I Feel Pretty…Oh, Wait, No, I Feel Disabled: People with Disabilities and Perceptions of “Pretty”

Hello, readers,

People love pretty things. Whether it’s trees bedecked in red and yellow leaves, gorgeous evening gowns, clever window displays, flowers in full bloom, or shiny, polished apples, we can’t help but be drawn to what is “pleasing to the eye,” as Eve tragically discovered. Of course, in this age of egalitarian thinking and political correctness, we’d all like to say we’re “above” noticing beauty first, or reacting when beauty isn’t there. This is especially true of our reactions to our fellow humans. We don’t want to admit that we notice when one person is, in our own humanly flawed estimations, prettier or more handsome than the next one. And most of us don’t say it. But we think it. And despite the attempts of others to tell and show us that everyone is beautiful, we often grow up with perceptions of what “beauty” is, and what does or doesn’t fit that definition.

We could spend the entire blog post talking about that–why the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, stick thin version of femininity has taken over Hollywood, why African-American women struggle with the idea that lighter skin is prettier than darker, why boys grow up believing they have to have six-pack abs to be attractive to girls, and so forth. But that side of this topic has been talked about a lot. Here’s the side of it I don’t think we talk about enough: the fact that, no matter what their skin color, hair color, eye color, or other physical features, people with disabilities still struggle, even today, with the perception that they are not beautiful.

Think about it. Generally, when you turn on the television and watch a show or commercials, how many different representations of different groups do you see? You see white, black, Asian, American Indian, and all other kinds of actors. You see different shades of skin, eyes, and hair in ad campaigns. You even see different lengths and types of hair in these campaigns (particularly the Dove ads–thank you, Dove, for those). You see different eye shapes (well, except the usual almond-shaped eyes of Down’s Syndrome, but we’re getting there). What do you generally NOT see? That’s right–a person with a disability. If you do see one, he or she is usually in a wheelchair. Now, I get the fact that a wheelchair may be the easiest way to portray “disability” in a thirty-second commercial. But that kind of setup does seem to say, “All people with disabilities use wheelchairs.”

And what about models with Down’s Syndrome? Yes, I have seen them in magazines, and yes, I think it’s a step in the right direction. But here’s the thing. Most of those models are babies or little kids, and critics do express the opinion that, “When they’re no longer cute, they won’t be able to do this anymore.” As if Down’s Syndrome is somehow acceptable on a baby or five-year-old–even cute or petty–but, oh, NEVER on a teenager or adult. At that point, it’s just sad, right? It’s even ugly, right? WRONG.

This is not to say that everything in the public media is totally against people with disabilities feeling beautiful. Bless them, they do try. But is it enough? I would argue no. Let me give you an example: Wheelchair Barbie, or, to use her real name, Becky.

Becky was made in 1997 and marketed as Barbie’s friend with a disability. The auburn-haired doll (a nice change from the usual blonde) came with a pink plastic wheelchair. Good idea, right? Little girls with disabilities could now see that there was a Barbie “like them” out there.

Oh, except for a few glitches. Becky’s wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the door of Barbie’s Dream House (guess she couldn’t come to all those cool parties then, eh?) And her hair was so long it would get caught in her wheelchair’s wheels. In other words, she was not a realistic representation of disability.

Mattel did make some improvements to Becky, but after the initial frenzy, she was never seen again. In fact, Mattel discontinued her (and an “athlete” version called Paralympic Becky). Now, I’m not saying little girls need a Barbie doll to feel beautiful. If that were true, we’d all be in trouble. Girls who wrap their self-esteem around temporal, marketable things like clothes, makeup, and yes, Barbie, often grow up to be insecure, unhappy women. But that’s not the point we’re trying to make here. The point, as a girl named Morgan said to her mother, is, “Aren’t handicapped people pretty enough to be Barbie dolls?” Right, Morgan. If black, tan, Asian, curvy, and even cancer-treated baldness, are good enough to be considered “pretty,” then why not disabilities?

Think about it. We have never seen, for example, a blind Barbie who comes with her own cute stuffed guide dog. Or a deaf Barbie, a Barbie who uses braces or crutches, or–oh, the world would surely end with this one–a Down’s Syndrome Barbie. But why on earth not? I think it’s because, even though our world is slowly changing, we’re still holding onto some stale ideas about people’s looks and physical figures. And one of those stale ideas is, disability = ugly.

No–I think that attitude is ugly.

So no, we don’t all have to be Barbie or Ken dolls. But how about we start thinking of how to make the people with disabilities in our lives feel beautiful? This is just a theory, but maybe if we do that, the public will start seeing disability as beautiful, too.


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