It Starts in the Mirror: What I Learned about Seeing My Own Beauty from Two State Pageant Winners and a Comedian

Ariella Barker, Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina 2014, is beautiful. I don’t mean beautiful for woman in a wheelchair, or beautiful for one in my social circles, I mean beautiful, full stop. I mean beautiful enough that she remained a topic of comment by my able-bodied friend long after we met her, at a bus stop, while standing in the rain, with his admittedly attractive girlfriend, in 2008. Am I painting a picture? Not surprisingly, people notice this. Yet, as she chronicles in an intriguing blog posted yesterday by the Ruderman Family Foundation, people whom she encounters on the street find the concept of a beautiful woman in a wheelchair so confusing that they ask her if anyone ever told her of her beauty before. Clearly, the idea is so foreign, so alien, that they’re convinced that they have encountered a major discovery, a mystery of which even Ms. Barker must be unaware, and which must certainly have escaped the rest of the world. After explaining this, she writes:

Society needs to see the truth about disability. And, that is: We are beautiful. We are intelligent and educated. We are successful. We are sarcastic and funny. We are fashionistas. We are sexual and desirable. We are not a burden. We are an asset. We may use a wheelchair or have differently shaped bodies, but we are no different than the able-bodied.

She is absolutely right, and  I wrote on a related topic a few weeks ago, but I think that changing perception requires changing multiple narratives.

A few weeks ago, I encountered another blog post, this one from Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2014, Stephanie Woodward, whom I have never met, but who also appears quite striking from publicly available photographs. Ms. Woodward writes of the experience of growing up as a woman in a wheelchair:

So by the time you’re 12 and you’re reading Seventeen magazine where you’re learning that you need to start straightening your hair or no boy will ever find you attractive and you need to stay skinny if you ever want to be loved, you’re also hearing from every well-intentioned stranger that you’re broken and you need to be healed. There is something wrong with you and you need to be fixed. But you know you won’t ever be “fixed.” You’re walking like this (and eventually rolling like this) for life. You were okay with your life until the world started telling you that on top of being a completely imperfect tween like every other girl, you’re also broken - thus making you completely undesirable. …

This is what you grow up with. This is what you hear every day. This is why you pray that someday maybe someone will find you attractive. This is why you hope so f****** hard that someone will love you someday. And this is why when someone finally does show interest, you stay. You stay even though they beat the hell out of you. Because they said they love you when the rest of the world told you that you weren’t worthy of love. You stay even though they force you to do things sexually that you don’t want to do. Because, hell, at least they think of you in a sexual way. You stay when they threaten to kill you. Because you know you’re a burden and that being with a disabled woman is probably very stressful.

This young woman, literally a beauty queen, was so socialized to find herself unattractive that, for a time, she not only accepted horrible treatment, but had sympathy for her abuser, who was willing to put up with the “stress” of being with a woman with a disability. Ms. Woodward’s post reminds us both of the incredibly destructive expectations that society puts on women, and the particularly destructive self-image visited upon people with disabilities.

Given that feeling attractive is often considered necessary to present as attractive, it’s hard to envision addressing the problem identified by Ms. Barker without finding a solution to the one identified by Ms. Woodward.

I find the most hope for dealing with this problem in the words of British comedian Francesca Martinez. In a Guardian piece excerpting her book, What The **** Is Normal? by Francesca Martinez, Ms. Martinez recounts a romantic interaction with a fellow student in a comedy class, at a bar after one of her first class performances. Excerpted here, the dialogue begins with the man saying:

"I love the way your body shakes onstage. It's electric."

"Well, I hate the way it does that! It happens when I'm nervous."

"You shouldn't hate it. It's you and it's beautiful and different and musical."

"But people think I'm different."

"The only opinion of you that matters is yours."

This hit me hard. For the first time, I hated myself for hating myself.

He spoke once more. "You are Francesca. Full stop."

When I read this, I could empathize. Though Ms. Woodward’s piece points to the widespread nature of these damaging self perceptions, I have an easier time identifying with this comedian then with the two other writers, because, my generally symmetrical features and dark coloring notwithstanding, I have no doubt that I lack the looks to win a beauty competition. Like Ms. Martinez, however, I have been in relationships with people who assure me that my somewhat twisted and often shaking body is beautiful to them. And, like Ms. Martinez, I “hated myself for hating myself.” Or, if not hating myself, at least being certain that they were delusional in their opinions.

So what do I take from this? From Ms. Barker, we get a stark outline of a problem. From Ms. Woodward, we learn that it is a reciprocal problem, socialized deep in, even for the most attractive among us. And from Ms. Martinez, we find the first step in moving forward. Implied in her story is that she had to come to recognize her own beauty, and stop hating her body and its unique expressions, in order to accept that someone else might. It is hard to be desired until you can accept yourself as desirable.

I don’t know how this is achieved. I know that the Internet is filled with posts like this, trying to send positive body messages to young women. I don’t know if they work, and I certainly haven’t seen equivalent resources for men and women with disabilities, but it bears thought.

More basically though, I implore people to change their messages.

Ms. Barker and Ms. Woodward have literally won awards for their beauty, and yet, to read their posts, most often they receive backhanded complements at best. As a man, and one lacking negative features to which the able-bodied world reacts, I often hear very little about my appearance. despite this, even I also start from a basically negative self-image, physically speaking. I can’t really imagine the messages delivered a teenage woman with a disability that makes her look visibly different than our societal standard. I can imagine they must be pretty bad.

But Ms. Martinez’s experience, and my own, show how much difference a heartfelt positive assessment can give. In fact, I am willing to bet that, in our image conscious society, everyone, disabled or no, benefits from an unqualified acknowledgment of their beauty.

So I have a crazy idea. Why don’t we complement people more? Work on your delivery, to avoid coming off like a creepy objectifying stalker. Make sure that you have a relationship where it is appropriate. (It is probably not appropriate to comment on the features of professional colleagues or strangers.) But, beyond that, try telling people.

The Internet can tell me to love myself, and my mother will always tell me that I’m a handsome man, but as Ms. Martinez tells us, there is no real substitute for the experience of an attractive peer delivering us the message, unqualified and simple, “you are beautiful.”

Hear it enough, and you might start to believe it. Believe it, and you might start to act like it. And when you act like it, others will notice. Only then can we begin to solve the larger question of societal perception, one person at a time.

Like Ms. Barker’s message? You can donate to her trip to the national pageant by clicking here.