This body is mine. These shoulders, bony, summer-browned, beauty-spotted. This hair, bright purple, growing too long into the nape of my neck. This tattoo on my upper arm. This leg, bundle of confused nerves, scar tissue and odd-shaped bone – mine.
Taking ownership of it isn’t always easy. For me there is a lingering shame in being abnormal. It’s not a reasonable shame (what shame is?) but it’s there nonetheless: there’s a part of my body that I find ugly, and I am ashamed of that ugliness. And not (only) because society has enforced ridiculous beauty standards upon us, but also because it looks…dysfunctional. We find health and vigour and good adaptation beautiful – young glowing bodies, taut calf muscles, or flowers blooming exactly as they were meant to to attract pollinators.
Sure, our standards are constantly shifting, but some preferences remain the same, and we prefer for our fellow earthlings to look able-bodied.
I’m not describing how things should be. I’m telling you how they are, in my experience of things: We look away when we see something we find ugly, or dysfunctional. We are embarrassed on behalf of the owner of this ‘dysfunction’. We suspect they must feel very bad about it and so we try not to make a big deal out of it, we pretend we didn’t see, we try not to look again.
We don’t ask questions but we feel very relieved when they bring it up themselves because we have been dying of curiosity – were they in a car accident? Were they born that way? Could we, perhaps, get a peek into their inner world and glimpse their pain as they tell the story, giving us that frisson of sympathy and ‘thank god it’s not me’ we are always craving?
I was born with a club foot. My foot got bent straight through exhaustive physical therapy by my mom (thanks mom) and I learned to walk normally, if with a limp. At the age of 14, my leg was stretched by 5,5 cm with a machine that looks like a Russian torturing device (it was, incidentally, invented by a Russian and calling the procedure torture would not be an exaggeration).
The long-lasting effects are that my right leg is scarred and skinny from the knee down, my ankle is misshapen and totally immobile, my foot is five sizes smaller than the other one, during my last surgery the surgeon managed to cut off my big toe tendons so I can’t lift my toe anymore, my foot and ankle ache constantly and are always swollen (to varying degrees), and I have scoliosis.
That might sound worse than it is. I can do almost all the things more able-bodied people can do.
I don’t tick the “disabled” box in questionnaires and I hesitate to call myself that. Does it count as disabled when you can’t keep up with your friends on an uphill climb? Or if you fall over if you try to stand on one leg? Or when your ankle aches violently after an hour of dancing (my favourite activity), so much so that you know that standing will be hard tomorrow? Most of the time, I’m not in much pain. I can walk for kilometres on end so long as there aren’t any steep climbs. I manage my back issues with yoga and insoles. I know, I really know, that it could have been so, so much worse. This little taste of differentness has made me immensely grateful for all the things my body can do. I am kind to myself, and thankful for my body.
But I flinch when I look at my right foot. Because most of the time, to me it’s ugly. And I know it is to others too, because their faces tell me so.
Here’s an incomplete list of what people say to me about my leg:
- “Oh! Well I’d never have noticed/you don’t notice it at all, don’t worry.” This feels like a patent lie. Complete strangers on the street have asked what happened to my leg – It’s noticeable. Also, that’s like telling a fat person “you’re not fat!”: you’re still agreeing with them that being fat is bad. Instead, when someone says they’re fat, we could say “well you know your body best, but I can tell you that you are also very beautiful/worthy/this does not detract from your value whatsoever”. In the same way, I’d like people to instead say to me: “O I noticed that, yes. It’s such an interesting part of who you are!” (And some do say this, to their credit; and every time it’s a relief. I feel incredibly awkward when people lie to me to ‘make me feel better’).
- “Oh shame, what happened?” The main people to ask this are uber drivers, waiters, shop assistants, and complete strangers. I’m stumped for a reaction every time. There are cultural differences in South Africa that make this especially hard – whilst most white cultures value privacy quite highly, I have oftentimes seen that in some POC cultures, caring is sometimes expressed in ways that I find personally invasive. And so I ask myself every time: Was this question asked out of concern? Often the person who asked is somebody who knows me a little bit – a cashier at my local shop, the waiter who served me twice. In that case I respond vaguely but kindly: “oh it’s just an old injury”. Other times I view this as an educational opportunity and respond with something like “We don’t know each other at all, so that’s actually an inappropriate question”. Of course, nine times out of ten, when I say that the other person responds with an exaggerated “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you!” Great. They strut off thinking I’m over-sensitive, and I am left feeling frustrated because I don’t get to just live without fending off prying questions.
(Here’s a tip for you: If you see someone you don’t know well and they look injured – scars, crutches, a cast even – don’t approach them and ask what happened. Even if the injury looks recent. Let them bring it up, and if they don’t, it’s because they’re tired of talking about what’s wrong with them.)
(Here’s another tip: Don’t use a person’s body as a conversation starter. That counts especially for things they have no control over (weight, injuries, disabilities, facial features). If you must comment on appearance, make it a compliment, and make it about something they had control over. For instance, it’s okay to say “Oh your tattoo is so beautiful!” but it’s not okay to say “Oh, what made you get that tattoo?” Just because something is visible does not put it in the public sphere. Also, “I love your haircut!” feels much less invasive than “Wow you have beautiful eyes” (only say the latter if you’re getting drunk together or if you’re close friends).)
- “Oh, I also have that! My one foot is almost a size smaller than the other, it makes shopping for shoes sooooo hard.” Alternatives to this one are when people launch into long tales about their rugby accident, their ingrown toenail, and the neck spasm they once had. Also, lists of their sister’s best friend’s injuries. I get this, I really do. We want to relate to people. And we want to tell our stories too. I know that this reaction is not malicious, but it is fucking exhausting because now the pressure is on me to be gracious (and it’s not fun to be gracious when a few decades of my pain are being erased for the sake of a “same!” story).
- “Don’t worry, you’re still beautiful”. I kinda appreciate this one because in my heart of hearts I really want to be beautiful, but I don’t think it’s a great response. It puts too much emphasis on beauty, and it effectively says “in spite of this thing about you that’s not beautiful, you are still nice to look at.” In effect it is a back-handed compliment. (As a child, my dad once said to me that I could have been a beauty pageant winner were it not for my leg. Guess which part stuck with me.)
- “Oh, I didn’t realise it was actually that serious.” (This usually after we go dancing/hiking/martial artsing. No, I really didn’t exaggerate.) Alternatives to this one are “You should see my physio, she’s amazing” and “But can’t they operate on your toe and fix it?” and “You know, at my church they do faith healings, you should come”.
- “Oh, you shouldn’t care what people think.” Well, I do care, and you do too, because we’re humans and that’s how humans work. Also, thanks, but I’m actually fine: I don’t care an inordinate amount, I’m not crying myself to sleep, I feel mostly beautiful and always worthy. But I was sharing a tender part of myself and you just lectured me about it.
I’ve said these things too. I’ve tried to make people feel better, or make myself feel less awkward, or inserted my own experiences inappropriately into a conversation. We do this, and it’s okay – we’re not being malicious. But remember that the person you’re talking to has had a lifetime of experiences. They know what they look like, what they can and can’t do, what makes them feel confident and where they feel exposed. They get to feel all of those things. They know their reality. Behind every sentence explaining their body lies a wearying amount of similar encounters. Give them this gift: Allow them the luxury of a day spent not having to explain themselves and making you feel at ease. Believe them when they say what they can and can’t do.
What we could say instead:
“Thank you for sharing your story”.
“I really like this about you, it makes me realise how brave and unique you are.”
“I can imagine that must have been difficult, and I respect your journey.”
“It’s true you don’t conform to normal beauty standards, but personally I’m not interested in mainstream ideals of beauty.”
“You can tell me any time if your body is struggling to do something, and I will support you/wait with you/take a break with you.”
“How would you like to be supported right now?”
Being different is hard. We all know that, we’re all different. Not being able to rely on your body to do the things you’d like to do is hard. Not being mainstream beautiful in a world that values beauty above almost all else is hard. Being in physical pain is hard.
And it’s also really okay. It’s part of being human. This is my body. It’s mine. Sometimes I inhabit it with grace and other times with hesitance, but I always inhabit it with love. I love my story. Please allow me to tell it my way, at my own pace; and when I tell it, recognise the honour I have just bestowed on you.