By Lorie Levison
I sit beside the pool in my wheelchair, short shorts and sports bra, my swimming attire. The little girl’s step slows as she sees me, holding back on mother’s arm, staring unabashed and wondering at my skinny legs, the wheelchair, looking into my face to register my own awareness. She walks ahead, looking back. For all she knows, her next step could take her into the pool, but her eyes are glued, as her young mind struggles to put together the pieces of my body in a wheelchair. Mother speaks softly, “Come on, honey, don’t stare.” Still turning, the little girl says without a trace of self-consciousness, “Why are her legs so skinny?” “Come on, honey,” says Mom.
I lie with my new lover close upon me, his breath warm, full, centering. His eyes so close, I study the lashes, the fine map of tiny wrinkles above the lids. He murmurs, “You are so beautiful!” and I breathe in love with his breath, a fleeting thought catching in my mind: I feel the need to stop, tell him about my body, how it’s different, will he be OK with it? I had planned to tell him, to talk, but now? His eyes, skin, the delicious tangle of limbs and fingers call me back. … I think, no, not now. What body? What difference?
I sprawl across the bed with my young son, wrestling, hyper, in a tickling frenzy. He jumps to my feet, grabs my ankles and holds them astride his hips and rocks back and forth Elvis-style, singing loudly, “Spaghetti legs! Spaghetti legs!” I scream in mock rage and lunge — laughing — to take him down.
In the hospital room, 18 years old, white coats with pockets hiding shamed hands. They line up at my bed, talk above me, turn me over, open the gown to point at my back, draw cold fingers along the tracks of my scarred spine, show the handsome young residents — peers or potential lovers standing just outside these temporary walls. They close the gown and say good day and leave me crushed as a dried leaf underfoot. Too young to even know. But I know. …
Body image (sigh!) … will it ever be mine? The more I ponder the question, the more I think the answer is no. What is body image, anyway? Is it how we want others to see us? Is it what we imagine others see? Do we even need an image? Mother Media and her marketing strategists say, definitively, “YES!” Meanwhile a significant percentage of the planet’s population would not even understand the self-absorption of “What should I wear?” or “My hair is impossible!”
Body image seduces all of us in this culture, regardless of age, class, gender or intelligence. Everywhere we look, we are assaulted with images of how we should look, move, speak, behave. It’s an encompassing net thrown from all angles of the media, and no one is immune without dedicated, persevering effort. Most of my healthy, beautiful women friends are uncomfortable being in a bathing suit, critical of their legs or bosoms or bottoms. From my perspective, they don’t have anything to complain about, since all the parts work. But it gives us a common meeting ground, since I too have frequently bemoaned my imperfect body.
Often I’ve witnessed this common scene: A pretty woman walks by, and a passing man surreptitiously looks her up and down, tasting, evaluating, with no eye contact, no human contact. She feels the gaze, lowers her own eyes, tries to pass unnoticed. Her cringing is almost visible, as she tries to make herself disappear. I recognize it easily; it’s almost the same thing that happens to me. I turn just as many heads as a beautiful woman — but they’re looking at me for a different reason. Both of us — the attractive woman and the disabled woman — are like books being judged by our covers. And it makes us feel small and shameful when only our outer aspect is scrutinized like that.
Body image seems to be an ever-changing recipe of what we feel about ourselves inside and how we present it to the outside world. It tells others about who we are. Disability often forces us — or maybe gives us the opportunity — to be more honest, or should I say exposed? We just can’t hide these bodies behind clothes or makeup or hairdos. And hopefully we begin wondering why we ever wanted to. But disability also magnifies the problems of body image, since so many stereotypes are already formed in people’s minds.
So how do we find ways to get free from its demanding grasp? I combat the evils of body image with an approach I will call “body innage.” By getting “inside” my body, I’m no longer judging it from outside. I’m not imagining what everyone else is seeing or thinking about me. I’m focused on whether I feel good about myself, whether I’m shining.
The most elementary approach is to put on blinders, like a scared horse. I just don’t look left or right when I don’t want to see the freaky looks I’m getting. That’s their problem — why should I take it personally? And I sure don’t want to stay at home all the time hiding from those looks. So I put on armor. I need it especially when I wear shorts, which I do because they’re comfortable, not to show off my legs. I spend enough time all winter pulling on layers of leggings, and when it’s summer, I want complete freedom of movement. But then, everyone wants to look at my legs! Not openly, of course, just a quick sneaky glance.
Body image says style comes first, but to feel good about your body, you’ve got to be comfortable. I like to think of the wheelchair giving me a kind of all-around permission slip to wear what I want, cashing in on society’s timidity to confront the cripple. So, just because everyone else is wearing a dress doesn’t mean I have to. After all, I’m in a wheelchair! I can look lovely and elegant, in a style that doesn’t drag on the wheels or confine my arm movements. Sure, I’d dress differently if I could walk. I’d have a very different image then. But that’s the if road — we don’t go that way. …
So when I’m feeling nervous or unsure about going to a party or presentation, and I’m more likely to focus on the wheelchair as being a hindrance to my attractiveness, I use a phrase in my mind: “My inner beauty is shining through.” That simple sentence opens me to friends old and new and gives me a tangible confidence. As someone is talking to me, I’m whispering in my thoughts, “My inner beauty is shining through.” And I’m believing it, feeling pretty and bright!
When we work from the inside out, our bodies reflect the inner image of comfort and self-worth. Moving the focus inside, when everything around us says it’s the outside that counts, is not easy. What’s easy is to feel different, to feel inferior, to feel we are being judged negatively. Especially if we’re tired or feeling down. But getting to know and like the whole package of who I am translates into a positive presentation of my outer body in subtle but noticeable ways. Body innage can give us a body image we can really live with.
Just the other day I went swimming for the first time this year in the outdoor pool. After completing my laps I decided to lie in the grass. I like to lie on my belly and let the sun warm my back. I spread my towel, crossed my legs and rolled over, adjusting my hips with my hands. All around me were men and women in scanty bikinis and tanned bodies glistening with oil. I saw myself from above: my left foot not touching the ground because the knee is slightly contracted; the fusions on my spine that left a large lump and a maze of scars; bony prominences where little round buttocks should be; and the outlines of leg bones that look clearly like a skeleton. Hot blood began rising to my face, along with that unmistakable feeling of wanting to hide. I took a breath. …
I sensed the sun caressing my shoulders, penetrating with its deep heat. The wispy breeze touched my damp forehead. I cracked one eye open just enough to see the sparkling iridescence of golden hairs on my arm. I moved my fingers in the grass, cool, moist, thick, listening to the sounds of a tennis ball plunking against a racket, back and forth, and children calling and laughing in the water. Nestling down inside my body, I finally smiled. I’m glad I have a body, I thought — not an image but a real body, because it’s good to be alive.