Tag Archives: treatment

Things That Make My Life Easier: Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab

[Image description: Four bottles of perfume in front of and resting upon some books; the bottles are labeled “Australian Copperhead,” “Banded Sea Snake,” “Cottonmouth,” and “Asp Viper,” respectively. Image courtesy of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.]

Today, I am taking a page from amandaw’s awesome series “Things That Make My Life Easier” and have chosen to spotlight the fantastically scented goodness of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. As a person with chronic pain, I have found that certain things having to do with the five senses that take my mind off of my pain — even for a few minutes — makes dealing with pain and fatigue much, much easier. While I am unsure of the scientific veracity of perfume oils and their use in general life-improvement for folks with pain issues (in my case, fibromyalgia, which for me usually causes intense muscle pain and moderate to severe fatigue), I have personally benefited from wearing the complex and often surprising essential oil blends in which the Lab specializes. While smelling nice certainly won’t bring my physical pain down from, say, an 8 to a 1 (on a scale of 1 to 10), many of these blends have helped me to relax, focus on a different sort of physical sensation that is not abjectly, horrendously painful, and generally be more comfortable as I go about my day.

Besides a “General Catalogue” consisting of hundreds of scents—all inspired by a diverse mix of people (comic-book heroes and heroines; H.P. Lovecraft), places (the “Wanderlust” line, which offers scents inspired by famous locales) and things (love [image on page is NSFW], myth and fairy tales, classic art, religion and spirituality, and Alice in Wonderland, to name just a few)—BPAL also offers Limited Edition blends. Currently, they are offering their annual Fall/Halloween scents; if you’ve ever wanted to smell like an apple orchard, fall leaves and smoke, or Halloween candy, one (or more) of these oils may be for you.

It is next-to-impossible for me to pick favorite blends, as mine seem to change by the day. There are a few that I consistently utilize, however: Blood Kiss is a bizarrely dark blend of vanilla, clove and cherry that I’ve been wearing for years (I’m on my third bottle of the stuff). Absinthe is effervescent, minty and (obviously) boozy. When I want to smell sort of like a head shop sans the moldy undertone, a couple drops of Sin do the trick. Aquatic scents seem to be my most-used “category,” with the salty, swampy Bayou being the one that I reach for most often, tied with the Limited Edition Sturgeon Moon (the latter is no longer available, unfortunately). The smoky, slightly citrusy goodness of Carnaval Diabolique (part of a sprawling LE series of the same name) makes for a great late summer/early fall scent, as does the sharp, lavender-tinged Casanova.

Of course, the very fact that I wear essential oil perfumes brings up another issue — how to be sensitive and accommodating to fellow PWDs who may have scent sensitivities, allergies, or who may have otherwise painful reactions to scented stimuli. When I’m planning to be out and about, I tend to wear a drop or two at most, usually applied with a q-tip, and allow ample time for the oil to dry before I leave the house; this is not a perfect solution, but I am still figuring out how to balance the benefits that I personally get from wearing these amazingly-crafted oils with the needs of other PWDs whom I may encounter in public.

Things That Make My Life Easier, A Reintroduction (Part 1 of 3)

A long time ago, I decided to start up a series. I lacked a catchy title, so I went with the mere truth: Things That Make My Life Easier.

What I meant by that is, of course, things that make my life with a disability easier.

Disability can introduce certain complications to a life — meaning that in reaching the same destination, a disabled person may have a bumpier, windier, more obstructed path than a nondisabled person. A disabled person may simply have more to deal with than hir nondisabled counterpart. And this is not inherent to hir condition: much of that difficulty, that obstruction, is constructed by a society that is built to suit a nondisabled person’s needs, concerns, and preferences. Some of it, to be sure, is difficulty that will never be eliminated, no matter the social context.

This means two things, things that are not at all contradictory but, in fact, must both be recognized for us to make any progress:

One, that disabled people face a great deal of difficulty that is ultimately the result of a society that cares more about the convenience of the comfortable than the comfort of the inconvenient;

And two, that disabled people may always face some amount more difficulty than their nondisabled peers due to the intrinsic nature of neurological and physiological variation.

Disability is an experience all its own. But at the same time, disability is not particularly [anything]. Disabled people are experiencing the same thing nondisabled people are, by the by: they are experiencing pleasure and experiencing pain; they are experiencing acceptance and experiencing rejection; they are experiencing stability and experiencing change. They are learning and expanding; they are teaching and demonstrating. They need food and drink, and the opportunity to get rid of bodily waste. They need shelter from the elements, a comfortable place to sit or lie. They need transport if they are mobile; they need a way to enter buildings; they need an effective method of communication with other people. They need social interaction; they need solitary time. They need intellectual stimulation; they need leisure and entertainment.

These are all things that nondisabled people need, too. They are not “special” needs. They are human needs. A core set of needs that we all share.

But these needs are not all met in the same ways.

This is the beauty of humanity, really: presented with a particular need, a set of people will take all manner of approaches, using all sorts of different resources available, finding all kinds of different ways to use them — different paths to the same end point. All paths take a toll on their travelers, while offering to those travelers certain advantages. It is up to the individual to weigh the costs and benefits of any specific way sie might take.

There is no moral weight to one path over another. That it harm none, do what you will. Whatever you are doing, so long as you harm no one else, it is good. Or, put another way: Whatever you are doing, however you are doing it, if it gets done, who the hell cares beyond that?

Next: A Reintroduction (Part 2 of 3)

Cross-posted: three rivers fog, FWD/Forward, Feministe.

Black, Hispanic, Poor people wait longer for breast cancer treatment, experience more recurrences

In the USA, Black women have the highest mortality from breast cancer of any other group, despite the rate of diagnosis of breast cancer being highest in White women. Hispanic women have a lower breast cancer diagnosis incidence than either, but mortality rates are disproportionately high in Hispanic women also. Here are the CDC incidence and mortality statistics over time:

“Incidence rate” means how many women out of a given number get the disease each year. The graph below shows how many women out of 100,000 got breast cancer each year during the years 1975–2005. The year 2005 is the most recent year for which numbers have been reported. The breast cancer incidence rate is grouped by race and ethnicity.

For example, you can see that white women had the highest incidence rate for breast cancer. Black women had the second highest incidence of getting breast cancer, followed by American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Hispanic women.

Breast ca incidence stats showing White women at highest risk

The graph below shows that in 2005, black women were more likely to die of breast cancer than any other group. White women had the second highest rate of deaths from breast cancer, followed by women who are American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander.

Breast ca mortality stats showing Black women at greatest risk

A number of contributors to this disproportionate mortality have been proposed, including environmental toxin and pesticide exposure, more aggressive tumours, and later diagnosis. Most alarmingly, the mortality gap seems to be widening.

This week’s British Medical Journal (BMJ) has an important article today demonstrating one of the consequences of healthcare racism in the USA:

Impact of interval from breast conserving surgery to radiotherapy on local recurrence in older women with breast cancer: retrospective cohort analysis[1]

The researchers analysed national cancer records for 18,050 US women, aged 65 or older and otherwise non-disabled, who were diagnosed with early stage breast cancer during an eleven year period to 2002, and who received breast conserving surgery and radiotherapy, but not chemotherapy.

30% of the women in this study had to wait more than six weeks after their surgery before they could have radiotherapy. Delays greater than six weeks were associated with a modest but significant increase in local recurrence of the breast cancer.

The study also showed that there was a continuous relationship between radiotherapy delays and local recurrence; the sooner radiotherapy was started, the lower the risk of cancer recurrence, and this relationship was strong. This is concordant with previous studies.

So who was subject to these long, risky delays in treatment?

Sadly, the answer will not surprise you: Black women, Hispanic women, and poor women. Black women were almost 50% more likely to experience a longer than six week gap before radiotherapy treatment, and Hispanic women experienced a 30% increase in risk of delay.

The followup was only five years long in this study, and breast cancer tends to be a cancer that bides its time; the increase in risk (and in consequence mortality) may be greater, even much greater, with longer followup. In addition, as local recurrence risk tends to more common in younger women and this study focused on older women, the effect could be more pronounced in the total population of those with breast cancer. In addition, the study studied mostly White women, as Black women tend to get their cancers younger and have a decreased likelihood of receiving breast-conserving surgery and radiotherapy. In other words, this study was set up in a way that made it, in some ways, particularly difficult to find a significant difference in the effect they were looking at; the fact that they still found one means that the effect is likely to be really quite pronounced.

The accompanying BMJ editorial by Ruth H Jack and Lars Holmberg[2] goes on to suggest one possible model of healthcare delivery that might alleviate these delays:

One good example of how practices can be improved is the Rapid Response Radiotherapy programme in Ontario. This programme has drastically shortened waiting times for patients having palliative radiotherapy by restructuring the referral process so that many patients are treated on the same day as their consultation.9 Countries where disconnected systems are responsible for different aspects of treatment will find it more difficult to ensure that diagnosis, referral, and treatment are not subject to delay.


[1] Impact of interval from breast conserving surgery to radiotherapy on local recurrence in older women with breast cancer: retrospective cohort analysis
Rinaa S Punglia, Akiko M Saito, Bridget A Neville, Craig C Earle, Jane C Weeks.
BMJ 2010;340:c845; Published 2 March 2010,

[2] Waiting times for radiotherapy after breast cancer
BMJ 2010;340:c1007
Published 2 March 2010,

A Saturday sketch

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

I noticed something was wrong in the earliest hours of the morning, when my husband had disappeared from bed but I did not hear anything going on in the bathroom and could not see him anywhere.

Around 8, he got up to go to the bathroom and I lifted myself out of bed to use it after him. When he emerged, he was very clearly not well and said, in a seriously distressed tone, “I just had the most awful night” and stumbled around me back to bed.

It’s not emotional, he clarified as he curled up awkwardly on his side of the mattress, it’s just physical. He had problems feeling seriously sick to his stomach, which never culminated in anything, just churned on and on without relief, and had serious sharp pains in several places — shoulder, lower back, knees — and a generalized all-over ache that left him feeling miserable, unable to find a single comfortable (nay, just non-miserable) position no matter where he stood, sat or lay.

“This is how I imagine you feel every day,” he moaned, as he tossed his body into a different awkward position in an attempt to find some relief.

He needed the still, quiet, restful sleep so badly, but hurt too much to stay lying in place in bed for more than a few moments, and the pain was too distracting to be able to actually fall asleep — and precisely because of this, he was in no condition to be anywhere else but in bed sleeping. A familiar situation for me.

A few minutes later, already in his thirtieth position attempting to achieve some state of rest in bed, he pushed over to where I sat on my side of the bed and asked, “How do you do this every single day?”

Staring at my nightstand drawer, I smiled a bit and replied, “A lot of medicine. And you to help me.”

Why I don’t think it’s funny to use Limbaugh’s drug abuse as a punchline.

Short background: Rush Limbaugh (link goes to Wikipedia article) is a US conservative radio talk show host who has risen to prominence in the US by inciting “controversy” after “controversy” with hateful rhetoric. He also went through an ordeal some time back for addiction to prescription painkillers, an incident that the US left likes to use against him. Recently he was rushed to the hospital again, which has spurred a new round of derision from US liberals.

Rush Limbaugh isn’t exactly a sympathetic character. His politics are vile and he makes a career out of escalating white male resentment into white male supremacy. And that causes real harm to real people who don’t meet the requirements to be part of Limbaugh’s He-Man Woman-Haterz Club.

How did he end up abusing prescription painkillers? I don’t know. Was he taking them for legitimate pain due to injury, surgery or a medical condition, and the usage got out of hand? Was he consciously using it as a recreational drug? I have to say I am still somewhat bitter about people who use the stuff I need to be able to get on with my daily life as a quick and easy “high,” ultimately making it harder to access needed medication. (But that is argument from emotion, mostly; I would posit that the real problem is a medical field and larger culture which does not take seriously the needs and concerns of chronic pain patients and is eager to punish people who step outside accepted boundaries.)

But even if he was just out for a high, I still feel unease when I see people use that angle to criticize him.

Because, here’s the thing… the same narrative that you are using to condemn this despicable figure is the narrative that is used to condemn me.

You are feeding, growing, reinforcing the same narrative that codes me as an abuser, that makes me out to be a good-for-nothing low-life, that makes it difficult for me to access the medication I need to be able to live my normal daily life.

When you laugh, joke, or rant about Limbaugh’s abuse of narcotics, you are lifting a page from the book of people who would call me a malingerer and interpret my behavior (frustration at barriers to access, agitation and self-advocacy to try to gain access) as signs of addiction. People who would, in the same breath, chastise me for “making it harder for the real sufferers.” (See why my bitterness about recreational use isn’t actually serving the right purpose, in the end?)

Maybe you don’t really think this way. But maybe the people laughing at your joke do.

And maybe, you just made them feel a little bit safer in their scaremongering about “addiction” and deliberate attempts to make life harder for us.

Scoffing at Limbaugh’s hypocrisy is one thing — but when your scoffing takes the form of a very common, quite harmful cultural prejudice — even when you don’t mean it to — it has real effects on real people’s lives. Sort of like that casual incitement that we hate Limbaugh for.

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

Guest Post: Sex and Scoliosis

This is a Guest Post by Atlasien. It was originally published here.

I’m a multiracial Asian-American woman, Southerner, third-culture kid and mommyblogger. I’ve been living in the Atlanta area for more than a decade now. I mainly blog about race and foster care adoption. My husband and I have a 7-year-old son that we adopted as an older child. I enjoy this blog, and I’ve learned a lot of important stuff about disability issues by reading here.

What does scoliosis have to do with sex?

There are a lot of connections. I guess I’ll need to start by explaining scoliosis. It’s a common disorder, but one that is often very misunderstood by the general public, as well as many non-orthopedic doctors. Most people vaguely remember a scoliosis check from their school days. Sometimes the kids are lined up in a row, and told to take off their shirts and bend over while a medical professional inspects them from the back. The experience is obviously rather humiliating and tends to cause a lot of nervous laughter.

Scoliosis — a sideways, left-right asymmetry of the spine — is the most common form of spinal deformity. It can also be accompanied by other forms of spinal deformity, like kyphosis (AKA hunchback) and extreme lordosis (AKA swayback). It sometimes comes as a package deal along with disorders of connective tissue, or with cerebral palsy and spinal bifida. In those cases, scoliosis is often diagnosed at a very early age.

The other kind of scoliosis, the much more common kind, seems to come out of nowhere. It’s known as adolescent idiopathic scoliosis or AIS. “Idiopathic” is from the same Greek root as “idiot” and basically means “we have no idea what causes it.” Though recent research has shown that it’s actually genetic, and they’ve even tracked down the genetic location (but only if you’re white, which is bizarre, because there isn’t any significant racial/ethnic difference in prevalence rate). Someone with this kind of scoliosis (usually a girl, as the incidence of more serious curves among women is 7-10 times that of men) is born with a normal-looking spine. Before puberty, the spine begins to bend and curve. Maybe it stays there… maybe it gets worse through puberty. Then maybe it stays there, or maybe it gets a lot worse close to menopause. Without major surgery, it’s essentially a one way road. In scoliosis vocabulary, when curves get worse, it’s called “progression”. “Progression” is bad. Arresting progression is good.

According to this NIH resource, “Of every 1,000 children, 3 to 5 develop spinal curves that are considered large enough to need treatment.” If you adjust for sex, the rate climbs up to almost 1% of all girls. I don’t know of any source that says actually how many girls receive treatment of which types. Treatment means to watch, take lots of x-rays, determine progression, and if it looks like progression is, well, progressing, to brace. Or in very serious cases, go directly to spinal fusion.

A pre-teen girl, front and back view, with her face obscured.  She has a metal brace that has one rod running up the front to a metal collar, and two rods in the back.  There is a fiberglass girdle across the abdomen and down to the hips.  There is a strap hooking to both sides of the metal rod in the front.  Descriptive text provided by Don.

That’s the “Milwaukee” variant of brace. It’s the kind I had. It’s made from hard plastic and steel. It’s expensive, ugly, frightening, and extremely uncomfortable. The family nickname for my brace was “The Iron Maiden”. You can climb into it and strap it on and off, and adjustments of the screws will accommodate changing body shape during puberty. I think you’re supposed to wear it until a few years past puberty, when your spine growth finally halts. The brace is an old form of treatment and it’s shown to be moderately effective at arresting progression.

Three images of the back of a young woman.  In each, there is an obvious curvature of her spine.  It's an S-style curve.  The middle portion of her back, around the shoulder blades, is off-set to the right, while the shoulders and hips line up relatively evenly.  Descriptive text by Don.

Many girls experience horror and anger when they find out what bracing is going to mean for their lives, and that it won’t even fix them, it will just probably keep them from getting any worse.

It was easier for me to accept my fate. First of all, my mother also has idiopathic scoliosis, and her curve was fairly serious. Hers is comparable to the woman pictured above. She had not been treated as a girl, and her scoliosis had slowly progressed as she went into middle age. She eventually had a spinal fusion — two long steel rods screwed into her spine — and was in the hospital for two weeks. So I had a strong motivation to make sure my curve didn’t progress as far as my mother’s. She was also a positive role model for me. I saw her as an active, glamorous woman who refused to be limited by scoliosis. I tried to adopt the same stoic attitude toward my own scoliosis. Second of all, my orthopedist said it was OK to only wear my brace 12 hours a day, which meant I slept in it, but I didn’t have to wear it to school. I think he may have subscribed to the philosophy that although the brace should really be worn 23 hours a day, there’s so much social stigma attached to it that many girls rebel, and won’t wear it at all, whereas a private bracing regimen has more likelihood of consistent follow-through.

I don’t know if it would have made school any worse. I’ve written before about the extensive racist abuse, and sexualized racist abuse, I got in late elementary and middle school.

I was harassed so much in the locker room my first year of middle school that I refused to change my clothes at all. P.E. was a living nightmare full of verbal attacks and physical threats from larger girls. I spent much of my time desperately thinking of ways I could get a medical excuse. Unfortunately, aside from my scoliosis, I was healthy as a horse. I refused to participate in activities anyway, and sat with the asthma-sidelined section. I’m still bitter about this experience because it taught me to associate healthy athleticism with emotional trauma and racist bullying. Maybe if I’d had my brace on, I could have gotten my coveted medical excuse.

It was something I never, ever thought of at the time, though. The orthopedist’s word was the word of law. And the brace was something to be hidden. I think this is a common tendency among brace-wearers. Girls that age don’t want to be seen in a brace. For photos, they’ll take off the brace. If they’re told to wear it to school, they’re mocked and stared at. At the time, I considered myself very lucky that I was able to hide my brace from other kids my age.

I don’t know much about disability theory and disablism, but I’ve been reading through blogs about it, and it’s very interesting in relation to scoliosis. I don’t identify as a disabled person/person with disabilities, and I don’t think many other people with idiopathic scoliosis do. But many of us have also gone through an intensely emotional adolescent period where we’re viewed as disabled.

One of the hallmarks of disablism is that it strips away sexuality. The prejudice against disabled people includes thinking they are not supposed to exist sexually, have sexual desire or be desired.

Being braced means going through puberty strapped and screwed in to a weird exoskeleton that incarnates the negation and emprisonment of your sexuality. Your breasts and hips are starting to grow. They might start to bump painfully against the brace. So you have to visit the doctor — often an older man — who adjusts your screws to accommodate your new growth.

The brace seems anti-sexual, but it also has positive sexual connotations. The light at the end of the dark tunnel is that the brace will “keep you normal”. You’ll get through puberty and enter into sexually desirable womanhood without too much spinal deformity… the brace will preserve you. The brace probably becomes the most significant physical object in your life, for good and for evil.

I certainly didn’t receive any counseling about my scoliosis. I don’t know if it’s common today to have counseling as part of the bracing process. If it’s not, it should be. Girls who have gone through bracing feel like it’s them, alone, against the world. Although it’s quite a common experience, by medical and social tradition, the disorder is isolated and hidden.

This study showed that bracing doesn’t affect self-image much. However, it also takes places in Sweden, where school environment I’m sure is quite different than in the U.S. This other U.S. study tells a somewhat different story: “Scoliosis was an independent risk factor for suicidal thought, worry and concern over body development, and peer interactions after adjustment. CONCLUSION: Scoliosis is a significant risk factor for psychosocial issues and health-compromising behavior. Gender differences exist in male and female adolescents with scoliosis.”

After bracing, scoliosis, and deformities of the spine in general, become almost invisible. It’s extremely rare to have a spinal deformity so pronounced that anyone can tell by looking at you when you have clothes on. People with idiopathic scoliosis “pass”. People have known me for years, even decades, without knowing I had scoliosis. Then one day they’ll see me in a bathing suit — and not even the first time they saw me in a bathing suit, but maybe the first time they really focused on my back — and they’ll burst out with something like, “OH MY GOD DID YOU KNOW SOMETHING IS REALLY WRONG WITH YOUR SPINE!!

Once it stops being invisible, it’s all of a sudden very, very visible. I guess it’s sort of like shaking hands with someone and suddenly realizing they have six fingers.

If I’m not experiencing any back pain, I rarely think about my scoliosis, although I sometimes worry about my future. Pregnancy is not a risk factor for progression, but menopause is. Right now, my thoracic curve is 36 degrees. If it gets past 40, I might need spinal fusion surgery. This is a mostly safe procedure, but it’s still really scary, and involves weeks in the hospital. Click on the following link if you’ve seen enough David Cronenberg movies that you think you can handle it (link to nightmarish spinal fusion surgery image). Spinal fusion partially reverses the curve, arrests or slows down further progression and relieves chronic pain. You’re still reasonably flexible afterwards, but there are potential complications, and I’m not considering surgery at this stage. If I refused surgery, and my curve happened to progress further, I would start to have more pain and diminished lung capacity. Past 60 degrees, I might start to experience severe and constant pain in my back and/or ribs, and my internal organs would get squeezed together and I might start to have breathing problems. Past 80 degrees I might have lung AND heart problems.

But I don’t stay up night worrying about the risks of progression. Many people have more uncertainty about their medical future than I do. For example, if I had diabetes, I might worry about having a foot amputation.

Since I grew up with scoliosis, it’s taken me a while to understand how it looks from the outside. Aesthetically speaking: not good. We’re conditioned to associate left-right symmetry with health and general well-being. People with moderate scoliosis, like me, often look symmetrical from the front, but asymmetrical from the back, and I suppose that seems eerie and perhaps even deceptive and sneaky. There’s a lot of really negative associations in popular culture (e.g. Hunchback of Notre Dame). When mean-spirited people do “retard” imitations they’ll often hunch up one shoulder and stagger in order to simulate a deformed spine.

I don’t talk about scoliosis casually because a) I don’t have any major health problems because of it, so there’s not that much to talk about b) I’m afraid of it being used against me. I’ll put it on medical history forms when I know I can be assured of privacy. It was used against me recently when I applied for private disability insurance. I thought it would be a good idea to have a separate private policy in case I lost my job for any reason. I did a ton of research, spent a lot of time talking with the salesman, and ended up with a quote that specifically excluded anything going wrong with my reproductive system AND my back. I changed my mind and decided it wasn’t worth buying since so much of my body was apparently un-insurable. They excluded my ENTIRE BACK. Hypothetically speaking, if I got in a minor car accident, and as a result developed the exact same kind of back problems that anyone without scoliosis would develop, nothing would be covered. What a terrible deal. No thanks!

The health implications of my scoliosis are not that extreme, and I don’t need any accommodations to perform any major life activities, which is why I don’t consider myself disabled.

– I have foot pain in my arch if I don’t wear comfortable shoes. I can wear platforms, but I can’t wear high heels.
– I have to be a bit careful doing things like yoga and pilates.
– I have to stay reasonably active in order to be 100% pain-free. When I get too sedentary, I start having back pain and rib pain. If I ever had an illness that forced me to rest all the time, I’d be in big trouble. Exercise and stretching are highly effective for scoliosis back pain. Other options I would consider to control pain if it ever got worse include drugs, physical therapy and adult braces. There are a gazillion alternative health “cures” for scoliosis back pain suffering, but they strike me as being of very dubious efficacy.
– I have to watch my posture
– I have to watch my weight. Excess weight leads to back pain. Being underweight might be even worse, because being underweight is connected to bone density loss, and people with scoliosis have lower than average bone density anyway.

None of these problems are really unique to scoliosis. Plenty of able-bodied and disabled people have back pain or foot pain.

This link from Eurospine.org sums it up: “Progression of scoliosis can involve an aesthetic problem and lead to functional problems. Respiratory disorders may develop in large curves greater than 80 [degrees]. Nonetheless, the mortality rates and vital prognosis in individuals with scoliosis are comparable to those of the general population.”

It’s the “aesthetic problem” of scoliosis that’s unique. Like I mentioned before, left-right symmetry is wound up with definitions of health and beauty across many different cultures. People like me are aware of this on a subconscious or barely conscious level. 99.99% of the time I forget that I don’t fit that symmetrical standard. Every so often I’m reminded, and it feels a bit painful. There are subtle psychological effects. Vague feelings of being a secret curved impostor in a straight-backed world. Times when I feel like my spine is an enemy working against me… times when it hurts to breathe and the pain makes me feel angry at my spreading rib bones, and I wish I could reach inside of myself and squeeze them back into place. Sometimes I’m bitter about the inches of height I lost to scoliosis.

Back to sex. Even without bracing, there’s still a sexual paradox when it comes to scoliosis. Have you ever seen a picture of a woman with scoliosis and/or kyphosis that was not anonymous, depersonalized, clinical, grim and depressing? Like the photos I included above? Scoliosis is profoundly unsexy.

On the other hand, when women pose provocatively, they often throw one hip to the side and put one shoulder forward.Why is that pose sexy? Maybe it makes us look femininely defenseless and vulnerable, as opposed to a masculine, stick straight pose. That’s going along with a typical sexist definition of “femininity”. There’s another less sexist possibility… the pose is also highlighting the flexibility of the spine. So in that sense, the woman is showing off her body’s capacity by bending in a certain way.

There’s a comic book artist, Rob Liefeld, who was (in)famous starting in the 1980s for drawing unrealistic women. The conventions of drawing women are in comics are easy to criticize, but Liefeld’s stuff is… well…I guess you’d have to see the spinal curvature to believe it.

Iconic Rob Leifeld drawing of a super heroine.  She's posing facing right, turning her head over her shoulder.  She has an impossibly-narrow abdomen, and spine curvature similar to severe lordosis, an inner curve of the spine.  She is not wearing very much clothing.  Description by Don.

That’s supposed to be sexy. For the audience of predominantly young men who made Liefeld very popular, it must have been sexy. This is a funny analysis of the above drawing by a group of women comic book artists:

Take note of Avengelyne’s waist and how it is thinner than her head. Minus the hair. Note how it hangs beneath her ribcage like a suspension bridge, rather than actually supporting the top of her body. (Her torso must be kept afloat by those helium breasts.) Note the scoliosis gone grossly untreated. Note the little leather bags which wouldn’t fit around a normal person’s wrist. Especially note that the artist put her in the most obvious POSE to exaggerate the spine: a profile shot with negative space between her back and arm. That’s correct – our intrepid heroine’s spine would appear yanked. Avengelyne is a SWAYback™.

The humor is partly at my expense. But I can’t help laughing. It’s a highly sexualized image, but not one that I identify with in any way.

But here’s a poster image I ran across that uses stupid sexist humor to make fun of a real woman, and I don’t find it funny at all.

A woman is facing straight on the camera, with her weight obviously all on one side.  She's curved her body to look like an S.  Text reads: Scoliosis: Making an otherwise beautiful girl look pitiful.  Image is from Motivated Photos.com, description by Anna

It really illuminates the double standard that women are subjected to. You’re supposed to be sexy so that you please men. But if it looks like you’re trying TOO hard, men (and other women) will make fun of you. If you don’t wear makeup, you’re a [insert homophobic slur]. Wear too much makeup, you’re a [insert transgender-phobic slur]. Curve your back, look sexy. Curve it too much, it looks like you’re deformed. Argh!

Thanks to my brief readings of disability theory, I realize that making fun of people with spinal deformities isn’t something I should just accept as the natural order of things, especially because this humor is connected to moral judgments of disability. That is, the idea that physical body difference reflects some kind of moral failing. When it comes to scoliosis, I think the general public halfway believes that scoliosis is the fault of the person’s family. There’s a myth that giving young kids backpacks that are too heavy will make their spines curve (totally not true). When people are adults, “she should have had that corrected” is sometimes an assumption. A lot of people don’t realize that the only sure way to even partly reverse a curve is spinal fusion, which also leaves a giant seam-scar running up your back. Another judgment is that a person with scoliosis must be poor. It’s true that I’m very lucky I had access to bracing; if I wasn’t born into a middle-class family in a rich country, my curve would be a lot worse by now. So there are major class differences in scoliosis, but ultimately, we’re all in different positions on the same boat because there is no way to permanently and completely reverse adult scoliosis.

Thanks to flickr, I did actually find some images of scoliosis that I think are beautiful and help affirm positive self-image and sexuality. I wish I’d found a greater variety of body types, but these images are great to start off with. Some are post spinal fusion.

First, here’s the typical clinical picture. It shows everything that’s wrong with the body.

A woman is facing away from the camera, with arrows pointing to various parts of body to describe them.  Head not centered over body.  One shoulder (right) higher.  One shoulder blade (right) higher and possibly more prominent.  Spine obviously curved (to the left).  One hip (left) more prominent.  Unequal gaps between the (left) arm and the trunk.  Description by Anna

Now here are the flickr pictures. They show the open possibility and vitality of a body with scoliosis.

Man with scoliosis facing away from the camera.  Someone has drawn his spine on his back with make up.
black and white photo of a woman facing away from the camera, wearing only a towel or blanket.  Her spine is curved, and her scars are visible.

man facing away from camera.  The photo is in a mirror.  One can see both his scoliosis scars from surgery and his elaborate arm tattoo.

woman facing away from the camera.  She is caught in the middle of dropping an apple behind her back, both arms curved behind her.

woman facing away from the camera.  The image is otherwise in black and white, except for her vivid red hair and lips.  She is wearing a black dress with part of the back cut out.  It clearly shows the curve of her spine.

photo is in black and white of a woman's lower torso, with a pronounced rib-cage and a pierced belly button

woman facing straight on the camera.  She is wearing both a brace, as described above, and a purple corset.

woman facing left from camera, with back facing camera.  She's wearing an back brace, and balancing on a small ball.

It’s heartening to see a bunch of pictures like that. There are more photos at this link.

When I walk, my right hip swivels a bit higher and wider than my left hip. I’ve had people tell me it looks sexy. I’ve had people ask if I’ve hurt my foot. Neither reaction bothers me anymore. The way I walk is just the way I walk. It gets me where I need to go.

Acknowledgements for this post: thanks to Thorn for commenting about this issue, and mentioning how it negatively affected your adoption homestudy due to ignorance on the part of the social worker. Also thanks to Deesha Philyaw on Twitter for mentioning the Judy Blume book about a girl who goes through bracing: Deenie. I wish I’d gotten a chance to read that book when I was a girl, and it sounds really interesting.