought. This is the literal truth. I'd swear on a stack of...something.

In case you couldn't guess, I had my hair cut last week and am now in a Haircut Funk. Soldiers are dying in foreign lands, children are fighting cancer, thousands of Mexicans are living in shelters because of Sunday's earthquake and yet I am depressed over hair. It's just HAIR. But, my curls.....