Here’s a truth bomb for you: I didn’t think I was attractive until about two years ago. It took a quarter century of feeling clumsy in my body, not quite having the gender expression thing down, and dismissing all compliments upon receipt to get anywhere close. And of course, cerebral palsy sat right at the bottom of that self-esteem pit.
Able-bodied people underestimate how much of a number disability can do on your body image. They like to assume that “But you’re so beautiful!” or “Of course you’ll find someone!” will do the trick — as if their reassurance is all we needed. But no matter how many times my best friend told me that yes, I could wear shorts in public or my mom insisted that sneakers looked fine with that outfit, I couldn’t get past the posture cerebral palsy gave me, or the way I looked in motion. I remember calling it “a medically sanctioned reason to feel ugly.” Self-loathing that heavy is hard to shake.
It wasn’t until I understood my disability as part of me, rather than a barrier to “who I really am,” that I started working my way out. No, it’s not a perfect process — I still don’t have a full-length mirror in my house for a reason — but I’m miles ahead of where I was, and no longer interested in despising myself outright. (Donald Trump’s the President; I have better things to do with my time.) So when I saw the hashtag #DisabledAndCute gaining steam on Twitter last weekend, I felt an immediate tug of recognition. Disabled folks were here, owning our bodies and looks rather than trying to cover up, slink away, or downplay.
— Keah Brown (@Keah_Maria) February 12, 2017
Writer Keah Brown started the tag because she “wanted to acknowledge how good [she] felt, share that feeling with other people, and encourage them to do the same.” “The response is nothing like I expected and it’s been wonderful,” she said. “People of been so kind and so supportive. Of course there are naysayers — but that’s the case with most things. I feel like I’ve done something that’s worthwhile and that’s amazing.”
There’s been some critique around her choice of “cute,” given disabled people’s long (and ongoing) history of infantilization, but Keah came to it intentionally. “I understand the issue with the word ‘cute,’ but I want to reclaim it, and I feel like I did with the hashtag. I think it’s good to suggest alternatives and maybe use those hashtags instead of mine. What I would love for people to know is that I didn’t use other words like ‘sexy’ and ‘fine’ because I don’t feel that way yet about myself. I used ‘cute’ because it was what made me most comfortable. If people want to offer alternatives, that’s great. At the end of the day, it’s about being comfortable.” And, I would argue, feeling cute, sexy, or fine — whichever means that ultimately, you’re feeling yourself.
Here are some #DisabledAndCute queer folks who took part, in their own words. We look damn good and we know it.
Annie / 26 / Miami, FL / Content creator and intersectional activist
“Body positivity and visibility are so important and they are vital for underrepresented communities like the disability community. #DisabledAndCute has meant seeing my community beam with pride, self-esteem, and publishing evidence of their existence, making themselves known and visible. It speaks to my self-esteem, to my identity as a disabled person, and it speaks to the ableism that says I could not be both.”
Cat / 30 / Glasgow, Scotland / PhD student, writer, editor, and designer
— rami dalek (@cat_sierra) February 12, 2017
“As anyone who follows me on Instagram knows, I hardly need an excuse to post a selfie, but I took part because I love connecting with people in our community and showing off how gorgeous we are. I’ve seen a lot of different responses to the hashtag: there’s people who are really feeling themselves, people who don’t usually post selfies and people who don’t feel cute. It’s important to have a supportive community when you’re disabled and are made to feel that you can’t look or feel good. Selfies are a great way for disabled people to reshape and reclaim the narratives that surround us because they’re images that are completely unfiltered by an ableist gaze. It can remind us within the community, and those outside it, that we are a diverse, beautiful group, and we can take pride in ourselves regardless of whether we fit normative beauty standards or not.
Disabled people are often taught to hide ourselves away, or make ourselves look as ‘normal’ as possible. People don’t expect us to like how we look or feel good about ourselves. To claim that you’re both disabled AND cute is a middle finger up at these forces. For me to say I’m disabled and cute is to show that I like myself. It’s kind of fun and flirty to describe yourself as cute in this context, and represents the sort of self-love we don’t often get to express as disabled people.”
Nikki / 29 / Massachusetts / Disabled trans* inclusive disability rights activist
— KING SPOOP 🎃 (@knownasharley) February 13, 2017
“I decided to participate in #DisabledAndCute because Supplemental Security Income recently informed me that my case is under review to determine if I’m ‘still’ disabled, due to my going through my state rehab commission to find part-time work. I’m a mentally ill wheelchair user and I’m afraid of losing my benefits.
You don’t have to be abled or neurotypical to be cute; the concept is not mutually exclusive. People of all different types of disability can, and do, still love ourselves and find ourselves cute AF.
To me, being disabled and cute means that I love myself, and my body, even with all of the difficulties imposed on me in an inherently inaccessible society. It means I will not lay down and die quietly while war is waged against my well being and life. I spent years letting others police my body. I refuse to ever let anyone tell me again what I do and do not deserve regarding my disabilities. I am disabled, and that doesn’t stop me from being a person, from being cute.”
Mike / 26 / U.K. / Musician and writer
— Winter Witch Mike (@guysmiley22) February 13, 2017
“I had some anxiety due to a bad experience with another hashtag, but realized I felt left out, especially as a lot of what I do on Twitter is celebrate myself — and others — in my various identities, especially my disfigurement. To me, being disfigured and disabled and cute means owning my disfigurement, loving it, and centering it in my understanding of who I am, and why I’m attractive. It means visibility, awareness, but most importantly self-acceptance and awareness of the fact that for many of us, self-love actually is a worthy political act.
I’m also very, very, very gay — but you probably guessed that already.”
Heather / 31 / Rockville, MD / Artist and illustrator
— Heather Chen (@oceana1009) February 13, 2017
“Disabled people don’t yet have the body positivity movement that feminism and fat acceptance communities do. People think of specific things with the label of disabled and I loved seeing the range of people, of all ages, from those with physical disabilities to mental illness and invisible disabilities. There were so many intersectional people using the tag that were also POC, LGBTIA — that means a lot to me, as a disabled bisexual Chinese-American woman.
When I’m in my wheelchair, people in public see me as a child, or an object of pity. I am small and fragile, but I am still a full person. My girlfriend helps me get around and it’s assumed she is my carer to the point that onlookers are startled when we kiss and hold hands. ‘Cute’ to me means that you are someone who can be present in the world and are an active participant, that you possess a positive self-image and have innate worth — things that disabled people are not supposed to have in the minds of the abled.
I’m glad to see this growing social movement finally getting some attention. It brings me joy, so I want to share and keep that positivity going. I want to be visible.”
Alex / 29 / Toronto, Canada / Writer, artist, and sociologist
— Alex Haagaard (@alexhaagaard) February 13, 2017
“I wanted to share a feeling of positivity and pride with other disabled and spoonie folx, particularly those who may not already identify as disabled, or be an active part of disabled Twitter. I struggled a bit with whether to post because I’m really uncomfortable with being judged — either positively or negatively — for my physical appearance. But to me #DisabledAndCute is about being comfortable in your own skin and sharing the diversity of the disabled community. The diversity aspect is especially important and valuable, given the historical whiteness of the disability community (see #DisabilityTooWhite), and the fact that this tag was created by a disabled Black woman.
I’ve been really pleased to have some great exchanges with other invisibly disabled people who weren’t sure if they qualified as ‘disabled enough’ to participate. It’s lovely to be able to welcome new people to a community where they can find acceptance and support! It’s important to make disability seen — coming from the point of view of someone with a (mostly) invisible disability, people usually only see me on my ‘good’ days, when I feel well enough to leave the house. So I’m a bit militant about frequently sharing pictures from my bad days, my appointments and my procedures — and this was another great opportunity to do so. It was great seeing others doing the same, and people with visible disabilities sharing pictures with their assistive devices. I’ve also been pleased to see some disability activists taking the opportunity to remind abled users not to turn this into inspiration porn.”
Aoife / 22 / Ireland / Tech support, occasional babysitter and animal fosterer
— Aoife (@AGingerxyz) February 13, 2017
“Visibility is important. And when your disabilities are invisible, it’s easy for people to fail to recognize or acknowledge that part of your identity. It’s easy for you and your needs to be forgotten. Being part of #DisabledAndCute was a way I could contribute to the visibility of the invisibly disabled.
When you struggle to stay on top of basic self care, it’s easy to end up with an appearance people would describe as ‘not fit to be seen in public.’ The shame associated with that definitely does a number on your self esteem. You kind of start to feel like no one could ever find you attractive, even on your best days. For me, feeling disabled and cute is definitely a work in progress, but it has to start somewhere, so why not here? It’s about challenging the dominant narratives surrounding disability — rejecting the identity of tragic objects for other people to feel bad about.”
Maranda / 31 / Toronto, Canada / Writer, zinester, and nonbinary amethyst-femme
— Maranda Elizabeth (@MarandaDearest) February 12, 2017
“The word ‘cute’ is often used either to infantilize and dehumanize disabled people, or not used at all. I want to reclaim it on my own terms, as well as admire and affirm other disabled folks. While I often reclaim ‘ugly’ as well, I was in the mood to encourage cute crip joy. Crip-femme queerdos in particular are the love of my life, and I felt like we needed a moment to shine.
I believe nondisabled people are the ones who are missing out, not us. Being disabled and cute means I have the autonomy and creativity to present myself as I wish to be seen, to claim and reclaim and redefine terms (and slurs), and to resist boring stereotypes. I give myself permission to find joy in being disabled, and I encourage others to do the same.”
Alaina / 23 / Boston, MA / Book publicist, editor, storyteller, and intersectional feminist activist
— Alaina Leary (@alainaskeys) February 12, 2017
“Disabled people (especially those of us at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities) are often erased from narratives about beauty. I didn’t contribute to the hashtag because I value my physical appearance, although I do. I contributed because I see the value in my experiences and who I am being visible to others. Growing up, I didn’t really see any other disabled people in the media I consumed, and especially not any other queer or trans disabled people. I think disability is an identity to claim and be proud of, and I want everyone to know that.
There are so many disabled people out there who are doing exactly what I am — in spite of what much of society has told us, they’re claiming their right to exist and that’s beautiful. I’m also loving how varied the representations are; instead of just seeing one narrative, we’re seeing folks of all kinds of identities, including both visibly and invisibly disabled people. I absolutely love seeing multiply marginalized people in the tag.
Being disabled and cute means loving myself radically, and choosing to exist in a world that often doesn’t want me to. It means asserting that my disability is a non-negotiable part of me, a part of me that’s just as lovable and worthwhile as any other.”
M / 31 / San Francisco, CA / Artist and V/AR researcher
— 🖤M Eifler 💣 (@blinkpopshift) February 14, 2017
Buttoned up pop pic.twitter.com/JhFpPreQvK
— 🖤M Eifler 💣 (@blinkpopshift) February 14, 2017
“I post a lot of selfies because I make all my clothes and wear distinctive makeup but I rarely use any tags. They’re too showy, even for me. But scrolling through #DisabledAndCute I noticed there weren’t many standout dressers. So I wanted to do my brand of fashion to it.
Cute isn’t my word. Cute is so small. I’m queer and nonbinary and disabled — might as well also be a flamboyant dresser and just give up trying to blend in. Let’s do Disabled and Fabulous next time.”
Lindsey / 21 / Washington, DC / Student
— Lindsey O’Connell (@Lindsey_e_oc) February 13, 2017
“So often I see people say that disabled individuals are beautiful ‘in spite’ of their disability. This hashtag has given us an opportunity to show that we can be BOTH, with no apologies. It’s been very empowering.
Disabled people get little to no representation in media, and when we do, it’s often confined to one image of disability. We are so much more! I’ve spent a long time trying to come to terms with my recently disabled body, and this self-love movement has honestly helped so much. It just really made me feel happy. And I’m proud to to contribute to showing the diversity of disability.”
Laura / 29 / UK / Student
— Laura (@hufflewoof) February 12, 2017
There’s a fucked up, ableist exclusion of disabled people from ‘cute’ (and other similar language!), and I wanted to affirm that that shit is nonsense. The most powerful thing for me has been watching so many people take part and, in doing so, feeling empowered. I hope the feeling grows and grows.
Being disabled and cute means celebrating myself without justification or apology. Disabled AND cute. If you don’t like it, you can go home.”