Unrealistic standards of beauty are destroying the body image of people with disabilities

In a room with a red wall, a person with their back to us is looking at their own face in a handheld mirror. To their left, some clothes hang on a hanger, and to their right there are fairy lights and a picture of their face, which looks melancholy.

Ableism leads many people with disabilities to think of their own bodies as unattractive.

As someone who works with and counsels people with disabilities, and regularly writes on the subject of disability and sexuality, I have concluded that negative body image definitely impacts people’s sexual expression.

Body image is the inner picture we have of our outer appearance, which is shaped by the outside world. It is influenced by how our culture(s) define attractiveness and ability. It is shaped by the social value placed on our bodies. Poor body image can result in lower levels of sexual satisfaction, avoidance of sex, lack of orgasm and a general discomfort with sexual activity.

Almost every client of mine with a disability has told me that whenever they have sought to express themselves sexually, their thoughts have been thwarted by those around them.

For men with physical disabilities, especially those who use devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes, and prosthetic limbs, it is difficult to live up to the masculine ideals of sexual expression that society holds up to them. A young man once told me, ‘I’m different from men whom I find very attractive and I’m conscious that my chances of competing with them are non-existent.  I think I won’t ever get a sexual partner because I don’t have the confidence to go up to other people.’

It is taken for granted that women with disabilities will remain single. One girl with locomotor disability once wrote to me, ‘I have never heard from my parents that I will ever become a mother, or (that) someday I will get married. Neither of my parents ever felt that I would someday become a sexually attractive female. Marriage remains a distant dream for me.’

We are constantly bombarded with images of  what society tells us is ‘perfection’ – smooth, tan skin, limbs that go on forever, hair that is thick and straight, and eyes that are catlike and sultry. This allows complexes to creep in, and for people who are left out of this narrative to feel self-doubt and shame.

The more that people are exposed to media, the more we are faced with the thought of filling the gap between how we are ‘supposed’ to look and what we actually look like. Many people continuously strive hard to achieve the highly unrealistic and arbitrary standards of beauty that we are besieged with. Being unable to do so, they start disliking themselves up to the extent of hating and rejecting their bodies. Anyone who is born with or acquires a disability or a has face or body that disrupts these standards of beauty often finds it hard to sustain and nourish positive self-esteem.

Because of bitter experiences of rejection, people with disabilities learn to separate their bodies from their selves, view their bodies and lived experiences as different from others, and often disregard their own knowledge and strengths. Ableism plays a vital role in the distortion of their body image and they start regarding their bodies to be damaged and unattractive, thinking of them as bodies that need to be either ‘fixed’ or ignored.

Many disassociate from their physical selves by numbing their sexual desire.

As a counsellor, I always suggest that one should never, ever numb one’s desires. I work with people to help them learn to love and admire their own bodies, to be comfortable in their own skins. Here are a few tips that I can share that can help people to start doing this:

  • Make a list of all the qualities you like about your body. Keep adding to the list, and share it with your best friend or your potential partner.
  • Don’t hesitate to look at your naked body in the mirror. Get used to it. Admire your uniqueness.
  • Listen to compliments people give you and try to accept and believe them.
  • Try to look at images of all kinds of bodies and learn to realise that there is beauty in difference.
  • If you can, speak to another person with a disability who is sexually confident.
  • Learn how to give and receive a massage.
  • Do not be scared to explore the erotic potential of your body and find out what which parts gives you pleasure.
  • Never compare yourself to others, and start cherishing what you have.
  • Treasure your sexual self and pleasures.
  • Try to feel emotionally closer to your body; this awareness can help you enjoy your sexuality more readily. This will also make you a more perceptive lover.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal