Extending Disability representation: Removing sexism, ableism and white supremacy from our own representation

I often write about identity. My identity, specifically. How so much of my identity is wrapped up in body image and appearance. My mind and emotions wrestle on a daily basis, determined to erase one another.

Only a handful of people know my inner turmoil. Rarely do I speak about the dysfunction whipping about inside me. Even after my essay “Imperfection” published in 2020, I still don’t want to have in-person conversations on the topic.

During a recent disability conference I attended, the discussion focused on disability representation, and how the media portrays disability. Someone mentioned a campaign involving several blind and low vision people, and non-disabled people asked them to wear sunglasses. Production thought the appearance of some of the blind people would be disconcerting.

My instinct is to Hulk-out when I hear stories like this. It’s ableist, and enforces the idea that beauty and attractiveness must conform to some societal standard. This standard rarely includes disabled bodies.

One problem: For me, I agree.

My internalized ableism and sexism insists I must fit the narrow mold of beauty. My eye anomaly is just a deformity. I’m not curvy, I’m a fucking fat-ass. My boobs are not a badge of motherhood but melting balls of flesh.

And why wouldn’t I think this?

In the last 20 years, there’s been a slight shift to embrace different bodies. Heroin-chic models of the 90s went out of fad, mostly, and “athletic” bodies became a trend. Even plus-size models can be found on magazine covers.

But let’s be real. Plus-size in the fashion world is a dress size six to eight, seriously. I. Would. Kill. To be a size six right now. And when fuller figures are embraced, they still fit a rigid definition of beauty.

Also, the fact that we label bodies over a dress size eight as plus-size is a bit offensive in-and-of-itself. Bodies are bodies, sizes are sizes. Removing plus-size from our lexicon would help create a more body-positive culture.

Nope, I will not find bodies with stretch marks tracking down towards a persistent Cesarean bump. And sagging, squishy breasts, equally lined with stretch marks.

Mostly, I will not find bodies with sunken, hollow eyes that looked closed more often than not.

My blindness was caused by a viral infection and pneumonia that impacted my T1 diabetes and triggered retinopathy. In the 18 years I’ve been blind, my eyes have slowly atrophied. In the last five years, my appearance has changed significantly.

As someone who used to constantly be complimented on her eyes, I’ve become incredibly self-conscious about the appearance of my eyes. Blindness has never bothered me, but the stark change it’s caused in my appearance, yes, this triggers every internalized, fucked-up idea I have about image and appearance.

What doesn’t help is that on the rare occasion when disability is portrayed, we are usually presented with a traditionally attractive person that’s not “disconcerting” to non-disabled people. Not to mention cis gender, likely white and representing all BS societal norms en trend.

So, definitely not bodies marked by disability. Or bodies not representing a narrow narrative based on patriarchal and white supremacy notions.

Before my appearance was a shock to people, and before my body changed after two kids, when I was still thin, attractive and had “normal” eyes, I was frequently asked to represent disability. I participated in media campaigns. I was interviewed by local news outlets regularly. My body and disability were capitalized on. When strangers encounter you on the street and recognize you, you’ve been in the media quite a bit.

This has changed. With the morphing of my appearance, I’m no longer asked to be a visible presence. God forbid people see an accurate representation of disability, along with a woman who is a mom and 40.

Assimilating into some perceived ideal of normal, predicated upon ableist, sexist, racist, ageist ideals helps no one. It fosters discriminatory practices and excludes a wide range of bodies. We invest in the wrong things. Particularly in America, we only see worth in bodies that can work 60 hours a week and spend an hour on the treadmill. Our attitudes, our comments, our policies stamp these price tags on bodies, devaluing and marginalizing people.

We need to embrace all bodies. We need to push for a more body inclusive society, but it needs to go deeper than it currently does. Disability representation needs to extend and include the full disability experience. We need to normalize bodies that do not fit current standards. Otherwise, the subliminal message is that our only worth is in how pretty we are and how non-disabled we appear.

By Imperfection

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska but recently relocated to Urbandale, IA. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Hippocampus, Emerging Nebraska Writers and Random Sample Review. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her essay “The Body” was a McKenna Fellowship finalist, and her essay “Imperfection” was a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee. She is blind and writes frequently about disability. She’s working on a memoir about the disabled feminine experience. With the kids though, expect it in stores in about a decade.

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