I’ve spent my life looking at the way society looks at people with disabilities, looking at the way people look at me. Born without my left hand, blending in was never really an option for me, so I embraced standing out. Ever since I was young, I’ve experimented with different styles, constantly changing up my hair, makeup, and clothes—emo, punk, preppy, you name it. I sometimes think I secretly relish being stared at.
Now, at age 23, I feel like I’ve grown into the woman I am. I have crafted my own distinct look—goth chic, as I like to call it. I always dress in all black, I have jet black hair, long eyelash extensions, usually a purple lip color, a black choker, high heels—and it’s all topped off with my new, shiny, jet black, state-of-the-art BeBioinic prosthetic that is a fashion statement in itself. I can use it to grab your attention—then I control the gaze. You might look at me because I have a robot arm, but I can keep you looking because of my style.
When I was a child, people would praise my appearance, but it was always despite my disability. “You’re still pretty,” they’d say. This is not a compliment.
I hated listening to adults ask my mother, “What happened?” Why couldn’t they just ask me? Why did they always sound so sorry? When I was old enough to answer for myself, I wanted to be brazen and say, “None of your business,” but most times, I forced a smile and said, “I was born this way.” That’s when I’d usually get, “You’re still pretty!” Who said I wasn’t?
When I was 16, I was fitted for a cosmetic arm. I was getting the prosthesis because my insurance was changing and it’d be the last opportunity for one. But I also think I secretly feared that one day I would want to look “normal.”
When we picked up my new arm, my dad was positively beaming. “You can wear it for your wedding photos,” he said. He kept smiling, patting my shoulder, tussling my hair. I know he was just trying to be supportive. I’m sure he thought that looking normal on my imaginary wedding day was important to me. But it hurt, and that pain fueled my desire to embrace my disability. I wouldn’t ever be attractive in the traditional sense and I wasn’t about to try to fit anyone’s ideal.
As I got older, the way I was viewed got even more complicated. Sex and attraction complicates everything, especially the gaze.
In college, I was seen as attractive. I felt like I was desired by “normal” people for the first time. I hung out with the cool girls. They told me, “I don’t see you as disabled!” Drunk frat guys had no problem asking what happened to me. Once, a classmate even asked to touch my arm. All of these uncomfortable encounters ended with some version of “you’re still pretty.” I felt ambivalent. On one hand, I felt accepted and the statement affirmed that I was considered attractive. On the other, I felt hurt that people saw my missing arm as a negative value against my attractiveness, something that needed to be accounted for.
I never called anyone out about these comments out of both shyness and confusion. I let a lot of people say stuff to me that made me uncomfortable. In addition to the “still pretty” comments I heard, “You’re so brave!” or “I respect you for going out!” I didn’t want to get congratulated for doing mundane things. I didn’t want people to be fascinated or inspired by the fact that I was out having a good time, partying, and being just as irresponsible as the able bodied students. But it took some time for me to identify my disdain for these platitudes.
It was when I saw Keah Brown’s hashtag #disabledandcute that something clicked for me.
The reality is disabled people are viewed a lot more, but we are rarely seen.
People stare. They see us, not as humans, but as curiosities. They ask what happened. Once they have their answer, that’s it. Even positive attention is still centered around us being disabled, not as multidimensional human beings whose achievements in one part of our lives may have nothing to do with challenges in others. That’s why this hashtag is so revolutionary. It wasn’t disabled BUT cute, it wasn’t cute BECAUSE disabled. It showed that we can be both disabled AND desirable. One has nothing to do with the other.The pictures I contributed to #disabledandcute are me, smiling ear to ear, and holding a wine glass with my prosthetic. I’m out having fun, just like anyone else.
The most important part of the hashtag is that we get to decide to participate. We pick the pictures. We pick the caption. We can decide how the world sees us. We get to reclaim the word “cute,” or “sexy,” or “beautiful” or however we choose to identify ourselves. We get to show that disability doesn’t make us unattractive—it is a part of us, but not the whole picture. Like me, my bionic arm doesn’t try to blend in. And with it, I feel more beautiful, comfortable, and sexy than ever.
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