Tag Archives: self esteem

Disability & Self Esteem: Advertising

I don’t have a t.v. at home so I don’t actually watch a lot of advertisements, but when I do, there’s one thing I notice: Unlike the rest of my life, advertisements only include people with evident disabilities when they want to make some sort of point.

I’m really bothered by this. I know, I know, it’s advertising. We also don’t get excited about brighter brights in our laundry and aren’t followed around by wind machines when we get new shampoo. It’s certainly not supposed to represent “real life” in any way, because it’s all fantasy to sell you stuff. But part of what advertising sells us is ideas about people. And part of what I think it sells us is that disability is a punishment, a novelty, a metaphor, or a joke.

As we’ve said before, disability never just is.

I think this does immeasurable damage to both our perceptions of ourselves as disabled people, but also people’s perceptions of disability and what it looks like.

Today I’ve pulled up a bunch of US-based advertisements (oh, wait, I added the Quebec advertisement after writing this paragraph – Canada & the US!) that feature people with disabilities. I’m curious about what people’s thoughts are when they watch these. What take-away messages about disability do you get?

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): Disability as punishment.


The video is a bit grainy, probably meant to invoke “home movie”. It opens with tinkly piano music of sadness and woe. A male singer croons: Together…..

The video opens showing a young man sitting on a bench, reading a book. He’s labelled “Your Best Friend”.

The Singer croons: We’re meant to be….

The young man looks up! There’s a woman! She’s walking up to him, obviously excited to see him. She’s labelled “Your girlfriend.”

They kiss!

The camera pans back to show this scene as viewed through a hospital window. The couple – your best friend and your girlfriend – walk off together hand in hand.

The singer croons: Together! Forever!

The camera continues to pan back to show the back of someone sitting in an electric wheelchair, staring out the window. The hospital room is obviously very bleak. This person is labelled “You”.

The screen goes black, and then: “You have a lot to lose. MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”

That’s right, folks: Don’t drink and drive because if you do you’ll become a scary scary cripple and your girlfriend will leave you for your best friend and you will die alone and unloved!

[Of course it’s a terrible idea to drink and drive. But I’ve seen hundreds of anti-drunk driving ads, and they really can send the same message without implying ‘Don’t drink & drive because cripples don’t get no love’. It can be done!]

Berlitz: Bait & Switch


Camera is doing a gradual close-up on a man in a wheelchair. Behind him is a park. The music is the tinkly piano of sadness.

Man: Up until two weeks ago I always said “It will never happen to me.” But today, look at me. Listen to me. Now I speak English fluently.

The screen goes black, and then “Berlitz. In just two weeks.”

I really waffled back and forth on this ad. On the one hand: Hey! It’s a person in a wheelchair and they’re not presenting him as a sad story. On the other hand, the whole point is to “trick” you into thinking he is telling his sad story but it turns out Surprise! He’s not. I feel this falls into the trope of “Disability to titillate”. What do you think?

Michael J Fox on Stem Cell Research (US political ad)

[Michal J Fox has visible tremors from Parkinson’s Disease.] As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me.

“I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.”

Pepsi Superbowl Ad: Deaf people tell jokes, who knew?

The entire advertisement is in ASL:

Woman: This commerical was created and performed by EnAble – a network in PepsiCo which supports inclusion, diversity, and the inclusion of persons with different abilities.

Two men are driving slowly down a residential street, looking around and obviously trying to find which house they’re going to.

Passenger: Hey! We’re going to be late. We’re going to miss the kick off.

Driver: Which house is Bob’s?

Passenger: I thought you knew.
Driver: I thought you knew?
Passenger: No I thought you knew!
Driver: I thought you knew!
Passenger: No! I thought you knew!

Driver: Great!

He shrugs and starts honking the horn.

Lights in all the houses start to come on. A dog starts barking. People look out their windows annoyed.

One house stays dark.

Driver: That’s it!

Passenger: Yeah, ya think?

They go up to Bob’s house and push the doorbell. The lights flicker. Bob opens the door. Across the street he catches his neighbour’s eye.

Bob: Sorry.

PepsiCo EnABLE
Creating an inclsive environemnt for people with different abilities.

Quebec Society for Disabled Children: Give children wings!

[An animated young boy walks onto the screen, looking sad.] It’s not always fun being a child.

[He sits down into a drawing of a wheelchair.] Especially when you’re disabled.

[A butterfly flies around him, and he begins to look happier.] Disabled children are just like any other children.

[The butterfly lands on his finger. He looks overjoyed.] When you open your hearts, you give them wings.

[The butterfly carries him up into the sky.] Please, help them spread their wings. Thank you for helping the Quebec Society for Disabled Children.

What are these advertisements saying about people with disabilities? What examples of people with disabilities have you seen outside of drug commercials? And what impact do you think these sorts of advertisements have on our perceptions of ourselves, and each other?

Dear Imprudence: Ew, My Daughter Has Facial Hair!

A reader wrote in to Emily Yoffe at Dear Prudence this week with the following:

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?

—Shallow Mom

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?

Dear Shallow,
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