culture collision

There are quite a few things you can learn about me just by looking at me. You can easily tell that I’m pretty tall, that I care about what I’m wearing and how I present myself, and that I have one hand. But something that always seems to take people by surprise is when they find out that I’m Hispanic. Granted, it’s not the most important fact about me and I’m probably not going to introduce myself as “Hi, I’m Caitlin and I’m Hispanic”, but it’s so funny to me how people instantly assume I’m either Irish or Italian or any number of different European nationalities. (And they’d be right on some level, since my entire family has roots in Spain.) But it usually takes listening in on me conducting a phone call or conversation entirely in Spanish for most people to realize that they had it all wrong.

La Caridad del Cobre

I was born here in the U.S. to Cuban parents, years after they’d left their beloved homeland and established themselves in the land of the free. Just to be clear, they met and married here (well, in Miami), so I’ve lived my whole life in Jersey. I grew up listening to Celia Cruz, dancing to salsa, and eating arroz con pollo and lechon. I learned to speak and read English and Spanish together, and I celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve (aka Nochebuena). As much as my family has assimilated into standard American culture, they have not given up the traditions of their motherland. And that’s something that I want to explore because one thing that definitely plays into how people view disabilities and limb differences is culture.

Although I’m not an expert sociologist and can’t tell you exactly how Cuban or Hispanic cultures as a whole see disability, I will say that everyone around me was pretty supportive while I was growing up. My parents encouraged me to try and fail and try and succeed with everything in life. They didn’t really treat me all that differently, and they expected the same straight-A report cards and model behavior from both me and my three-years-younger and physically normal sister. But as much as I’d love to think so, I can’t say that there was no pain or drama tied to my family’s sentiment towards my limb difference. My hand is not something I openly discuss with them because it just brings back too many hurts. Still, the worst of it was from my maternal grandparents, who once desperately attempted to hide me (and my lack of a hand, specifically) from their neighbors when I was just a kid. (I still haven’t forgiven them for that, but it’s not like they ever apologized anyway.) I know they didn’t do it out of cruelty, but it wasn’t exactly the message of acceptance and unconditional love most would agree you should show a 9-year-old. And of course, I do think that their years of living in a very rural area in Cuba added to their naivety.

Painting of Cuban patriot Jose Marti

Anyway, I expected the same sort of hushed and self-conscious behavior from my boyfriend Chris’s family. He’s half-Irish and grew up very close to his Irish roots. I thought that they would treat my limb difference as something very unfortunate and sad, but that’s not the case at all. I asked Chris if they’d ever commented on my hand or said anything negative about it, but he answered that they hadn’t. About a year into our relationship, he casually mentioned that one of his cousins wore a prosthetic leg. “Wait…what?” was my response, as I stopped him mid-sentence. He seemed perplexed a second before he realized why I’d stopped him. “Oh,” I remember him saying. “I never told you?” No, he hadn’t. He had completely forgotten by complete accident. To Chris (and to his family), something like a limb difference wasn’t a big deal. I don’t know if that sentiment is an Irish thing or just a Chris’s-family thing, but I have noticed (based on my own experience) that people from European cultures are much more likely to overlook a disability and to separate it from the person’s personality in general. Hispanics, though many usually do get over the disability, tend to be initially filled with (always unnecessary but typically well-meaning) sympathy and pity for what I (or whoever it may be) have “lost” or lack. This is especially common in older people, particularly those who grew up thinking that disability is caused by an “evil eye” or as punishment by God. This is not always the case, though. There are exceptions in all cultures. And while I don’t know in exact detail how culture affects or defines the way people look at disability and limb difference, I do think it’s a very interesting topic to look into.

Let me know what you think about the connection between culture and attitude toward disability in the comments below.

Peace,

Caitlin Michelle

Photo of Cuban flag found on Google Image search, rest taken by me at Cuba Nostalgia event
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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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