Recently, I gave a talk on disability and femininity. Although I’ve dealt with the topic several times on my blog, I hadn’t done so for the Sojadis website and I feel that I can’t ignore this subject when women are still fighting for equality and basic rights that men have had for a long time.
Woman first, wheelchair second
I went to see the film Women at the cinema and I realised something important, even fundamental. I am first and foremost a woman, then I am a person in a wheelchair. And yet the situation is not the same everywhere. Even with all our strength, we have deep-rooted habits from centuries and millennia past, during which men found themselves in a better position than ours. And this disadvantage is in addition to the physical disadvantage — women are also often smaller and weaker, their strength does not lie in their muscles.
I don’t see this as being unequal in the negative sense of the word but rather a difference in design because, at the dawn of time, everyone had their role and it was normal that the males in charge of hunting were not the same size as the females in charge of the offspring. I’m simplifying it, but you get the idea. It’s the same for other animal species. Physique and abilities are directly related to our natural way of life.
We are not fundamentally unequal. It is more that inequality is what humans have done with these differences over time. Man has forgotten why he was inherently stronger than woman and he has put himself in a position of dominance in most situations because it was easy.
The demands of society
So today, despite perceiving our period of history as “modern”, every day there are women who fear for their lives just walking down the street. Just going to work. Just by dressing how they want. Yet we try to beat ourselves up, we want to project the perfect image, we want to prove that we are capable. And because we demand our full potential to be seen, society starts to demand everything from us.
In the past you had to be a loving daughter, then a devoted wife and a good mother. Now, we must also be efficient at work, funny but attractive, good in bed but respectable, well-groomed without being severe, hot but not easy. Not so difficult that we need too much attention, thin but not anorexic, to charm with our curves but have no fat or stretch marks. To exercise without sweating, have our periods without bleeding, to eat without leaving a trace round our mouths, and then repeat ad infinitum.
Now if we are being fair and honest, there is a great deal being asked of men too. But please forgive me if I focus on my subject here. Because I’m not a feminist as such. Equality is a subject close to my heart — between men and women as well as between people from different countries, different cultures, different physiques, in short — equality in the broadest sense of the word. So I’m not shocked by women being beaten by their husbands, I am shocked by anyone being beaten by the person with whom they share their home. I’m as disgusted by men who are misogynistic as I am by women who objectify men.
Softening your image so you have the courage to look at yourself
Anyway, getting back to the point… and to women. So, I am a woman. Social pressure has meant it took me a long time to own this word and I have to add to it the fact that I am in a wheelchair. And thus, I have to say, even weaker (when faced with someone who would like to hurt me physically — running them over not having much effect). And then, in terms of beauty, I don’t score highly either. Hello self-confidence, seduction potential and personal fulfilment both emotional and sexual. It’s not easy to befriend your new body during adolescence, imagine starting over again as an adult!
It takes a long time to learn to love yourself as you are. It takes even longer when you are different. And once you manage to say to yourself “Ok, I’m not so bad”, your journey is far from over because then you have to face the terrifying gaze of the other. First, from the unknown other. Then from the important other. And finally from the other you want to please.
At the end of my talk, a worried young girl — who had been in a wheelchair for just over a year — asked me how you can build a personal life as part of a couple when you are left with a disability after an accident. And the fact is that all women ask themselves this question at the beginning; how could a man want someone in this position?
Relationships with others involve your relationship with yourself
I’m not a shining example. I have my own history — both serious and casual. And what I’ve learned is that you choose the person you sleep with based on physical criteria but the person with whom you share your life, or even just a part of your life, goes beyond that. I’m not just my disability. Nobody can be summed up in one sentence. There are so many factors that make up each living being which is what makes our world so rich and a wheelchair is one of these that then leads to others, naturally. But how important is it compared to all the others? Character traits, the past, habits, qualities and faults, passions, dislikes, relationships, old hurts, charm and so much more.
I was touched by this young woman because in her I saw who I had been six years earlier and even more recently. Making the mistake of thinking of yourself as incapable of being feminine, desirable or unworthy of being loved simply because you are in a wheelchair rather than walking. But life will surprise us with so much more than that!