Photo by aegishjalmur on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. Black and white image of a woman stretching her arms above her head, viewed from the back.

Missing Bodies: In “Love Your Body” Discourse, Where Are Disabled Women?

Love your body! Stop hating your body; start a revolution! These are just a few of the popular third wave slogans that are fairly well-entrenched as directives, or at least as aspirations, within feminist activism both online and off. There’s Love Your Body Day, sponsored annually by the National Organization for Women (NOW), Love Your Body weeks on various college campuses around North America, and thousands, if not millions, of web pages, graphics, and digital art pieces online that celebrate this theme and encourage women to do so every day. Many liberal feminists have proclaimed that body image –and a matching emphasis on loving your body–is “the” issue for the third wave, as this widely-anthologized essay by Amelia Richards explores.

At a basic level, LYB discourse can be a very positive thing, and it’s often a good stepping-stone for women who are new to feminist ideas. But it’s this very basic quality that can limit–and does –which kinds of bodies are acceptable to reclaim, have pride in, and even love. A cursory Google search for “love your body” brings up a plethora of images of white, visibly abled, young, cisgender, straight, and/or acceptably thin women encouraging other women to love their own bodies. From this cursory Google search,  I found one image–the NOW Foundation’s LYB  2009 contest-winning poster designed by Lisa Champ–that shows a variation on the woman clip-art symbol with a (visible) disability. This single image was more than I was expecting to find, but even with this limited representation, there are still problems in how LYB discourse is built for and around abledness–not least of which is its leaving out of disabled bodies. The complex relationships that many women with disabilities of all kinds have with their bodies are left out as well.

Take away my cane, and I might resemble what an average person might expect a “young feminist” to look like.

Many of us who have disabilities, chronic illness/pain, or mental health issues actively struggle to love our bodies for a whole host of reasons. Disabled bodies, unhealthy bodies, sick bodies; like other bodies that deviate from the “norm” (that is: white/abled/cis/thin) that feminism so often reinforces instead of dismantling, our bodies may be accepted by feminism, and other feminists, at a surface level, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of what loving non-normative bodies actually entails…well, feminism doesn’t know how to deal with that.

To use a personal example: I look like your “average” youngish white feminist. While I’m not thin, I’ve never had a stranger comment on the overall size of my body, my eating habits in public, or my clothing in the way that people so often comment on the bodies of fat women.  (When I do receive unsolicited advice, curiosity, or commentary from strangers, it is usually about one of three things: my pronounced limp, my cane, or the size of my breasts, although those are stories for another post.)

With the exception of my use of a cane, I have a body that is able to fit in reasonably well when I’m in public. Take away my cane, and I might resemble what an average person might expect a “young feminist” to look like.  Here, too, is where I  depart from all of the well-meaning messages in love your body campaigns. My average appearance and weight are the easiest things to accept about my body, but my disabilities? Less so.

My body itself is in constant pain, and is usually fatigued, thanks to fibromyalgia. I don’t like being in pain all the time; in fact, part of my medical treatment is dedicated to reducing this pain via the use of certain medications. On the other hand, being in pain has shaped my personality in a variety of ways. Having fibromyalgia is not “empowering” in the usual ways that LYB discourse demands of bodily acceptance for women.

Oftentimes, fibromyalgia is horrible. But having it has also made me a fiercer advocate for equal rights for people with all types of disabilities, access to proper pain management for people with chronic pain (many of whom suffer from pain on a daily basis), and related causes. I’ve also been experiencing mysterious and severe allergic reactions for over a decade; these do not happen every day, but when they do, they are usually debilitating.

What qualities are we supposed to love about our bodies, anyway? I am grateful that after an allergic reaction, my face reverts to its “normal,” non-puffy look after 12-24 hours, mostly because the swelling around my eyes often does not allow me to see very clearly (and is also uncomfortably itchy when it happens). I appreciate the fact that during a reaction, my body tries to get rid of whatever’s caused that reaction–but this doesn’t mean that I have to love sitting on the toilet for hours while my intestines empty, and as I become increasingly dehydrated.

LYB discourse instructs us to to love surface things about our bodies: skin, limbs, stomachs, thighs, hair, freckles. . .the list goes on. Or what “our” bodies can do: run, jump, hike, exercise, dance, appear strong; again, it’s a long list. Many bodies can do all of these things and more. But what happens to the bodies that cannot do these things?

Despite having to work around the fibromyalgia to do so, I am able to exercise, but if I decide to go on a two-hour hike on a whim in addition to my carefully planned exercise routine of daily yoga and walking my dog, that addition is going to land me in bed for a few days, and I’ll be in too much pain to move during that time. The call to love your body and celebrate your body, in those instances,  rings hollow to me. I can’t even get out of bed, and you want me to sing kumbayah in celebration of my body? Some days, I’m in terrible pain even though I didn’t do anything to exacerbate my existing pain levels. There are a lot of things that my body cannot do because it’s in near-constant pain, but I’ll be damned if feminism even comes close to acknowledging that, because it never does.

Loving your body at such a surface level is all well and good when you can run and jump and not be bedridden for days afterward, but try explaining what chronic pain feels like, day in and day out, to a healthy love your body-supporting feminist and see how fast she screws up her face, as if to say Why are you telling me this? Feminism has traditionally been terrible at validating women who have complicated relationships with their own bodies, and LYB discourse is merely a pretty pink symptom of feminism’s–and feminists’–inability to accept, or even barely tolerate, any experience of the body that can’t be spun into New Age-type rhetoric having to do with loving oneself against societal odds, or triumphing over the odds. Gender and disability oppression combine into a toxic goop here, and the resulting mix can start to resemble the second-wave anthem “I Am Woman” combined with Supercrip.

I can’t even get out of bed, and you want me to sing kumbayah in celebration of my body?

During allergic reactions, I hate my guts that keep me confined to bed or to the bathroom, my ballooning face that begins to horribly resemble the moon in A Trip to the Moon, my lungs that feel like they’ve magically shrunken to the size of quarters for no apparent reason. Very often I hate my fibromyalgia-ed muscle fasciae because they make me physically hurt. I hate the sensation of fatigue that makes me feel like I have a tremendously heavy coat on, in addition to the pain. The thing that many feminists do not understand is that these feelings aren’t caused by the media, by fashion magazines, by impossibly thin models and actresses, by advertising–no, not even by Big Pharma!

LYB grossly oversimplifies the problem of women’s self-hatred, reducing it to a sort of you just need to try harder pseudo-New Age self-improvement goal that pits “women” as a group–really middle-class, abled, youngish white women–against oppressive, sexist social and cultural norms, advertising, and so fourth. But it does not teach women to be accepting of sick bodies, disabled bodies, bodies that don’t work perfectly; much of it is merely another air-thin platitude to which to aspire in order to attain self-acceptance. LYB discourse has even been corporatized; look no further than recent Special K cereal ads so bravely proclaiming “NO FAT TALK,” and those insipid Dove soap campaigns that are supposedly so “body-positive” for proof. Such a corporate vision of “positive” body image only offers body acceptance and self-love as goals for a very specific type of body, as scholar Sarah Heiss convincingly argues in this article from Disability Studies Quarterly.

It’s not so outlandish to ask whose bodies are positioned as worthy of love, of self-acceptance, of peace in LYB discourse. If you already look like the young/white/cis/abled/average-sized woman for whom these messages are designed to appeal,  body acceptance is probably easier for you than it might be for someone who doesn’t fit into one or more of those categories. I am not trying to dismiss the body image struggles of women who do fit into those categories, often through no fault of their own–it’s just that, like a lot of things in mainstream liberal feminism, LYB messages are made to appear inclusive without actually doing that work in any substantial way.

In their insistence on uncritically parroting and supporting LYB discourse as it currently exists, some feminists inadvertently reinforce the idea that certain bodies are easier to love–and, conveniently, many of them already fit into what the mainstream designates as worthy of acceptance and love.

And when this appearance of inclusivity makes disabled, sick, and invisibly ill bodies not appear outright, well, after a while that’s how you end up with healthy, nondisabled feminists who just don’t understand why disability rights are a feminist issue, or who don’t get why women with pain, fatigue or other chronic health issues can’t just love their bodies instead of letting physical or mental problems and/or what the media says about disabled bodies (and the bodies of disabled women) affect them so much. Or they ask how disability pride could possibly exist since disability always creates “suffering,” as Sierra at RH Reality Check does in this article–because shouldn’t eliminating disability be a goal for a more feminist and pro-choice world? (You can probably guess my answer to that question.)

In their insistence on uncritically parroting and supporting LYB discourse as it currently exists, some feminists inadvertently reinforce the idea that certain bodies are easier to love–and, conveniently, many of them already fit into what the mainstream designates as worthy of acceptance and love. Those with complicated bodies, ill bodies, disabled bodies–and the attendant complex relationships with their own bodies–are often not so lucky.