I wanted to love this book, I really did. I have enjoyed the couple of Julie Ellis novels I’ve read, but this one just tipped the charming/not happening scale a bit far. It has a really strong heroine in Vicky, who escapes the Russian pogroms to build a new life in America, trying to negotiate a difficult family situation and life as a prominent businesswoman. But there are lots of issues in this book that really grated, for example, every time a black servant is given an order, Ellis always points out how they were delighted to do it.
I’d just like to focus on the disability issues for now, though. There are many, not least with the disability-as-punishment trope cropping up at the end when the antagonist of the piece, Vicky’s son, has a stroke and is paralysed. He’s then housed in the cottage in which his mentally ill father shot himself. The very same cottage in which he kept Vicky while pretending she had a mental illness because he didn’t like the direction in which his mother was taking the company. Yep, it’s a bit of an intense novel.
But what I really want to talk about is the characterisation of Anita Roberts. Anita is married to Mark, a man Vicky falls in love with. So, naturally, she has to be a deceptive, evil shrew because that is the way “the other woman” gets sympathy in romance fiction. Except, she’s a wheelchair user, so it gets a lot more… interesting.
At first, Anita is set up as a martyr, the victim of a tragic accident who is doted on by her charming husband. They are a ‘special couple,’ Vicky is given to understand, and Anita is the darling of their social circle. As it turns out, she’s shrewd and conniving. She uses the excuse of the accident to deny her husband sex, even though the doctors said that they could have an ‘almost normal sex life’! It turns out that Anita never really wanted sex before the accident either, and now her horrible cruelty of not wanting sex has been unleashed! How terrible! It couldn’t possibly be the case that Anita doesn’t owe Marc sex, and she has become confident enough in herself to not engage with a sexual life she doesn’t really want. No, indeed. It is all about Marc’s pain and setting up his affair with Vicky. Anita’s not wanting sex gets to be the strange part, gets to be part of her evil scheme against poor Marc.
So, we’ve got the good crip who turns out to be hiding a deeply bitter and nasty nature. That’s old hat. But it was quite something to see that set up with a gendered aspect, too. Anita’s out to disparage Marc’s achievements and interests constantly, and she forces him to do ‘whatever she asks’ because otherwise he’s a terrible husband to his tragically beautiful and “damaged” wife. I suggest we identify a new trope, the Bad Shrewish Crip. The perfect mix of misogyny and ableism, out now at a bookstore near you.
But I really start to grit my teeth when we bring Anita’s Jewishness into it, because she perfectly fits the JAP stereotype. The Jewish American Princess is held to be a nagging, high maintenance woman with expensive taste and no sense of how irritating she is. And Anita is a JAP all over: she pokes fun at Vicky for having been a maid, loves designer clothing, and ends up forcing her husband to move to London as it is the only ‘civilised’ city on Earth. She’s simply set up as the most horrible conglomeration of disability, gender and racial/ethnic/cultural/religion stereotyping I have encountered in quite some time. The Bad Shrewish Jewish Crip, maybe?
So, in short: wanted to like it, feel kind of bad saying this because I like the author, but for goodness’ sake, this was one of the more frustrating reads of my year, and that is really saying something.
©2014 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>
But I’d like to spend a little time drilling down into some specific aspects of disability and living with disability that tie in with feminism, very strongly, because I continue to encounter pushback when it comes to integrating disability into conversations about feminism.
Today: Gendering when it comes to access to health care and disability services. Gender inequality is a core issue in feminism and it can be seen especially clearly when it comes to disability issues, which is one reason I’m always surprised to see that people don’t consider disability a feminist issue. I’m not talking here about the gendering of disability itself, which also occurs and is a separate issue that really needs its own post to do it justice. I’m discussing gendering when it comes to who can access health care and what kind of health care people can access, and how that plays out for people with disabilities.
Let’s start with the fact that, in the United States, to access health care, you need money. You need money to pay out of pocket, or you need money to buy insurance, or you need the kind of job that includes insurance as a benefit (we’ll talk about who can access government assistance, including health care, in a moment). Guess who is likely to have less money? Women. Women of colour and nonwhite women in particular are on the bottom of a pretty incredible income disparity as a result of intersecting oppressions. When women get sick, when they are injured, when they acquire disabilities, they are less likely to be able to access treatment because they cannot afford it, they are less likely to be able to adhere to treatment because over the long term it is expensive, and they are more likely to experience complications because of issues like caring for children, trying to deal with poor access to food, and other things while also trying to get better.
Outside the United States, money can still be a profound determiner when it comes to accessing health care, because money is tied in with so many things. People with money are more likely to have pursued advanced education, to be informed about health issues, including the early warning signs of conditions in need of treatment. People with money can access care the government doesn’t cover, can afford private hospitalization, can pursue treatments that cost a lot of money, and can persist through a health crisis when it comes to demanding and getting treatment. People with money can afford that supplemental private insurance that may make the difference between being turfed off in a corner somewhere and given actual treatment. Money talks, worldwide, and women are less likely to have it, less likely to hold it, less able to earn it.
But, but, poor women can go on government assistance! Then they don’t need money to pay for health care, so everything is ok. Yeah, except, the income standards for government assistance are hopelessly skewed and hopelessly wrong. Women have to be not just poor, but really poor to quality for government assistance, and they have to stay poor. Disabled women who apply for government benefits must be willing and able to jump through a number of hoops on command; they need to pull together reams of supporting documentation, to prove they are disabled enough, and guess what the government really doesn’t like paying out benefits on? Conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and fibromyalgia, which disproportionately impact women and are often dismissed as ‘not real disabilities,’ so even after doing everything right, these women might still be denied benefits.
For women who can get on disability, it’s a lifetime of poverty. The government has very strict limits about income and assets for people receiving benefits, which means that disabled women can only work very limited hours, can’t save money, and certainly can’t own any meaningful assets. ‘But they don’t need to, they’re on benefits.’ Well, poverty tends to intersect rather dramatically with a lot of feminist issues; how do you escape an abusive partner or caregiver when you have no money in savings and you can’t afford a hotel, a deposit on a new place, bus fare out of town? How can you plan for your future when you can’t save any money? How can you pay for treatment the government doesn’t cover when you have no funds? How do you buy the meds everyone says you have to take to be a ‘contributing member of society’ when they cost hundreds of dollars every month and the government delays your benefits for mysterious reasons all its own?
Accessing health care also requires time. You need the time to sit on the phone to make appointments. You need time to go to the doctor’s office for evaluation, time to go to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions, time to perform prescribed exercises at home, time to argue with insurance companies about benefits. Time is something women tend to lack access to because they’re often juggling a myriad of tasks. Or they’re working in the kinds of jobs where asking for time off to get medical care is frowned upon. Or they’re working multiple jobs to afford to stay alive and can’t figure out where to fit a doctor visit into their schedule. Or they have young children whom they can’t leave alone, but can’t take to the doctor, either.
And let’s talk about the fact that a number of health conditions are underdiagnosed or diagnosed too late in women as a result of gendered ideas about who gets what. Heart attacks, for example. Are often not diagnosed in women both because they are believed to be a ‘male’ health complaint, and because heart attacks in women present differently than they do in men. This means that women are more likely to experience complications from heart attacks, if they survive, because they weren’t identified early enough.
Drilling down, we can see that certain classes of people wait longer for treatment and are often provided with inadequate care when they do receive it. Often, women are among these groups; for instance, women of colour/nonwhite women and poor women tend to experience delays in accessing breast cancer treatment. It’s notable that breast cancer is a very popular social cause, yet there are still significant disparities in terms of who can access diagnosis, treatment, and support for breast cancer.
This is a feminist issue. Women are dying, right now, all over the world, because they can’t get the care they need, and when they access care, they are treated unequally. For women with disabilities, the gendering of health care access creates a lifetime of barriers that don’t need to be there, from being told you ‘aren’t really’ disabled to being denied care on the grounds that the problem you’re having ‘doesn’t happen to women so it must not be happening.’ Gender disparities in health care access and treatment have very real and meaningful consequences for women who are sick, as well as disabled women. They can literally be the difference between life and death.
Tell me that’s not a feminist issue. Go on.
©2014 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>
A reader wrote in to ask:
Dear Amy: I am a girl in my junior year of high school, and the volleyball coach won’t let me compete until I shave my underarms and legs (our uniforms are sleeveless tops and shorts).
I don’t want to be forced into something that I feel is completely unnecessary. Leg and underarm hair is a completely natural part of becoming a woman.
Is this discrimination? Is there anything I can do (besides shave)? I really want to play volleyball! — Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Ok, first of all, this high school athlete rocks. I like that she’s standing up for herself, and refused to accept the mandate to shave her body hair or else. She’s comfortable with her body hair, she doesn’t have a problem with her hair in her uniform, and she sees no reason to shave. She’s also specifically identified concerns about discrimination, wondering what she can do to retain bodily autonomy (because being told to shave your body hair is most definitely a violation of autonomy) and still play the sport she loves. Right on, Hair Today!
Amy seems to agree:
Dear Gone: I’m going to assume that your coach does not make the male players at your school adhere to the same shaving practices.
I shared your letter with Lenora Lapidus, director of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, who responded, “This is clearly gender discrimination, based on stereotypes of how girls and women should look.” Lapidus would like to remind your coach that Title IX prohibits discrimination in any institution receiving federal funds.
Title IX is the federal statute that pushed open the door for girls to compete in sports on an equal footing with boys.
Lapidus suggests that you start by talking to the coach. “Try to work it out at school. It seems like something they should come around about because this is fairly clear-cut.”
If your coach continues to insist on this shaving rule, take your concern to the principal.
Bam. That opening line is choice, in addition to cutting to the critical point here, which is that, yeah, I’m willing to bet that if the coach also handles the men’s teams, shaving probably isn’t required (unless the coach supervises the swim team, where shaving for all genders is usually recommended for competition). If you’re going to enforce unequal ‘appearance rules,’ which is basically what asking an athlete to shave is unless there’s a compelling reason to do so (leg and armpit hair, to my knowledge, do not impair volleyball performance…any volleyball players want to speak up here?), well, you’d better get ready for someone to point out that the policy is discriminatory.
If talking to the coach won’t work, which seems probable from reading between the lines, I’d say Hair Today might want to consider going to a mentor on the teaching staff, if possible, before escalating to the principal. Sometimes a friendly word from another teacher can accomplish the needed goal without getting administration involved and causing tensions in the future. But, yes, if that doesn’t work, the principal should absolutely back her.
If the principal doesn’t help? Well, I imagine there are a whole lot of hairy feminists and feminist athletes who would be more than happy to lend their assistance to allowing No Hair to compete in sports with the level of body hair she’s comfortable with.
©2014 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>
At times, I am so afraid of seeming weak, or whiny, or overly-sensitive, or dependent on other people that I tend to either ignore my own needs until I start flailing around at the last minute in order to not get overwhelmed, or minimize the possibility that some things could be going wrong. I am one of those people who needs to outwardly look like I know what I’m doing and that I have things totally under control — preferably at all times. (Intellectually, I know that this expectation is intensely unrealistic, and can be dangerous; even the most “put-together”-seeming person can be a total wreck in private.)
Part of this is a defense mechanism that I developed around the same time that I started getting made fun of in grade school for my mild cerebral palsy and the limp it caused. Somehow, I figured that if I could be perfect at something — my something being academics — and make it look effortless, other kids would stop making fun of me. This didn’t work out quite the way that I planned; regardless, I still tend to hold onto remnants of this habit.
Part of it is also my own internalization of the cultural ideals that tell people with disabilities that we must always “compensate” for the imperfect status(es) of our bodies or minds, a la the Good Cripple or Supercrip, as well as the cultural messages that tell many women that they must be “perfect” while making it look downright easy, in accordance with the current “ideal” feminine role. A great number of women are told, in ways subtle and not, that we must try to “have it all,” and do it without a drop of sweat showing. We must look good all of the time, we must wear clothes that are “flattering”, we must keep a figure that approximates whatever sort of beauty standards happen to be “in.” We must take care of others’ needs and feelings and make this our number one priority, and think about ourselves last (if at all). We must project an outward appearance of cheeriness, strength, or deference, no matter how we might actually feel. If we cannot do most or all of these things, we have failed. And when this loaded set of expectations intersects with the PWD-compensating-for-disability trope, look the hell out.
These are just a few examples, of course, and these expectations shift in various ways depending upon race, class, ability status, sexuality, gender identification, education, and a host of other factors that are often derided as being remnants of “identity politics.” Identity and its politics, however, still continue to matter.
Here’s where I am going with all of this: For the past few weeks, I have been dealing with newer and more unpleasant fibro symptoms that are starting to affect my day-to-day life. At first, I thought these symptoms were just the result of a bad day, and then a bad week, bad month, et cetera (you can probably guess as to where this leads). I wanted to believe that these symptoms were not a huge deal, and look like I knew how to deal with them until I made it back to “normal,” however tenuous that position is for me. Now that these new and interesting symptoms have become a bigger deal than I had anticipated, a lightbulb has also gone off in my head: I need to work on letting go of this all-or-nothing, but-I-should-always-have-it-together-even-when-I-don’t-and-do-not-need-help mindset.
Today, I finally made the decision to schedule a doctor’s appointment to get help with my new symptoms.
Acknowledging that I don’t have some things completely “together” and that I (gasp) need medical help with these symptoms may be a tiny first step toward changing the tape loop in my brain that tells me that I am on one side of a binary — that I am either a or b, all or nothing, need help with everything or do not ever. There is a middle ground. Until now, I haven’t been able to acknowledge that.
©2014 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>
I’m disabled. I do weird things that bother other people. I have trouble controlling the volume of my voice and I use a service dog. I’m easily distracted and have a tendency to become very intensely focused on one thing. I hate certain buildings and noises, they make me want to crawl out of my skin or scream until it stops. I can’t tell you why they’re wrong, but I simply know they are. Sometimes, fear sinks its claws into me and doesn’t let go until its had its merry way.
These things bother abled people quite a bit. Ever since childhood, I’ve been judged for not preforming humanity correctly, as anyone who wants the basic decency afforded a real person should. Reading at the dinning table to avoid a freakout is disrespectful. Refusing to look people in the eye must mean I’m hiding something. Making my mom order for me because I couldn’t stand to talk to strangers was freaky and just not right. It cannot be allowed stand and thus, I had to be molded, to become more normal. The discomfort of others with my natural state was always more important than anything I could need.
I preform better now. Most people can’t tell I’m not neurotypical anymore, unless I’m having a panic attack or am in the arms of mania. I haven’t had a screaming fit in public in years and I walk up stairs normally now. Yet, I’m still off. Even the things I do to cope, so I won’t behave in a manner that will end with me being locked back up, are judged far too often.
This is ableism.
Knitting through stressful situations, or to keep focused, seems to really bother abled people and non-knitters. Out of courtesy to other people with attention problems, I even try to use quiet needles and keep my knitting under a desk if I’m sitting at one. Yet, every time I’ve been scolded for not paying attention, I’m simply told I’m being distracting, without any understanding that I’d be willing to work around other people’s needs. Often I’m pretty sure I’m not being scolded for being distracting, but for the possibility of it. Because what I need to do to get by is weird, so of course it’s my fault when people gawk.
I have a service dog, in training. His name is Figaro and he’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. The general public is not so sold on him. Every time we go out, snarky comments start up and I live in area that’s pretty service dog friendly, thanks to the efforts of our program and other handlers. This behavior isn’t even coming from gatekeepers, but from people who seem generally angry if they see Figaro. Admittedly, he’s not perfect, but his worst behavior is slipping out of a heel or popping up from a down. The act of him simply lying under a table while I eat seems to be an affront to the proper way of doing things.
These are just stories from my life. Other people with disabilities deal with other situations, some much, much worse than mine. Policing of behavior is a chronic thing for many PWDs, regardless of the actual effect of their behavior of other people. The abled community has its standards to uphold and some girl having her dog lay on her to calm her down is too weird to let stand. People end up locked up because of these standards. People end up dead. We end up cut off from any real support any coping methods we may have had, all in guise of conformity.
One would think feminists, who I hear aren’t too keen on the policing of womens’ behavior, would see the parallels in policing the behavior of other marginalized people. Really, truth be told, the feminist movement has never been very good at being inclusive, at understanding intersecting oppressions. Therefore, I’m not very surprised, just further disappointed. This happens time and time again in various movements sold as progressive.
All people, have the right to public spaces, even people who annoy you. Sometimes, because of conflicting access needs, compromises need to be made, but shunning people who don’t preform correctly isn’t compromise. It’s just more of the same bigotry. We no longer have ugly laws but people still attempt to enforce the spirit of them. Ableism isn’t feminism, so if you’re abled, actually listening to PWDs? It’s a capital idea.
©2014 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>
For people who may dislike their bodies, for any number of reasons, these conversations end up being exclusionary, as they are often treated as ‘unenlightened’ for not loving their bodies and they are lectured in an attempt to get them to submit. For people with disabilities, an added layer of complexity is introduced, as it is assumed we do not or could not love our bodies because of our disabilities. Similar complexity can arise for some members of the trans community, who may experience inner conflict with our bodies but feel uncomfortable expressing it, for a variety of reasons ranging from fear of being perceived as spokespeople for the trans community when we are just talking about ourselves, to fear that discussing dislike/hatred for one’s body is not acceptable. Especially when encountering campaigns mandating that people love their ‘natural’ or ‘inner’ beauty, I am left with more questions than answers.
I was reminded of this by ‘Black Torso,’ the piece I featured in my post on sculpture last week. What, for example, is a breast cancer survivor who chooses to get reconstructive surgery supposed to do? The rebuilt breast is not ‘natural,’ so does that mean the patient does not love ou body? What about the breast cancer survivor who cannot afford reconstructive surgery or is not a candidate for it? Maybe ou hates the scar and is uncomfortable looking in the mirror, but feels unwelcome in body image discussions rooted in the idea that ‘love’ is mandatory for all people when engaging with their bodies.
I’d like to start deconstructing conversations about body image to make a seat at the table for people who might feel relegated to the fringes of those conversations right now, and there are a couple of angles that need to be considered with more care in conversations about body image and in campaigns designed to spark conversations about body image.
The first is the idea that everyone must love their bodies. Not all people love their bodies and they should not be required or pressured to; indeed, we should be actively creating a space for people who aren’t comfortable with the bodies they are in that doesn’t consist of ‘we will educate you into loving your body.’ We should talk, too, about the reasons why people may experience conflict with their bodies, and how social attitudes, life experiences, and other things may play a role in the relationship people have with their bodies, without singling out people or shaming them for not loving their bodies, or not loving them all the time.
The second is the idea of ‘healthy, strong, natural’ bodies being celebrated in these campaigns and focused on in language about body image. The fact is that not all bodies are healthy, strong, or natural. Health is something that changes over time from person to person, and while some people may always have healthy bodies, others do not. ‘Natural’ is also not necessarily something everyone possesses, and I dislike the idea that a body needs to be ‘natural’ (who is defining this, incidentally?) in order to be celebrated.
Finally, we have these really complicated intersections between body image and disability, compounded by a lot of social attitudes about disability. Disability is scary, so disabled bodies are scary, and I notice that many body image conversations leave out people with disabilities, because no one knows what to do with us. Looking through many of the responses to the American Able art project, I was struck by the fact that many people were uncomfortable with viewing a disabled body, especially in the context of desirability. If our bodies are so frightening that people can’t see them on television and in ad campaigns, it shouldn’t surprise me that people have trouble fitting us in to discussions about body image.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room, in body image conversations, for people who may feel conflicted about their bodies, for people who reject a lot of the ‘affirmations’ promoted, for people who may not fit into the categories some participants in these conversations assume apply to everyone. Are there exceptions to these rules? Conversations where people are thinking about issues like disability and the rejection of beauty? Yes, there absolutely are, but they are exceptions, not the norm, and that is a trend I would like to reverse.
This is what we talk about when we talk about working towards the neutral place; creating a space where bodies and identities are neutral, so there is room for everyone, room for all relationships between people and their bodies, room for people at all levels of exploring their identities and their bodies.
©2014 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>
So I’m sitting watching the evening news, and on comes a chap telling us women and girls that we oughtta go and get more Pap smears. Then on comes a woman to talk about how Pap screening rates are going down in young women, and to speculate about possible causes for this. The cervical cancer vaccine comes up, as does the “awkwardness” of the test, and our inappropriate embarrassment, which we apparently need to get over.
What I don’t hear addressed in the mainstream media in these discussions of Pap screening? Well, lots of things, like heterosexism, and ignorance about Pap age/sexual experience guidelines, and sexual assault (inside and outside the medical system). However, the one that really stood out in my mind today is also a factor that isn’t going to be fixed by lecturing women. Fatphobic abuse in the medical system.
There has been a fair bit of talk around the feminist traps about some of the other factors, especially the aftermath of sexual assault and its effects on medical interactions. I’m not going to go into that in this post, but it’s a huge, huge issue. What I would like to talk about for a moment, not because it’s more important but just because I have a first-person anecdote, is medical fatphobia.
We know fatphobia kills. In all sorts of ways, in all sorts of settings. And one way in which it can kill is the horrendous tendency of doctors – quite a few doctors, from the stories I hear around the place – to trap women and girls on their backs so that they can shame them while they’re vulnerable. And what they don’t realise, or don’t care about, is just how long-lasting the effects of this can be – and not in a good way.
Medical education materials abound with motherhood statements about ‘Preventive Medicine’ and ‘Lifestyle Intervention’ and ‘Opportunistic Behavioural Education’. General practitioners are exhorted, over and over again, to take any and all opportunities they can to tell people they’re fat. Really, over and over. And OVER. And doctors, labouring under the mistaken impression that this will cause said people to magically become skinny and therefore ‘healthy’, go ahead and do it, then smugly boast about it between themselves, sighing about how no-one ever listens to them. Or, perhaps, under the impression that they can then self-satisfiedly sit back and tick a box on the chart about how they’ve engaged in initial Lifestyle Education, which they learned all about at the last Lap-Band seminar.
Medical education is a powerful, powerful matrix of fat hate, based on the twin premises that telling people they’re fat is (a) helpful and (b) harmless.
So let’s talk about how that plays out in practice:
When I was 19, I had a Pap smear. It was my first. I went to the nearest available doctor, who worked in a setting where they dealt with a late of people in late adolescence and early adulthood. I wasn’t particularly concerned about it; a very little vague unease at the unknown, but no particular trepidation. I didn’t bother taking anyone with me, and I just booked the appointment in between other things I had to do, like med school classes and whatnot. And off I went.
I got my Pill script, had my BP taken, then assumed the position. And the doctor came up into his position, as they do, then stopped.
He looked at my thigh. “Not quite the right spot,” I thought, “but hey, he probably knows what I’m doing more than I do.”
Then he touched my thigh. Around the middle, underneath (in lithotomy position).
Then he JIGGLED IT.
He jiggled my thigh.
And then he grimaced.
And then he did the Pap smear. I was frozen, completely unable (by my inexperience, position, and by general medical disempowerment) to say anything.
And then I fled.
Was I ‘traumatised’? I didn’t have nightmares. I went and got my next Pap smear dutifully, largely because I really didn’t have any choice – no Pap smear, no Pill script. (Ask me about contraceptive hostage-taking! You know you want to!)
But every time I get a Pap smear, every single time, even now more than twenty years later, I see his face. I see him jiggling my thigh with that look of disgust. Every time I lie down and spread my legs for the speculum, I am reminded of exactly how repugnant my body is.
My first impulse is to tell you exactly how fat I wasn’t, back then. To tell you that it wasn’t ok for him to do that because I was physically fit at the time. To tell you at length about how my aerobic capacity was at the 95th centile, that I could do a hundred pushups, that I could swim a k without stopping, that I was beating my fit male friends at squash, that I was getting State medals in my chosen sport. But that’s all irrelevant – because fat-shaming isn’t ok for people who are actually fat any more than it’s ok for people who aren’t. Fat-shaming doesn’t get a pass when it’s limited to people as fat as I am now, or twice as fat as me, or whatever. Fat-shaming isn’t bad because it’s directed at inbetweenies as well as at fat people. Fat-shaming is harmful for EVERYONE. Fat-shaming is not.ok.
As long as some doctors keep seeing lithotomy position as a prime opportunity to ladle on the shame, girls and women are going to avoid Pap smears. So hey, ball’s in your court, medical profession. Fix it. Get your own house in order, and meanwhile, stop telling US we’re the ones doing it wrong.
©2014 FWD/Forward. All Rights Reserved..]]>
You have the right to decide if you want to have children or not, and to determine their number, timing, and spacing.
The clinic provides reproductive health services to low income members of the community, and plays an important role in ensuring that people have access to everything from safer sex supplies to prenatal care. I’m a big fan of theirs, and I’m a big fan of that sign, which I think embodies the core of reproductive rights and justice. Everyone has the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and one of the core values of the reproductive rights movement should be supporting people in this. Supporting all people, leading all kinds of lives, making all kinds of decisions.
Educating people so they can make more informed choices. Helping people access services to allow them to carry out the choices they are making, whether that’s a decision to get an abortion or to have a child or to get some birth control. Fighting sexual assault and rape as violations to bodily autonomy.
Recognising that while a choice might not be one you would make personally, you can still support someone in making that choice, and you can still enable that person’s ability to make decisions freely. As soon as we start making decisions about the ‘right’ kind of families and the ‘right’ number of children and the ‘right’ number of abortions to have, the concept of reproductive justice starts to fall apart. Who decides these things? Who is the arbiter of whether someone is making the ‘right’ choices?
There’s one group that gets left out of a lot of reproductive justice discussions: People with disabilities.
I’ve seen the decision to have a child with disabilities compared to child abuse, whether we’re talking about a child with a prenatal diagnosis, or a child born to parents with an increased risk of having a child with disabilities. I’ve seen disabled parents treated as though they are committing child abuse simply by being disabled, and being parents. I’ve seen people act like people with disabilities don’t need access to sexual education, because obviously we don’t have sex. I very rarely see any of these actions labeled as what they are, which is ableism.
Denial of reproductive rights to people with disabilities is ableism. Denial of our needs in the reproductive justice discussion is also ableism. Telling us we don’t belong at the table is ableism. We deserve reproductive justice too, and we have needs that are not being addressed by the current reproductive rights movement.
One of the problems with attempting to bring disability into reproductive justice conversations is that people act like the issues we cite are things of the past; they aren’t important, because they don’t happen anymore. People with disabilities are never involuntarily sterilised to prevent them from having children. Children are never taken from disabled parents. People are never shamed for deciding to continue pregnancies when a prenatal diagnosis indicates that the baby will be born with disabilities.
Well, these things are not in the past. They are happening right now.
A few recent cases from here in the United States: A child was taken from blind parents, solely because her parents were blind. It took intervention on the part of the National Federation of the Blind to restore the child to her home. The children of a disabled woman were denied visitation rights on the grounds that it would upset them to see their mother. A quadriplegic woman was told she couldn’t be a good parent. These are just three recent, high profile cases where parents were told they couldn’t care for their children because of their disabilities. Believe me, there’s more where that came from.
As for forcible sterilisation, the Ashley X case attracted a great deal of attention in feminist communities, but it’s far from the only one. Last week, we linked to a story about drugs that suppress sexual desire being used in autism ‘treatment.’ In Central and South America, forcible sterilisation, particularly of Indigenous women, is widespread and the United States has a history of sterilising Indigenous women as well. Tessa Savicki, a Massachusetts mother of nine, is suing after a hospital sterilised her without her consent during an unrelated medical procedure in 2006.
If sterilisation of people with disabilities isn’t a problem anymore, how come someone wrote a bill in 2009 to bar forced sterilisation of people with disabilities?
In a conversation at dinner the other night, I had to physically restrain myself when one of the people at the table attempted to argue that a mutual acquaintance was being ‘irresponsible’ by having a child at her age, ‘because it might be born disabled.’ This is not the only conversation like that I’ve witnessed, on or offline.
For people with disabilities, the reproductive justice discussion is extremely personal. People debate whether we should be allowed to have children, people believe that compromising our bodily autonomy is acceptable for the ‘greater good,’ and people debate whether or not we should have been born. For people who were born with disabilities, hearing people claim that parents having disabled children is akin to child abuse is rather appalling.
The thing about reproductive justice is that it’s not just for the people you like and the people you agree with. It’s not just for young, nondisabled, cisgender women who want to use birth control right now and have access to abortions, with the possibility of having children later. It’s also for parents of large families. It’s also for disabled parents. It’s also for religious parents. It’s also for disabled children. It’s also for people who are not interested in having children. It’s for everyone living in a body, no matter what kind of body it is, no matter what kind of life that person leads. Reproductive justice, true justice, should be all-encompassing.
Excluding people with disabilities from the conversation by either being actively hostile or dismissing our concerns is not reproductive justice.
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The West Wing is a depiction of the working lives of White House staffers that aired for seven years in the United States. Fairly early on in the show, we are introduced to the character of Joey Lucas. A California expert for polling is needed, and she’s the woman for the job. What I love about the way she is introduced is that when people first encounter her, they are more surprised by the fact that the California expert is a woman than they are by the fact that she’s D/deaf.
There’s a lot of sexism in US politics, and it’s pretty common to assume that men are the primary movers and shakers, the experts, the consultants. The West Wing confronted that throughout the series with strong female characters like Joey Lucas, challenging the assumptions of viewers as well as characters in the show. A far bigger production is made over her gender than her D/deafness, and we don’t have laughable/ugly scenes where other characters struggle with how to interact with her and her interpreter.
Joey Lucas is presented as a woman political expert, struggling with sexism in politics, having romantic interests in other characters, and having her own opinions on things. She is a character who happens to be D/deaf. She isn’t consumed by this identity. It’s acknowledged in the show, but it’s not made into the central point of who she is and what she does. Sometimes characters say and do ignorant things. They are corrected within the context of the show, and everyone moves on. The show laudably avoided the temptation to include very special educational moments with her character. They told by showing, something television seems to struggle with a lot these days; it’s really ok to just let characters be themselves, to show other characters interacting with them, and to not lecture the audience.
As a feminist television character, there is a lot to recommend her. The men in the show are constantly stepping on her toes and acting like she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and she puts them firmly in place. There’s a great scene where they are preparing to run a big poll, and Josh Lyman is concerned that the pollsters will be chewing gum, and he fusses mightily about this, convinced that Joey won’t remember to tell them not to chew gum; it’s also implied that since she’s D/deaf, she wouldn’t know that chewing gum would be a problem. Lo and behold, when she gets ready to tell the pollsters to start calling, what’s the first thing brought up? Gum chewing. Bam.
Joey’s fully integrated into the landscape of The West Wing. She’s not singled out as a special character or an exception. She engages in brisk discussions, she challenges people, she reminds people that she really knows what she is doing, she has happy and sad days like everyone else. And I love, love, love seeing American Sign Language on television. One of the things that I especially love is that the camera actually shows it. A lot of times, I see a D/deaf character, and the camera focuses on the face or another character while ou is Signing. Not on The West Wing.
This is the right way to do it. Develop a complex character with a lot of stuff going on, let that character just be a person. Depictions like this one do far more than repetitions of hackneyed tropes and stereotypes.
The West Wing may not be airing anymore, but it’s worth checking out if you haven’t seen it, since there is a lot going on in this show; not always good stuff, but such is the nature of television. I think that in particular, the show does a really good job of depicting fussy white liberal attitudes in the United States, with characters being more concerned with how things seem than how they are, and constantly requiring reassurance from minority characters that they’re doing things right on race, or women’s issues, and other -isms.
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My 7-year-old daughter is smart, pretty, and fun. Her father is of Hispanic descent, and he’s gorgeous, but he has a lot of thick, black body hair—including a “unibrow,” which he’s plucked since he was a teenager. Our daughter has inherited his thick, dark hair and my fair skin, and I’m shocked to see that her coarse eyebrows are starting to grow together—downy hairs are appearing across the bridge of her nose. She is beautiful, but her eyebrows bother me. Her 10-year-old cousin has a shockingly thick unibrow, and she came home in tears because her classmates teased her. She took a razor to her face and ended up cutting herself badly. I don’t want any of this to happen to my daughter, but I’m disgusted with myself for having such a reaction to a few stray hairs. Showing my daughter pictures of Frida Kahlo and talking to her about inner beauty will be worse than a lie, since I’m obviously bothered by her eyebrows! I’ve been tempted to look into electrolysis down the road, but what kind of maternal instinct is that?
Given that we live in a culture that views body hair on women as one of the most atrocious aesthetic offenses ever, it’s not terribly surprising that Mom has internalised harmful attitudes about body hair, and I commend her for recognising the social pressures influencing the way she’s viewing her daughter’s eyebrows. She also raises a really important point; as much as we talk about body positivity and acceptance, young girls with bodies that don’t meet society’s standards are still abused for it, and sometimes they injure (or kill themselves) in pursuit of beauty. Mom clearly feels conflicted here. She obviously wants to protect her daughter, while also addressing the oppressive beauty standards that surround her daughter’s body and the way she feels about her daughter’s looks. This is a tough letter to answer.
So, how did Yoffe respond?
Of course it’s superficial to worry over a few hairs. But humans are very superficial; in this country alone, we spend billions trying to either remove hair or grow it. Given the hirsute dynasties from which my daughter is descended, when I first held my darling in my arms and gazed on her mass of black hair, I whispered to her, “Don’t worry, baby girl, I will take care of you when the time comes to get some of your hair removed.” When I allowed her to get her eyebrows waxed the first time (she had been begging), it was a bonding experience to hold her hand while the deed was done. But she was a teenager by then, and, as you say, your daughter is only 7 years old. Right now the incipient unibrow is visible only to the close observer, or as T.S. Eliot wrote, “But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!” But the trajectory of her cousin is a warning. If your child has an easily fixed cosmetic problem, it’s best to avoid her wanting to take a razor to her face. Fortunately, today a little girl with a brow like Bert the Muppet can have it transformed almost instantly into something more like Brooke Shields. This article describes the growing trend for getting young girls with moustaches and heavy brows zapped with a cosmetic laser. I suggest for now that you stop counting hairs and relax. As the brow fills in, or she starts complaining that other kids comment on it, you can say that she has eyebrows just like Daddy. Explain that he takes some of his out with a tweezer, but you’re going to do something better for her that will mean the extra hair is gone for a long time or maybe forever. It’s OK, Mom, that you want a clear path for your daughter’s inner beauty to shine.
‘I really feel ya! My daughter has gross body hair too! Good thing we have lasers now, isn’t it!’
You know, I read that article at the Times too, and what I got out of it was not ‘hooray!’ but rather ‘wow, this is really awful, that social pressures about beauty and acceptable bodies are leading girls to get cosmetic procedures to modify themselves at younger and younger ages.’ The whole ‘Skin Deep’ series is a deeply disturbing look at the way our society views women and girls.
Why is Daughter’s hair a ‘problem,’ Prudie? Why is your entire response framed as ‘don’t worry, there’s an easy fix for this’? Why is there absolutely nothing in it about adult women who choose to wear their body hair as is? About letting Daughter make her own choices about her body hair? Why is it assumed that of course Daughter will want to wax her eyebrows when she’s older? Isn’t that basically setting her up to hate her body? Won’t she be getting enough of those messages from the people outside her home? Her mom obviously wants to be supportive of her, and clearly wants to counter some of these attitudes.
You know, I have a mustache. It’s pretty fine, so you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were in one on one conversation with me. I like my mustache, and I pretty much always have. In fact, sometimes I wish it were thicker. Sure, I got shit for it when I was younger, but I just quoted Rita Mae Brown: ‘I like my mustache! It makes me look distinguished.’ I probably came home upset a few times, and my dad didn’t say ‘you know, I shave my face, but I can do something better for you and get it lasered off.’ He said ‘fuck ‘em.’
Now, I’m not saying Mom has to take that particular approach, but it would be awfully nice if Prudence hadn’t jumped right to body hatred; why not talk about Frida Kahlo, who made amazing art and wrote great things about her relationship with her body? Why not present other models of women accepting their body hair, and why not talk about how social attitudes lead to a stigma about thick eyebrows on women? Yes, a young girl who is being tormented for having thick eyebrows probably will want to remove them, and I certainly don’t blame her for that, but when the conversation at home starts with ‘we can fix it!’ and a reinforcement of harmful beauty standards, how is that good for her? My father was able to have a conversation with me at age seven about the social attitudes surrounding definitions of beauty, after all, and he made it clear he’d support me either way.
These are complicated things to navigate. There are lots of adult women who do not like their body hair, for a wide variety of reasons, and who choose to remove it, also for a wide variety of reasons. This letter troubles me because I feel like Prudence is completely discounting the idea that maybe Daughter should be raised with an open mind so that she can make decisions about her own body. Fighting oppressive beauty standards happens on a lot of fronts, and one of them should be in conversations with young women and girls.
Submissions for advice columns you’d like to see deconstructed (or celebrated) are always welcome: meloukhia at disabledfeminists dot com
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