seeing disability through a different lens

I’ve made it no secret on this blog that I wasn’t the most confident person growing up. I hid my limb difference as much as I could and refused to display it in photographs until very recently. I was taught from an early age that my lack of a hand was something that should be hidden. If you look at the pictures (the few that do exist) of my early teen years, you’ll find it’s nearly impossible to tell that I’m missing half my left arm. By that age, I’d already become a pro at disguising my defect (or what I considered a defect back then, rather) using sweaters, jackets, long sleeves and gloves. I was determined to look as normal as possible and grew embarrassed whenever someone would call attention to my missing hand. Things have fortunately changed since then and I’ve come a long way in building a better self image. But sometimes I think about my old pictures and regret all the anxiety and energy I put into hiding myself.

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15-year-old me always opted for long opera gloves

When I think about my relationship with my disability as a child, I always wonder if maybe there were things I (or those around me) could have done to help me feel more confident about looking different. I did go to camp for kids with disabilities a couple times, but their main focus was more on learning to use my Myoelectric prosthetic and functioning in a two-handed world. They didn’t really address the topic of body image, and it wasn’t like there was any representation of limb difference on TV or in movies. So who’s a limb different girl to look up to in this looks-obsessed society? When is a child with a disability allowed to feel like she can be beautiful just as she is?

A few days ago, a close family friend sent me a link to a post about a photographer who snaps pictures of her daughter and creates beautiful dream-like scenes with them. The little girl, Violet, does not have a left hand, but that’s hardly the main reason for staring at the images. Violet’s mother Holly Spring has used digital editing to transform the backgrounds into several different fantastical worlds for her daughter to inhabit,  images that include giraffes, enchanted meadows, and sunset boat rides. Her muse and model absolutely shines as she smiles, poses, and dances for the camera. And what’s one thing I can’t help but notice in all the photos? While not all the pictures display her smaller arm, little Violet clearly makes no attempt to conceal it.

Holly Spring's photos features her little girl embarking on various whimsical adventures

Holly Spring’s photos features her little girl embarking on various whimsical adventures

What we see in Spring’s photos is a girl who has more confidence as a kindergartener than I’ve been able to muster in more than two decades. Her joy and freedom and self esteem are palpable. What we don’t see, however, is Violet’s mother who stands behind the scenes. But Spring is more than just the photographer here. She is the one responsible for her daughter’s glow, building Violet’s confidence by casting her in the spotlight and showing her how beautiful she is. I think the most important factor in growing a child’s self-confidence is letting them know that someone they love believes in them and believes that they’re beautiful, that their physical difference does not detract one bit from that beauty.

1524823_741268325885514_164229681_n 2Violet is still young, and her opinions about herself will develop and evolve as she grows older. That’s a fact of life, and we all go through moments of self-consciousness and insecurity. But I hope that when that time comes, when doubt sneaks its way into her mind, that she will take one look through her childhood photos and summon even an ounce of the easy confidence she displays in those radiant images.

 

 

(Second and third images belong to Holly Spring)
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models versus role models

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It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that our shallow and perfection-obsessed culture is poisonous for girls and young women. Our society constantly smacks us in the face with ads, images, and stories about how we need to look as beautiful as possible in order to succeed and be happy. And even Hollywood is starting to take notice of how unhelpful this is. More and more celebrities are opening up about their eating disordered pasts and unhealthy relationship with their bodies. Stars like Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato and Katie Couric have come clean about how their poor body image led to dangerous health problems. And the ironic thing is that these women are all thin and conventionally pretty. So if these beautiful people can barely manage to accept their figures, how is someone who is missing a limb supposed to love her body? And what does it say about us as a culture that many of the bodies we envy and wish we had are the results of eating disorders and low self esteem?

15-tips-for-raising-kids-with-a-positive-body-imageAs a young woman born without a left hand, I quickly learned that the way I looked did not exactly conform to the ideal. I was a chubby kid with extremely frizzy hair and glasses a few sizes too big for my face. Looking back, there was nothing inherently wrong with my appearance but, back then, it certainly felt that way. When I was 12, I went on a crash diet and soon became addicted to the feeling of pride that came with moving the bar to a lower weight on the scale. Exercise became my obsession and food became my nightmare. I lost way more weight than was healthy and was diagnosed with an eating disorder promptly upon my first doctor’s checkup of the year. And to be perfectly honest, I still struggle with food and weight and my eating habits on a daily basis….even 9 years later. And trust me, there’s nothing I wouldn’t give if I could stop at least one person from going through the same grief I did.

I don’t want to be a Debbie downer, but I do know that a lot of the readers of this blog are young women with limb differences and parents of little girls with limb differences. And I feel like this is a very important topic to address, especially earlier in life. Self image is important and it doesn’t just have to do with weight. I also struggled for years with the thought that I was ugly and that boys wouldn’t like me for the way I looked. But these are obviously not healthy and not productive thoughts.

39778401487Now as a 21-year-old woman, I’m the most confident I’ve ever been. I’ve learned (albeit the hard way) that self-hatred is not attractive and that guys don’t go for perfection anyway. A guy who really loves you will love you for everything you are and not for the fact that you’re not as skinny as Angelina Jolie. But before that (which I also learned the hard way), you have to love and be comfortable with yourself. That’s harder said than done, of course. But I won’t leave you completely alone on this. Here are 4 things that have helped me feel better about the way I look:

– Tell yourself that you are beautiful. (Or if you’re a parent, tell your daughter that she’s beautiful.) It sounds really corny, but this is essential. You know when they say “fake it ’til you make it”? Go by that rule and say it to yourself until you fully believe it.

– Pamper yourself. There’s nothing like a manicure or a bubble bath to make me feel like I’m worth it. Relaxation is so necessary and so healthy.

– Surround yourself with positive people. If you’ve ever seen Mean Girls (or walked into any high school), you know that body-shaming is often a group activity. Ban your friends from talking about their physical flaws in your presence and make a pact to focus on what’s good in your lives.

paraplegicELLE– Surround yourself with positive images. While it’s impossible to avoid the ubiquitous ads featuring women with seemingly perfect figures and features, remind yourself that beauty is diverse and is not limited to one body type. Check out Elle Magazine’s spread about Paralympic swimming champion Jessica Long, who looks as gorgeous as any standard model in the fashion industry.

I hope these tips help and lead you to realize that a limb difference is just that: different. And “different” is not synonymous with “ugly.” Difference can be beautiful. And as Ryan Haack from Living One-Handed says, “Different is Awesome!”

At the end of the day, this is the best tip I have for you – In order to be happy and have others like you, you need to be younger thinner prettier yourself.

 

Peace,

Caitlin Michelle

 

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guest post: blogger melissa blake talks body image

Hello, everyone! My name is Melissa, and I am so excited to be featured on Caitlin’s wonderful blog today. I write about my life with a physical disability (and any other pretty things that strike my fancy) on my blog, So About What I Said. When Caitlin suggested that I choose a topic I’d like to write about today, it wasn’t hard coming up with the perfect idea: Loving our bodies just the way they are. Everyone struggles with body-images issues, don’t they? After all, we get “advice” on how we should look all the time — from movies, magazines and even celebrity red carpets. But a piece of the puzzle that conveniently gets tossed aside? This “advice” is probably the most unrealistic and damaging piece of “advice” you’ll ever get.
As a woman living with a physical disability, I’ve had to work even harder to avoid falling into that black hole known as the Pretty Trap — that scary and unhealthy vortex where you find yourself fixated on everything you hate about your body instead of celebrating everything you love about it. Well, NO MORE!! Isn’t it about time you celebrated your body? Here are my Top 5 Favorite Things About My Body (feel free to take your cue from me)…

My red hair

Growing up, all I ever wanted was to have blond or brown hair like all the other girls in my class. I hated that I looked so different from everyone else. But after my father died nearly 10 years ago, I began to realize that my autumnal hues, which came from his side of the family, kept me close to him. Now, my hair is something I celebrate as a way of keeping my father’s memory alive. Plus, I sort of like being able to stand out in a crowd. 

My freckles

Sure, I sometimes feel like I have a million constellations running up and down my arms. And in the summer, those constellations seem to turn into huge bullseye targets that you could probably see from miles away. But when I think about it, freckles are just another way for me to stand out!

My hands

It’s a fact: Most people’s hands are mirror images of each other. They both look pretty much the same. Well, not my hands. I was born with Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome, a genetically inherited bone and muscular disorder. One of the main symptoms is joint contractures and stiffness, so when I was growing up, I had dozens of surgeries to loosen my joints. The result? Both of my hands are distinct, which I absolutely love.  

My green eyes

My mom and sister both have beautiful blue eyes, and I used to be so jealous. But then I remembered something: My father had green eyes. When I look in the mirror, it’s comforting to be able to think of him.

My scars

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t always love my surgical scars. It’s not like I have just a few of them here and there. I’ve had more than 26 surgeries, so it’s safe to say that I have quite the collection. My hands. My feet. My knees. My neck. My back. I have scars scattered all over my body, much like those once-pesky freckles, but instead of those scars reminding me of scary hospitals, I’ve come to think of them as sort of a badge of honor. They are a constant reminder of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve overcome. I can’t imagine my life without them.

I’d love to hear what you love about your body. Isn’t it time to celebrate the beauty of being YOU? Thanks so much, Caitlin! Feel free to connect with me on PinterestTwitter, and Facebook. See you there! xoxo

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still beautiful

When I was little, I wanted to be a Disney princess and look like Britney Spears. I know, I know – what was I thinking, right? Britney? Really??? Well, in my defense, late 90s/early 00s Britney was like Selena Gomez/Victoria Justice/whoever else (I feel so old right now) is currently famous in the tween world. Everyone wanted her style and her dance moves and her seemingly perfect relationship with Justin Timberlake. And what 90s girl didn’t want to don a ball gown and marry a handsome prince like a Disney princess? They were the standard of beauty that every tween wanted to look and be like: Britney, any Disney princess, and the infamous Barbie Doll. But Britney Spears and the Disney princesses and even Barbie were thin and beautiful and had all four limbs intact. So who was a chubby kid with a limb difference supposed to look up to for reassurance that she was beautiful?
Fortunately, times are a little different now. There’s much more diversity in youth culture (with everything from the first African American Disney princess to Glee character Artie (and Quinn, briefly) who uses a wheelchair), but what many people don’t realize is that the need to see others who look like you in the media doesn’t end in childhood or even tweenhood. Recently, while doing research on the fashion industry since my company is working on a new show about models (you can follow The Face here, actually), I’ve discovered several women with limb differences who work in the media. And a part  of me can’t help but wish I had strong and successful people like them to look up to during my formative years when I was feeling ugly and believed it was impossible to be beautiful or sexy with only one hand.
Just a few weeks ago, a young filmmaker named Jana emailed me and asked if she could interview me for a project she’s working on about women with disabilities and the idea of sexiness. I’ll be the first to admit that it took me a looooong time to think of myself as sexy or pretty. There were definitely moments when I looked in the mirror and knew I looked good, but there was always the nagging thought that I would never be desirable because I looked so different. As much as I’d starve myself and exercise like a maniac (although that’s a whole other issue you’ll find out about in a future post), I never had the “perfect body.” I’d pick on my flaws and cake on my makeup to compensate for my perceived ugliness. But that wasn’t working for me. And in addition to finally letting myself see myself as a human being who obviously isn’t going to be perfect, I’ve realized that I need to stop defining myself by individual parts of me. I may have one hand, but that’s not all I am. Yes, I have athletic legs and Taylor Swift curls. But that’s not all I am either. That’s not what makes me sexy and it’s not why my boyfriend is with me. It may be cliche, but I think sexiness comes from knowing your true value. If you take care of yourself and carry yourself like you KNOW and feel that you’re awesome, then that’s sexy. You don’t need to have Barbie’s impossible proportions to know that.
Of course, I understand how hard it is to just say “Hey, I’m sexy” and really believe it, especially with the media’s focus on who’s hot or not and how much baby weight celebs have put on. So it always helps me to see others who have limb differences in the spotlight. Watching them take on the world and own their look really inspires me to do the same. So just in case you’re insecure about your body or limb difference specifically, since I’ve seen a lot of bloggers whose young daughters have hands similar to mine, here are some role models who have made it and who just so happen to be missing one or more limbs. 
Tanja Kiewitz

Tanja Kiewitz was relatively unknown until she posed in this advertisement for disability awareness. The ad is a copy of an older Wonderbra ad featuring model Eva Herzigova. The tagline, which reads “Look me in the eyes…I said the eyes,” is the same on both images. And although I am not in any way condoning or encouraging young girls to put on a bra and pose half-nude, whether or not they have a limb difference, I still think it’s pretty cool that they portrayed her as sexy with a limb difference instead of ignoring her body and just showing a pretty face. And if I dare say so, I think Tanja is much prettier than the other model (whose facial features are rather strange-looking.)

Shaholly Ayers
Shaholly Ayers is so gorgeous that you may have missed the fact that her right arm is actually a prosthetic. To be honest, I don’t know a lot about her. But there are times that I wish I could be as confident and comfortable as she is with her congenital limb difference. She poses both with and without a prosthetic. And there are several photos in which she doesn’t even attempt to hide her arm, which I find very bold and inspiring in a profession that puts so much emphasis on perfect appearances.
Shaholly again
Aviva Drescher

Aviva Drescher is currently one of the stars on the hit television show Real Housewives of New York. If the last name sounds familiar, that’s because her husband’s cousin is actress Fran Drescher. Aviva lost her leg in an accident when she was a young girl and, like so many others, she’s made a happy life for herself. She’s married with four children and starring on a Bravo show. Although the show does not always reveal her best qualities, Aviva has mentioned that she doesn’t mind what critics say about the show as long as she brings awareness to amputees.

Kelly Knox 
Kelly Knox was the winner on BBC’s modeling competition show Britain’s Missing Top Model. Like me, she was born without a left arm past the elbow. She’s appeared in magazines like Marie Claire and in ads for VO5. She also doesn’t wear a prosthetic and is much more comfortable without one.
So there you go: 4 strong and beautiful women to look to for inspiration and motivation whenever you feel down about being different. Even when I feel like absolute crap about the way I look, it’s helpful to know that there others in the world who understand. And it’s also very encouraging that with their “flaws” and differences, they (and I) are still beautiful.
Peace,
Caitlin 🙂
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