Lot of things influence our fashion choices. Magazines, shop displays, TV, film, celebrities, friends and family, the weather, whether it’s for work or play, the shape and size of your body and both the fashion industry’s and your own personal believes about that. No choice is made in a void, as I discuss in this post for Women’s Republic, and practicality is a big part of that. Love those shoes but know you can’t stand around in heels all day at work? Practicality dictates you don’t wear them. Really wanna throw on that floaty summer dress but its due to piss it down all day? Practically dictates you don’t wear it. As much as we all want to wear what we want when we want to, it just doesn’t always work, and this can be doubly true when you’re disabled.
I have a condition that affects all my joints and muscles, complex neurological issues as well as anxiety and autism, which all mean I walk using a walking frame and occasionally use a wheelchair. There is a list of things I simply cannot wear. Long, loose skirts. Any shoe that is not big enough to fit in my in soles (which covers nearly all shoes except boots). Halter necks. On bad days I can’t wear rings or bracelets due to the pain in my hands. Anything made out of a scratchy material is off limits. Uncovered should blades, allowing them to get cold, can cause serious issues. Clothes with thick seams that dig in. If I’m going to be using the chair anything too short or thin on my legs means I will freeze without a blanket to cover them. Anything that’s tight on my shoulders when I lean forward means I can’t walk properly, which wouldn’t be such an issue except I have very broad shoulders (so does my sister but neither of my parents really do, it’s very odd). Also, anything that feels like it squeezes my ribs can be hard to wear.
As you can see, before I even go shopping I already have a list of things I can’t buy, before we even begin to add on the pressure of being plus size and finding things that I like. I have spent a lot of my life settling for clothes that ‘good enough’. It’s a top I like but in a colour I hate, I suppose its good enough. It’s not my favourite thing, but its flattering, so I suppose its good enough. It’s not a dress I would choose to wear to this party, but its all the shop has in my size, I guess it’s good enough. Last year I made a decision not to settle. I wouldn’t accept good enough from my friends, my work, my studies, my writing, so why do I accept it from my clothes? It took a bit of trial and error to find shops that I liked and to teach myself that things I thought I couldn’t wear I actually can, but I’m mostly there.
Except. Last year my best friend got married and I wore a beautiful dress and had my make up done and when I first looked at the photos of the bridesmaids I didn’t worry that I was the largest, I looked just as beautiful as the rest of them. It was wonderful. Next year my other best friend, one of the other bridesmaids, is getting married and I got to choose my own dress that I love and she’s made me a bespoke tiara that is so cute, but I am not feeling good about it. I know that I won’t be as happy when I see the photos (which will be early, as I’m doing at least part of the wedding photography). Why? Because last year I walked around that wedding using a walking stick. Next year I will, at best, be using my walking frame.
Switching from crutches to a frame felt like a big deal to me. I got depressed about it. I had to ask my boss to warn people at work that the good-natured ribbing we usually have (and it is genuinely good natured, I wouldn’t put up with anything else) would have to be off limits while I adjusted and asked my friends to be extra supportive. I mean, let’s take a second to appreciate the self-care there. Well done me. That’s progress at least. I also cheered up about it considerably when my mum managed to find a frame that actually looks like it was designed by someone born less than a century ago. Leaving aside issues of most frames being too lightweight so they rattle a lot and the traditional trade off between being able to fold it and it being functional, most frames look like they’re designed for really old people. Now, I’m not sure of that’s because they are designed that way or if we are just so used to mostly seeing old people using them so we associate that design with them. I have a feeling it’s the latter and that our perceptions are the problem, not the designs, but knowing that didn’t change how I felt about the frames I got first. Using the same walking frame as little old men you see spending their pensions in Morrisons is not exactly a self esteem boost. But the new one, that my mum saw, investigated and paid for (thank you Mummy), looks, dare I say it, cool! Its my fave colour, it transforms into a wheelchair so I don’t have to choose between them, and its based on a funky angular, flat shaped frame rather than the traditional hollow metal tubes. It shouldn’t matter, but it does.
This doesn’t take away from the fact that when I am walking around, in front of my outfit is a big, attention drawing frame. With that in front and my rucksack on my back, sometimes I think…why did I bother with a nice outfit? I know that come the wedding day, when I’m wearing my expensive cocktail dress I will feel even worse. I was at a signing for the new Guilty Feminist book recently and Deborah Frances-White talked about weddings (in the context of women being so obsessed with weddings because its one time we’re usually in total control) and I had a passing thought about my own wedding. It flitted through my mind in a flash and I didn’t being to dissect it until later. I thought, ‘I’ll never wear a dress like that, what would be the point’. Now, I’m not desperate to get married, I think the wedding industry is ridiculous, the importance of marriage over stated and frankly trying to wrangle my family into a room and getting them to behave themselves isn’t my idea of fun, but that wasn’t what I thought about. I thought about how there’d be no point wearing my dream wedding dress (assuming such a thing exists) because it would be “ruined” by my disability. Wow. Turns out my brain is an ableist* bitch.
The lack of models, celebrities, movie stars, musicians, TV/film characters who are mobility aid users is largely to blame here. In the same way that the narrative of fashion media makes us think thin is best, it has made us think that abled is best. Flick through a fashion mag. Watch a catwalk. Turn on your TV. I challenge you to find even one person in a wheelchair, using a walking frame, on crutches who is being pitched as a fashionable, glamorous, sexual being. You might find the less physically obvious ones, which in itself is great – the character of Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the model Maddy XXX for example – but obviously, physically disabled people pictured or filmed using their mobility aids is rare as fuck. Is it any wonder that in this environment I managed to convince myself, without even knowing it, that I am somehow now worth less as a fashion consumer? That I am unworthy of beautiful clothes? That if I did want to get married I wouldn’t be able to choose a dress I really wanted?
This isn’t a matter of practicality. I will accept that long skirts tangle with wheels and that leather jackets restrict my shoulders too much to lean on my walker comfortably and that my favourite rainbow minidress doesn’t work when sitting in a wheelchair (learnt that the hard way!) but I will not accept that I have been so cowed by the fashion industry that I think I am unworthy of certain types of clothes. I don’t know how exactly I will fix this, I suspect it will involve a lot of wearing stuff I wouldn’t normally and maybe even going and trying on some wedding dresses I will never actually wear, but I will unpick this internal ableism one outfit at a time.
*ableism, sometimes called disableism, is the discrimination against disabled people, usually by abled people (I say abled or non-disabled rather than able bodied as not all disability affects the body, many mental illnesses can also be disabling for example). This can be outright, such as refusing to employ, date or listen to us, or it can be societal, such as a building designed in such a way that wheelchairs can’t get around or the ridiculous fuss that trying to travel on a train in this country causes, or it was be personal, such as calling someone names (e.g., cripple, psycho) or suggesting they are not disabled, just lazy. Internal ableism is the beliefs a disabled person has integrated into themselves and can lead to the kind of lack of self esteem I describe in this article because the beliefs of the wider world, or the beliefs held before a person becomes disabled, take a long time to unpick from our thoughts and feelings. There can also be sideways ableism, which is usually either a disabled person who can do some things giving other disabled people grief for not doing them (e.g., ‘I have the same condition and I can walk so you can too if you just look after yourself better’), or a disabled person refusing to believe that other types of disabilities are in fact disabling (e.g., ‘I’m paralysed so can’t walk, you just have a bit pain, get on with it’). If you want examples of how people experience this every day the twitter handle/tag @EverydayAbleism #EverydayAbleism is probably a good place to start.