Take a minute to study the photo to the right of this story.
“My God, where are her legs?” is what I almost blurted the first time I saw it. “That woman has no legs! How is she standing up? Why isn’t she falling over–is the skirt keeping her up?” Thankfully, for once, I didn’t say anything and instead looked closer. I then realized the woman in the photo was my friend, Jill Pickel, whose Harrisburg, Pa., house I was at for a cookout.
Certainly I know Pickel is an above-the-knee amputee, but somehow seeing her standing, her leglessness framed in red, kept me from recognizing her right away. I couldn’t stop looking into the dress, to see if I was seeing what I saw.
Pickel and her boyfriend of six years, photographer Ron Parisi, were watching me closely for a reaction to the photo and so I quickly played it cool, coming up with safe, appropriate comments. “Nice dress,” I said. “Is it antebellum?” They laughed, and then explained why Parisi set up–and Pickel agreed to–such a strange pose.
For Parisi, this photo and other photos he takes of Pickel are political statements. The Dutch Renaissance painter Heironymus Bosch casts his disabled subjects in hell, wrote Parisi in his artist’s statement for this photo. And in present time, “rather than cast the disabled in hell, we just like them not to be present … and if they are present, we like them and their disability to be invisible.” Parisi wants to change this by taking photos of a strong, disabled woman that play with and dispel past stereotypes.
That’s fine for Parisi, but Pickel’s the one who actually has to bare who she is for the camera. And for her, it’s not just about politics, it’s about the woman she’s become. “Modeling for these photos was healing because I gained self-confidence, and it was a long journey, “says Pickel, 41. “I finally got to the end of that journey where I was finally OK with who I am. I know I’ll be OK. I’ve reached acceptance of me.”
It took Pickel a few years to get comfortable with Parisi’s artistic vision, which almost always includes elaborate costuming and posturing. By the time this photo was taken in 2002, she was getting used to his style. “I started having fun with the costumes,” says Pickel. “It was starting to become fun to see what story he was going to do next.”
Now look at the photo of Pickel almost lost in an oversized wheelchair. No need for a wide slit in a floor-length hooped skirt to get the message here; the symbolism is obvious. “This is what people see when they look at me,” says Pickel. Although she can walk with a cane, for stability, speed and comfort she uses the chair in the photo. “It’s very true that people really see the wheelchair first and make judgments based on that before you even get to open your mouth.”
Perhaps photos like these will make people explore what they think they see, and how the images make them feel.
The Country Girl Falls
Pickel was raised in the rural Lewisberry, Pa., area in a hardworking, religious family. Her dad was a truck driver and her mom stayed home to raise her and her three siblings. She married at age 18, moved with her husband to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, and had her son, Scott, at age 19. Much of her time was spent trying to be content with her new life as a wife and mother.
In 1989, at age 25, Pickel was struck from behind while retrieving something from the trunk of her car. The other driver didn’t realize Pickel was on the shoulder of the road and he struck her with such force that first her legs were crushed and then she was thrown into the air. She lost both legs above the knee, went through rehab, was eventually thrust back into the world as a newly disabled woman, and then, a year later, she also lost her marriage.
“We fought a lot, and after the accident it was worse,” says Pickel, about the divorce. “People assume that he left me. Well, he didn’t. I left him. I left him because I knew he wouldn’t be able to support me [emotionally].”
Newly divorced, newly disabled, self-esteem in shambles, Pickel followed a pattern that many young disabled women find themselves trapped in, whether injured or born with their disabilities: She sought self-worth through pleasing other people. In Pickel’s case, she tried to bolster her self-image by pleasing men sexually and expecting nothing back for herself.
This period of time is painful for Pickel to recount because it’s hard for her to remember when she thought of herself as ugly and only good for tawdry sex. “This is going to sound crude, but I could get men because they weren’t choosy at all. They don’t care, it’s what’s between the legs that mattered to them,” she says. She picked them up at wheelchair basketball events and even in her prostheticist’s office. “I remember asking one guy to come over at night, like we were sneaking around. It didn’t matter if they were married or not.”
It’s hard to believe that every guy she was with in that period of time was only interested in sex, and she admits that a few of them did like her for herself, but she couldn’t see it at the time. She only saw them as wanting to get laid, or wanting to be with a disabled woman out of curiosity. “I saw myself as unattractive, unappealing, of little value, almost like a child seeking approval,” she says. “I did not think that a woman without legs could possibly be attractive or a healthy sexual being.”
Time To Grow Up
“I dated the bad-ass boys, that’s what I liked,” says Pickel, summing up what she calls her “bum stage.” “Then at age 32 I started to realize that I had to create myself by my own standards of who I want to be–not everything about me should be defined by a man.” It was as if she woke up from a long, fitful sleep.
Pickel and her son moved back to Pennsylvania, where she took a job as an administrative assistant for the Department of Defense in York. “I think I just started to gain confidence in who I was again,” she says. “I did things to increase my self-esteem and I didn’t need to seek that kind of approval from men anymore, from that kind of behavior.” Pickel even began attending college, becoming the first person in her working-class family to do so.
In 1999 Pickel met Parisi via the Internet, and when she sent him a photo of herself, he invited her to come to his Manhattan studio for a photo shoot. Parisi’s day job is taking photos for advertising firms, but his passion is art. At the time he had begun working on disability and sensuality themes, and thought Pickel had the “right look” for what he wanted to portray.
“When I met Ron I hated him,” says Pickel. “I was crying because my dress was too short and my prosthetics showed. Here I was, a disabled country girl in Manhattan, the big city, for a photo shoot. That took a lot of confidence, but it was hard because although I was ready to receive the idea that I’m attractive, I wasn’t quite there yet.”
Soon, Parisi and Pickel fell in love, and just this year they bought their first house together. Parisi commutes from Manhattan to Harrisburg, Pa., proof of his commitment to a relationship that is far deeper than “just” sexual. They have become each other’s biggest fans–Pickel supports his artistic vision and Parisi supports her quest to be as fully herself as she can be.
Many of the early photos Parisi shot of Pickel show a woman uncomfortable with both her costumes and herself. She looks shell-shocked in some of the photos, and hints of the young woman who’d do anything for sexual attention from a man shows through. But as Pickel became stronger, her expressions in the photos began to change.
See the photo of Pickel strapping on an antiquated prosthetic and wearing what looks like lingerie and an old-fashioned French wig? That photo’s from around year two of her relationship with Parisi. It doesn’t look like a photo of a self-actualized and strong woman. In fact it looks like borderline soft porn, the type of pose designed to titillate men, perhaps the way Pickel did during her “bum phase.” But Pickel angrily disagrees, and says that photo caught an important truth about who she was at that point in time. “You’ve got to understand, this photo is about ME, not about guys. I wanted to feel good inside, and in this photo I do,” she says. “I was becoming reassured that I am a valued, worthwhile individual.”
By 2002, Pickel is comfortable enough with her growing sense of self-worth to be caught on film musing about the spot where her thighs are tucked into her prosthetic legs. “I felt sexy. Even though my legs are artificial, I’m kind of sexy,” she says about how she felt at the moment that photo was shot. Feeling sexy as opposed to feeling like a sexual object was still new to her. “Around this time I was confronted with the issue of how to be a healthy sexual being, and up to this point I hadn’t really dealt with it on that level.”
Finally in 2003, Pickel modeled in the photograph that she says catches perfectly the end of her journey to loving and respecting herself. Sitting askew on a wooden chair in a pink gown draped above the seams of her prosthetic knees, with her chin on her hand, she has a playful, knowing smile on her face and in her eyes. This is a portrait of a woman who–at long last–accepts and loves herself as is.
“When I look at that photo I’m proud that I’ve come that far,” she says. “In some of the earlier ones I was pretending I felt attractive. But in this one I didn’t have to pretend. This was the first genuine portrayal–the way I look in the photo is how I felt. It wasn’t pretend, it wasn’t a pose, it was real.”
The same year that photo was shot Pickel obtained her bachelor’s in behavorial science from York College and began pursuing her master’s in social work from Temple University in Harrisburg. Currently she’s a rehab specialist for Geisinger Health System’s Living Unlimited Program, but once she gets her master’s she plans on working solely as a therapist with other disabled people. She hopes her own journey will help her serve as a guide for others.
Ironically, or perhaps naturally, recent photos of Pickel just aren’t as interesting. They’re nice shots of an attractive woman, of course, but there is no sense of emotional tension, either positive or negative. They are simply–and finally–photos of a woman at peace with herself and her world.