Feminism and the Social Model of Disability by Heather Downs

This piece was written for A Room of our Own:

Feminism’s rejection of unrealistic oppressive ideals of the female body fits well with the social model of disability, the idea that the social and physical environment rather than our impairments is what leaves us unable to do the things we want.  While our condition is the result of bad luck, our social and physical environment is subject to political choice and control.  Whether we have ramps or stairs, lifts or escalators are results of conscious choice and impacts on who are invited in or excluded.  Likewise, being female is not inherently a problem unless you live in a male dominated society in which case female biological sex necessarily entails policing of the adoption of feminine gender as a woman.

The performance of femininity is an oppressive ubiquitous reminder of the inferior status of women and girls – just look at examples like Julia Roberts’ unshaved armpits, remembered years after they were shockingly visible at a 1999 premiere; the ‘no make up’ selfie campaign in support of a cancer charity; every advert for menstruation products guaranteeing ‘discreet protection’.  All this and more comprise the everyday requirements for merely leaving the house in an acceptable condition.  What happens if it is actually physically impossible to perform the dozens of intricate rituals necessary to reach the required standard?   The fact that I had already rejected so much on political grounds has certainly eased the process of increasing physical inability.

Finding myself unable to get my arms above shoulder height for long enough to wash my hair myself or do anything more complicated than brush it; hold a bra long enough even to do it up the ‘wrong’ way before twisting the hooks to the back; solve the ‘embarrassment’ of cracked heels and rough skin with softening foot balm ‘for her’; put the butterfly backs on earrings and innumerable other examples of mundane trivia that go towards the construction and performance of femininity – all this was swept away in the inexorable progress of my disability.

So, in many ways, feminism jettisons by choice the same things physical impairment precludes whether you want them or not.  Feminism might be pro-choice, but multiple sclerosis isn’t.  So many of my associations with disability are connected with socially defined aspects of womanhood and while some are cheerfully discarded, others aren’t.  The numb hands from MS reduced my typing speed from 80wpm down to the slow peck of one finger, destroying a skill which has personal benefits despite its lamentable history of ghettoised low pay; that same numbness robbed me of the touch of my new-born daughter’s skin.  For a few years, a toddler in a pushchair was a useful walking aid though I could never manage the clips on the straps; when I needed wheels myself, my daughter was old enough to play on my electric scooter with her friends.

I enjoyed baking and decorating birthday cakes for my daughter when she was young; fortunately she had moved beyond that stage by the time I became unable to do it; but it is still frustrating to be excluded from so much trivia and handing over selection of wrapping paper and birthday cards to her father because the time and effort involved is so disproportionately high in relation to the importance of the thing itself.  And yet…the cumulative effect of all the unimportant trivia amounts to a significant proportion of my actual life.  It doesn’t matter which pair of knickers or socks my partner brings me.  Or t-shirt; it will be under a sweater.  Or black trousers or black leggings – not much difference, they’ve all got elasticated waistbands.  Each one of those little things is unimportant, but add them together and my partner has chosen everything I’m wearing – because it’s easier.

Just as I started writing this, I came across Sister Trinity on Veet – a standard feminist critique of the porn –influenced aesthetic of hairless women.  She contrasts bald, prepubescent Veet-treated shins with the legs of a mature woman and tells herself ‘they’re legs.  They’re for walking; they serve the purpose of transporting me from one place to the next’.  What if your legs don’t serve a purpose, don’t transport you, don’t support your own weight?  Are my hairy, crippled legs literally neither use nor ornament?   The contrast between the notion of the feminine body being for decorative purposes only and the masculine ideals of strength and action are both inappropriate for disabled women.  Disability isn’t solely concerned with accessible buildings – we must also recognise the lived reality of pain, fatigue, frustration.

And I haven’t even mentioned sexuality.  That’s another story.

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