The Beautiful Disabled Body


Katouche discusses healing in the form of art and creativity in the context of the social model of disability

headshot of a disabled woman of colour


The longest relationship we have in this life is the one with ourselves. It is also probably the most difficult one too. Just when you think you have figured out what you want you realise it’s not what you need. There are no breaks from this relationship either, we are constantly working on it. This relationship primarily consists of mind and body, the body of course being a vessel for the mind. How we reconcile our self-concept is a complicated convergence of the mind and body. This is something that everyone has to go through, but for disabled people this lifelong journey with oneself is just that bit more messy.

As Disabled people we are born into an intensely hostile world that does not believe we should exist in it. A context where everyone else is convinced that with the right innovation and commitment we can progress beyond disability. Society’s collective imagination is wiped of any evidence that Disabled people do or should exist. The physical landscape is designed in a way to keep us out at all costs. Our demands for accessibility are viewed as a favour rather than our human right.

In addition to the violence and rejection described above we are expected to dislike ourselves that little bit more than everyone else is already taught to do so. Across various mediums, disabled people are represented as incomplete and therefore inhuman. The belief that disabled people are undesirable is substantiated by conjecture like the ‘medical model’ of disability. The medical model ensures a linear way of looking at disability, where the focus is placed on the impairment the individual has. It is based on a medical perception of impairment as a form of deficiency or defectiveness. The medical model places an emphasis on how disabled people are to be ‘corrected’ and made to conform to their inaccessible environment. For many disabled people they encounter the medical model at the start of their disabled journey, the point of diagnosis. We are made to feel abnormal, that we deviate from the constructed norm and are made to feel like a liability.

Over time, the ideas listed above are reinforced by our context and are consequently internalised by disabled people in an incremental and pernicious way. No one is impervious to the constant assault of societal expectations that create distance between who we are and who we are expected to be and look like.

So when we discuss the issue of healing, what does that look like for Disabled people? What do we need healing from? What does repair look and feel like?

Typically when we think of healing in the context of Disabled people, it is limited to physical wellness and exercise. Although this is an important aspect of general wellbeing, it is important to deal with both mind and body. Most pertinent is a healthy self-concept as a disabled person. To be comfortable in one’s own skin is priceless. It also ensures more stability amidst unpredictable physical health.

First and foremost, being grounded in the social model of disability creates an encompassing and fluid outlook on our context that alleviates the pressure of discrimination. The social model asserts that impairments are part of the natural spectrum of human life as opposed to an appendage. Disability is therefore a social construct created by the barriers in society. The environmental and attitudinal barriers are a bigger obstacle to Disabled people than their actual diagnosed impairments. Being able to distinguish between the stigma experienced and who you actually are, is liberating. Disabled people need to hold on to this understanding in order to bring focus to our demands for rights and to maintain a measured understanding of the paradigm we live in.

Healing for disabled people is layered. We need to be healed from the damage the medical model has done to our minds and bodies. The medical model teaches us that we are not beautiful, that our value is conditional. It is important that we unlearn these ideas. We are desirable and whole, irrespective of how science and society compartmentalise and dissect our bodies. Disabled people have had to put up with seeing people who look like us on screen and in literature depicted as undesirable, morally corrupt or demonic. The overemphasis on symmetry and proportions as the measure of physical beauty limits how disabled people engage with the idea of beauty. The parameters on beauty remind us that society has the final say on what is beautiful because our bodies (and the labour they produce) do not necessarily belong to us. For this reason, it is paramount that we reclaim beautiful bodies as our own.

One of the ways in which this can be put into practice is by taking charge of how we express ourselves creatively. Our bodies are beautiful canvases and the scope is endless. My experience with this has primarily been through makeup artistry. Despite how it has been framed as a fickle and shallow, makeup artistry serves as an important healing aspect of my personal development. This is because in order to be adept at makeup, I have to spend a lot of time with my face and how I look. Makeup can facilitate the halfway point between how we look on our worst day and on our best day. As a Black Disabled woman, beauty standards have a large impact on how I am received. Makeup for me has always been about telling a story of what goes on in my head. It gives me power over my self-image. A lot of the stigma around makeup comes from the fear of its power to ‘level’ out the social landscape. Beauty is designed to be reserved for those rewarded by white supremacy, ableism and patriarchy. Makeup takes the power away from those qualifiers and places it back in the hands of the individual who then gets the final say on how they look.

A study in the 20th century revealed that there was a direct correlation between an individual’s healthy self-image and the way they treat Disabled people. Those with a negative body image were less tolerant of Disabled people as opposed to those with a positive body image. This reinforces the gravity of self-preservation and self-love in relation to the survival of Disabled people in their given context. Because this will ultimately impact the relationship that we as Disabled people have with ourselves.

Finally as a Black Disabled woman, healing in the form of art and creativity highlights the importance of leisure to this process. I really enjoy the process behind makeup artistry. It brings a moment of rest to my day where I can reflect and recuperate. Rest and leisure are acts of resistance in a world that prioritises productivity at the expense of our wellbeing. For this reason we must give rest and self-care its due place in the movement more broadly. Healing from the pressure of the medical model is an ongoing process we have to undertake. But leaning in on our creative capacity to build our conceptualised self goes a long way in this journey.