Disability and Body Image
Body image and self-image are relatively new terms that became well known and used in the 1980's. The dictionary defines self-image as "The conception that one has of oneself, including an assessment of qualities and personal worth." Advertising, so given to sexual images, sadly makes most people compare themselves, and feel inadequate and insecure.
The picture we have of ourselves is like a mosaic, each experience contributing another piece. Every time someone who is not happy with their body hears songs like the 'Ugly Duckling' or 'Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer' (where simply looking different is considered to be a reasonable cause for ostracism) their self-image can be slightly damaged. Every time a children's story uses physical difference (the ugly step-sisters, dwarves, giants) as a symptom of evil or stupidity, the disabled child receives another tiny put-down. Over time, these tiny hurts are aggravated by the disablist language of abuse, patronising media, deliberate or inadvertent belittling remarks by strangers, and the exclusion of disability from the idealised world of the advertiser.
If powerful images, particularly in television advertising, can make all but the young, beautiful /handsome and multi-orgasmic, feel less adequate, what does it do to people with a disability who are not mobile or feel that they are mis-shapen or that their limbs are useless? In his book 'How to Survive the Family' John Cleese suggests that when two people meet it is the first twenty seconds, before words are exchanged when eye contact is made and body-language exchanged, that is of paramount importance!
People with disabilities have sexual rights:-
- to specialist sex education
- to the dignity of a sexual identity
- to enjoy a relationship, whether thy live with their parents, in residential care or in the community.
Perhaps 'right' is too contentious a word and freedom a better and more appropriate word. These issues are all ones that those who do not have a disability take for granted and/or are automatically given in some measure.
Sex education is something that most able-bodied people are given formally or informally. Parents probably hope that their children will be given sex education at school. Most mainstream schools do give some sex education however notional, perhaps as a biology lesson or under the heading of "personal hygiene". Rarely is this rudimentary sex education given within any kind of ethical or moral framework or discussion of types of relationships. So young people add to this by acquiring extra information from siblings, peers, books, magazines, behind the bike-sheds and experimentation.
It is still the exception rather than the rule for young people with a disability to be given any sex education at all. Even then it does not usually include information that is relevant to a particular disability and is usually too little too late. Popular reasons for not giving sex education can include 'why bother them with sex when they have got so many other things to worry about', 'they'll never have sex' and 'nobody will want them anyway'. Because someone is given good sex education is no guarantee that they will always have a partner or a satisfactory sex life. But information is good and powerful and just having the knowledge can add to a sense of self, enhance self-image and above all increase positive body image.
The dignity of a sexual identity is a rather more nebulous concept. As young people enter adolescence they begin the search for personal identity. Experimenting with 'way-out' fashions, trying to be 'original', first dates, perhaps trying homosexual relationships, learning to cope with rejection, re-jigging one's style, are all part of the search for one's identity as well as being a leaning experience. Friends and family may praise us, or ridicule us, during this time. That may hurt us or embarrass us (or make us even more rebellious) but their feedback is the mirror of our self-image and identity. Do we give young people with a disability the opportunity to experiment, to rebel, to succeed and fail or even the chance to choose their own clothes?
One mother who phoned our helpline said that she always dressed her disabled daughter as cheaply and plainly as possible as this would prevent her daughter being raped. How might her daughter feel - dressed in the "last day of the sale, final reduction, the colour and style nobody else wanted and look, dear, it almost fits" garment? Along with how we look is how people treat us.
Many people with disabilities feel hurt and angry because of the way able-bodied people speak to them. Conversation levels and voice tones that are often used are not age-appropriate or are on topics, particularly about relationships and sexuality which are inappropriate, offensive or which can raise false hopes and expectations. Do we really mean it when we say 'I love you' or 'you are my girlfriend or boyfriend aren't you?'
Many residential homes and institutions pride themselves on allowing physically disabled residents to get married. Although there is no law which prohibits this, many authorities still think this permission is within their gift. Some homes insist that couples must have a long, meaningful emotional relationship, then be engaged for several more years before they may marry. One residential home known to SPOD allows couples to marry but insists that the man has a vasectomy before the marriage! This scenario exists against the wealth of different relationships non-disabled people may experience - living together, marrying a few weeks after meeting, living with somebody of one's own gender, to name a few. The lack of privacy and the seeming necessity for carers to impose their opinions and values can be very inhibiting to potential relationships.
Inherent in all three of these issues is expectations. Youngsters are given sex education because it is expected that they will need the information both to make sense of the development and the changes of their bodied but as importantly when they begin their sexual life and experiences. Comments about emerging identity may seem to be critical but may also mirror what is happening and help that young person to the realisation that they are desirable as well as desiring. Parents often make hefty hints to their off-spring about getting married, producing grandchildren etc. These comments may not always be well received but again they are about expectations.
Are young people with a disability given any or indeed all of these expectations? Usually not.
So, how are young people with a disability expected to develop a good and positive body image and self-image, if they are not given these rights, freedoms and expectations? Rights, freedoms and expectations which the rest of society takes for granted.
Many disabled people are aware that their disability is often going to make it more difficult for them to form relationships or to have a satisfactory sex-life (in able-bodied terms) but this does not mean it is impossible.
Many disabled people feel that the withholding of information, the lack of privacy and the arbitrary imposition of carers values and opinions often present greater difficulties than the sexual problems they have or which they might have if they were "allowed" to have a relationship.
So it's up to families, professional carers and society in general to look
at their own values and attitudes, to see if they may be an obstacle to the
lives and relationships of those for whom they care.
Outsiders is a club offering physically and socially disabled adults the chance to gain confidence and more self esteem so they can find partners. Check the Contact Us page for details of contacting the club.
Any questions on personal issues like these can be asked on our Sex and Disability Helpline:
Post: Tuppy Owens, BCM Box Lovely, London WC1N 3XX
Email: Email Helpline
Phone: 07770 884 985 : The Helpline is open weekdays 11am to 7pm