Debbie and Laurie are delighted to have Liz Henry guestblogging here!
The first time I began to identify as disabled, I learned a little bit about the medical industry and politics, and become a bit more politically radical.
People with spinal cord injuries in the U.S. go through hospitals and rehab, where they meet other disabled people and if they’re lucky come into contact with some of the ideas of empowerment, activism, and independence from the 60s and 70s. Since I ended up in a wheelchair through more of a nebulous possibly-neurological problem, I didn’t have that background. I was helped greatly by contact with the Disabled Students’ Union at a community college and by reading the magazine Independent Living. The NOT-empowering model of disability is to think of people with disabilities as helpless and in need of charity directed by able-bodied people. Empowerment also means fighting a lot of societal message about “normal” bodies, and the ways people look at our bodies, which are sometime obviously different in appearance and ability. We have to fight those feelings in ourselves, and work not to internalize them. Instead, to move forward with positive concepts of disabilities, bodies, capabilities, and how to change our physical environments and our society to adapt to US.
These days, I’m on mailing lists and forums for various neuro problems. I see people getting good information and sometimes, catching that radical wave, especially in the disability blogging world. But there are some terrible patterns I notice, much stronger patterns.
– Many women spend decades bouncing from diagnosis to diagnosis.
– Any neurological or immunological problem that women often have is called a “garbage” diagnosis.
– Many people are told that “it’s all in their heads,” then put on antidepressants or more powerful meds for mental illness.
– Being fat means that most doctors will not look for, or treat, your health problem. Instead, they shame and blame over the fat.
– Doctors almost never take a person OFF a medication. Instead, they keep adding more to the mix.
– Family members commonly place their anger and sadness over their mother or wife’s illness onto her, blaming her for the illness, because of guess why, FAT.
I have abstracted this out of countless emails and forum posts that tear my heart to pieces, from women who are eaten with guilt and shame that they can’t do the laundry or cook or take care of their family enough. Their families are angry with them, and blame them for being fat. Their families, rather than helping them, or consoling them for the confusing round of doctors and pain, are angry with them for not fulfilling their housewifely and mom-ly roles.
Despite the fact that it is normal for our bodies as we mature to NOT look like we’re barely pubescent, rail-thin girls, the systematic lifetime shaming over body shape means that these women have extra barriers in life. They don’t expect decent medical care, or respect from doctors. Being fat, or considered fat, or considering themselves as fat, or all of those things, means they can’t even GET what passes for decent health care in the U.S. today. And their own families subject them to constant and intense emotional abuse.
Often, really, underneath, the doctors hate women, and think of them as crazy, neurotic, aging (which in women is treated like a shameful disease in itself) and too fat. They write women off, and give them garbage surgery and drugs to go with the “garbage” diagnosis.
I am realizing just the tip of the iceberg of how gender, sexism, disease, and fatphobia are linked.
The mailing lists and forums and blogs offer sympathy and empathy, as well as much practical advice and sharing of stories. But what they sometimes lack is political awareness. We need MORE continuity of information, building or synthesis of ideas, compared to what happens in the blogosphere.
Radicalizing yourself to body acceptance and the complete refusal of fat-shaming could save your life. This is probably true for men as well, but I’m thinking about women in particular here.
The Ashley Treatment and people’s reactions to it expose some of those issues. Ashley’s family justified what they and the doctors did, both because it would be convenient, and because they thought that not having breasts would make Ashley less vulnerable to rape. Do some digging and see what disabled people think of that, compared to what able-bodied people say. There is a strong undercurrent that making disabled people (not just girls like Ashley) physically small, and desexualized, would be just SO much more convenient for their family members. If you think on it, this is also a body size and fat issue.
Add race and class into the mix and listen harder to how people talk about the “obesity epidemic” and poverty and you may hear something that sounds awfully like the War On Drugs and its exacerbations of racism, and the institutionalization of racism, of the power of blame and shame.
Anyway, the Disability Blog Carnival is a good place to start to educate yourself about disability issues. Take a look if you have time. It can be very interesting to combine some of that knowledge with the body image politics of blogs like Body Impolitic. Reading in both those worlds has begun to teach me how to name a more complex problem of feminism than I’d been able to name before.