I saw it first in a train station: the poster of a woman who looked like a contemporary Marilyn Monroe ascending a staircase. Her platinum hair was sleeker than anybody’s I’ve ever seen here in windblown London, and her black dress hugged her spectacularly. What interested me the most, though, is that, as she turned her head over her shoulder and threw up a saucy eyebrow at the camera, she balanced on a pair of forearm crutches—standard issue aluminum with cuffs and handgrips. I don’t often see depictions of women using mobility aids looking powerful and fashionable, so I stopped in the middle of the mob shoving toward the train and looked a little longer.
Flanking the woman were two beefy bodyguards in what I took to be designer suits. The men braced the woman, holding her up on either side, as though without their help she’d tumble down the stairs. At the bottom of the shot were the model’s feet, trussed up in a pair of strappy platform heels.
The woman’s debilitating condition, the viewer is meant to understand, is the height of her designer shoes.
Talk about a letdown. What I’d taken for a badass image of a woman unapologetically occupying public space with mobility aids was something else entirely. It was just one more advertisement suggesting that women manipulate themselves in some way or another in order to look pretty. Which is to say, another advertisement, period.
I adjusted my pair of sneakers and started slowly up the stairs in the Underground station, grabbing onto the handrail so that I wouldn’t take an actual tumble on my actually less-than-mobile legs. I didn’t have any bodyguards in Armani suits to hold me up, after all.
It probably shouldn’t have surprised me, a few weeks later, to see Kylie Jenner—she of, well, inexplicable fame—striking her own disappointing pose on the cover of Interview magazine. It’s odd enough of a choice for a stylist to give such a young woman a hair-and-makeup combo that make her look like she’s about to sing “Blue Velvet” in a David Lynch film, but never mind that—the most bizarre feature of the photo is that this able-bodied girl, shiny in her latex corset, sits perched in a golden wheelchair. What would possess a healthy, able person to have her picture taken in a wheelchair—one from which she’s free to hop up at any moment—I couldn’t say, but if you believe scores of supportive fans and their internet chatter, the image is meant to symbolize her limitations.
I don’t claim to know what limitations Ms. Jenner has experienced in her life, but I feel confident that they have nothing to do with wheelchairs. Or with canes or walkers or hearing aids or any of the other devices people use to get on with their lives. These aids are tools of freedom in the world, not markers of restriction.
So what is this image of Kylie-in-the-gilded-wheelchair really about? The same thing the image of the woman with her precipitous shoes was about, I suppose. It’s about the idea that it’s somehow edgy or provocative to see a beautiful woman with the visible trappings of disability. The idea is that beauty and disability are opposites, and that it’s somehow artistic to juxtapose them for effect.
In short, it’s about the notion that the atypical body is typically sexless and unappealing, and that to look at such a body otherwise is pleasurable only if it’s lurid. It’s an idea rarely spoken but widely accepted, and here it is, printed on glossy paper and packaged to sell.
Yet we don’t have to buy it. Most considerate people recognize that popular culture has a body image problem, and that we do women and girls serious harm when we celebrate certain body shapes while devaluing others. Unfortunately, that realization has given us a new obsession: looking “healthy” is our new substitute for looking thin. For those of us for whom looking well or able is just as unattainable as, say, heaving our way into a pair of size-zero jeans, that supposedly positive message isn’t positive at all.
Perhaps it’s time to recognize that we do women just as bad a disservice when we put too high a value on outward appearances of health. All of us deserve to move confidently in the world just as we are—not cast in the shadow of someone else’s gold-painted wheelchair.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, was published by Red Hen Press in 2013. Her work has appeared in venues including Best New Poets, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Toast. A long-time Seattleite, she now lives in London, England.