Feeling attractive when you have a disability can be a challenge, explains activist Annie Elainey, especially when you use mobility aids.
Her first was a cane. While it was an adjustment, she felt she had some positive representation to look to. After all, there are plenty of characters with canes in media who are seen as attractive, like Dr. House from “House” — and canes are often depicted in a fashionable, dapper way.
“I felt okay. I felt, honestly, like it gave me a little ‘oomph’,” she recalls with a laugh.
But when Annie began using a wheelchair, it was even more of a struggle to feel fashionable or attractive.
On an emotional level, for people with progressive conditions, the loss of certain abilities can lead to a period of mourning. Annie says it’s about mourning something that was very precious to you. “Our abilities tend to be very precious to us — even if we take them for granted,” she says.
A new way of seeing things
Initially, Annie was worried about how she looked in her new wheelchair. And she wasn’t prepared for the height change, which was a shock. Standing, she measured 5 feet 8 inches — but seated, she was an entire foot shorter.
As someone who was accustomed to being tall, it felt strange to be constantly looking up at others. And often in public spaces, people looked over and around her, rather than at her.
It was clear to Annie that how she viewed herself differed greatly from how others saw her. While she saw herself as a strong human being who was going out into the world, many just saw her wheelchair.
“There were people who wouldn’t look at me. They would look at the person who was pushing me, but they wouldn’t look at me. And my self-esteem took a really hard hit.”
Annie experienced body dysmorphic disorder and began to have negative thoughts like: “Wow, I thought I was ugly before. It’s really game over now. No one’s ever going to love me now.”
She didn’t feel “cute” or desirable, but was determined not to let it take over her life.
A renewed sense of self
Annie began searching online and discovered a community of other disabled people sharing photos of themselves with hashtags like #spoonies, #hospitalglam, #cripplepunk, or #cpunk (for people who didn’t want to use the slur).
The photos, she says, were about reclaiming the word “cripple,” about people with disabilities who were proud to be disabled and were expressing themselves with dignity. It was empowering and helped Annie find her voice and her identity again, so she could see herself beyond just how others saw her chair.
“I was like: Wow, man, disabled people are beautiful as heck. And if they can do it, I can do it. Go girl, go! Put on some of those clothes you used to wear pre-disability!”
Annie says that in some ways, disability and chronic illness can be a good filter. If someone only sees you for your disability and can’t see you for who you are — if they can’t see your personhood — then you probably don’t want anything to do with them to begin with.
Annie has begun to view her mobility aids as “accessories” — just like a purse or jacket or scarf — that also happen to improve her quality of life.
When Annie looks in the mirror now, she loves herself as she is. She hopes that with increasing visibility, others can begin to see themselves in the same light.
“I don’t feel attractive because people are attracted to me. I’m sure there are people who are attracted to me. In fact, I’m 100 percent sure that there are people attracted to me because I’ve not gone without proposals and pursuers…The important thing is that I found my identity again. That when I look in the mirror, I see myself. And I love myself.”
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She's currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.