‘What on earth has Rene Zellweger done to her face?’ That seems to be the question every other person (me included) has been asking this week. The ‘Chicago’ star’s drastic physical transformation has been the latest event to trigger a thousand discussions on the subject of the idealised body beautiful and the pressure on women to live up to impossible airbrushed standards of celebrity. But amid the arguments about what such images are doing to the minds of impressionable girls and insecure women up and down the country, I can’t help but think where disabled women like me fit into the picture.
I find it sad and more than a bit disturbing that in today’s world the currency of success and value seems to be outward appearance. I like to think that I am above such shallowness. I have always tried to tell myself that because of my disability no amount of primping and polishing will let me compete with the socially defined model of attractiveness so the pressure’s off. I’m a sheep in the Grand National; totally unsuitable for the field so I might as well just enjoy nibbling at the grass. I don’t see myself in the media so how can I be affected by it? But that’s not the case. The truth is I like to look good, spend hours trawling the shops for the latest fashions, go to highly impractical lengths to dye and style my hair. But why? Who is it I’m trying to impress? Am I, like so many women, compelled to conform to something I can never achieve?
I guess part of the blame falls on my mother (she will say I blame her for everything so why not this?) It is a running joke in our family that my grandparents must have seriously psychologically damaged her by being unable to afford to buy her a Barbie doll so she’s just using me instead!
When I was a child she would spend money that she could ill afford on nice clothes for me because she was determined that I ‘wouldn’t look disabled.’ Now before I receive hundred of slurs against her, let me explain something. My mum isn’t and has never been ashamed of me having a disability nor has she tried to hide it. What she meant by not wanting me to look disabled was that she had seen a lot of disabled people who had been dressed with pure practicality in mind and didn’t see why just because I had a disability I couldn’t look cute, pretty or modern just like my able bodied peers.
I think her sentiments underline a problem faced by a lot of disabled women, especially ones who live in care homes. Having a physical disability means that you have to keep comfort and ease of access in mind at all times in regards to clothing. The problem is clothes that are comfortable and practical are very often unflattering. Tracksuit bottoms are great when it comes to dressing yourself and going to the loo unaided but they aren’t the most stylish garments. Personally, I love jeans and was thrilled a few years ago when the elasticated, stretch jeans came into fashion. Finally there was a pair of decently cut jeans that didn’t come with a lot of fiddly buttons and zips and had a bootleg cut that that fitted nicely over my shoes. I bought literally dozens of pairs and wear them all the time. But fashions come and go and over the pass year or so I have noticed that this style is on its way out, meaning that the one stylish style of trouser I could manage myself is becoming impossible to find on the high street.
Another garment I really struggle with is shoes. I have a paradoxical relationship with footwear. I own more pairs that Sarah Jessica Parker and Imelda Marcos combined and yet I hate shoe shopping. Seriously, I LOATH it. So why do I own so many shoes? Because it’s virtually impossible for me to buy a pair of attractive, comfortable, flat dress shoes that stay on my feet so when I find a pair that somewhat fits the bill I buy them. Correction, my mother buys them when she sees them, I have got to the stage where I get so disheartened by mooning over gorgeous stilettos that I could never wear that I refuse point blank to stay in a shoe shop for more than half a hour.
Which sort of brings me back to the question of the acceptable face of beauty in the media. The fact is I try to dress in a fashionable manner that suits me but the image I project to the world isn’t the real me. Not how I want to be seen. It is a compromise between what I like, what suits me and what is practical. The really ironic thing is when I dress in the style that truly expresses my personality it doesn’t conform to the mainstream because I don’t want it to. I am, by nature, the outsider. Not because I’m disabled but because I love standing out and hate conformity. Over the years I have described my style as gothic, rocker, cowgirl, high glam, wannabee drag queen, retro, nerdy, out of style, on trend and every combination in between. I guess what I’m saying is you can’t take much notice of what’s going on on the catwalk or in Hollywood because at the end of the day everyone has their own taste and body type. I will never look like Rene Zellweger but then again neither does Rene Zellweger!