Columns Health and Wellbeing

Disability Looks Like This: On disability, misogyny, and performing womanhood wrong

Illustration by Emer Sukonik.

When I was younger, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being a girl all wrong. I was hilariously awful at makeup, I couldn’t do dance or gymnastics or even play netball without feeling embarrassed about where my limbs were; my nails always looked (and to be honest, still do look) a mess. For me growing up, womanhood felt like a performance that I could never get quite ‘right’, and my all-girls school was a gigantic, terrifying stage. As shallow as it seems, when you’re a young girl in that sort of environment, popularity is to an extent very dependent on aesthetics, and when you have undiagnosed dyspraxia, your nails and fingers are painfully bitten down, you’re (somewhat regrettably) out as queer, and you’ve decided to cut all your hair off to be… edgy, or something, things can get quite lonely. 

A weirdly defining moment for me was very early on, in primary school, on a Y6 residential trip, when we were painting our nails in the girls’ dormitory and one of the other girls noticed mine and decided to shriek with laughter in front of all the other girls at how badly I’d done them (thanks, Cerys). The others’ nails were all so perfectly smooth and within the lines. In reality it was so small and inconsequential, but at the time I wanted nothing more than to be able to have nails painted like that, to have access to the secret manual they all seemed to have read that taught them how to look and act like that. 

Since then I’ve learnt that there is no one way to be a woman. It has nothing to do with makeup or clothes, or elegance or lack thereof, and gender is really all about who you are personally, how you feel inside, how you want to identify and express yourself. But I still think that my dyspraxia has affected my relationship with gender in ways I didn’t realise at all when I was younger. I’ve even had nightmares at times that I’ll accidentally fall into a terrifyingly traditional marriage, but be awful at cooking and cleaning and generally stay-at-home-mothering, and find myself a woman without a purpose she can thrive in. And I still do my eyeliner every morning, despite shaky hands, in the one very specific way that I’ve learnt over years and years to do my eyeliner, even though it sometimes takes over half an hour to get right. Is that because I actively want to, or because society has taught me I have to, to get closer to a standard which in reality is impossible for any of us to reach? There’s a lot to unpack.

Society puts so many toxic expectations upon women, on the way they dress and act and look, on their place within their homes and their families. And as a disabled cis white woman, I’m viewed far more favourably by society than many disabled trans women, or disabled women of colour. For them, the expectations can be far harsher and more rigid, as they face oppression that is both ableist and misogynistic but also transphobic, racist, or anti-Black. I think disability interacts with these expectations upon women and misogyny-affected people, especially the more marginalised among us, in a way we haven’t really talked about much before. When society expects you to look beautiful in a very specific, able-bodied way, coordinate yourself beautifully, carry out all the household chores for your family or your male partner, and your disability makes it harder or impossible for you to do these sorts of things, where do you go from there? It means that it’s easy to feel like a failure before you realise that your womanhood should not come with inbuilt burdens and is not for society to define. 

Aside from this, disabled women and misogyny-affected people often find that their gender makes their life as a disabled person far harder in other ways.  Disabled people are often the subject of ‘inspiration porn’ – shallow media about disabled people created to make able-bodied people feel moved, motivated, or ‘inspired’, while patronising those disabled people themselves and usually not asking them for any input or even consent while creating that content. But the fetishization of disabled people goes even further than that, and disabled women are often literally fetishized on the internet as a porn category. Unfortunately, oppression often functions by demonizing and fetishizing a specific group simultaneously, and so many disabled women, especially those with physical disabilities, find that dating and relationships with able-bodied people can be difficult due to the fetishistic treatment they often face. In fact, a whole online community, known as “devotees”, exists solely for those who fetishize disability. This isn’t just finding a woman who happens to be disabled attractive, but instead reducing these women down to their disability alone, seeing them as a category rather than a whole person. Naturally this objectifying mindset spills into the ways women with physical disabilities are treated in real life. 

Moreover, ADHD, autism, and other forms of neurodivergence are notoriously under-diagnosed in women, especially women of colour – partially because our stereotype of neurodivergence is of a young white cis male, but also because they tend to present in different ways in women. ADHD in women often presents itself as disorganisation, passive inattention, and emotional dysregulation, far from the overtired concept of ADHD only affecting hyper-active young boys. Autism in women is also under-diagnosed because, it’s thought, autistic women and misogyny-affected people are forced to ‘mask’ (hide their disability and appear neurotypical) more than autistic men are, and also because the stereotype of a typical autistic person is, again, a white cis man. I’ve even read that dyspraxia is underdiagnosed in girls too, perhaps because when a girl is especially bad at sport in primary and secondary school, it’s expected, but when a boy is, it’s far more surprising. 

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has received a fair amount of attention in today’s activism circles, and critical disability theory, an approach which looks at disability within wider culture and structures of oppression, argues that ableism operates jointly with racism and misogyny to create a system which is inherently severely disadvantaged to disabled people of colour and disabled women. And yet disability still often gets left out of mainstream activist conversation. On both a structural and a deeply personal level, the already harsh societal standards we still place upon women today can be even harsher for disabled women, who often face disregard or mistreatment from medical professionals, and horrific fetishization or demonization both online and in person. It’s upsetting to know that this article could have been far longer than it is, and I’m sure that I haven’t covered everything I could have. Ultimately it’s only through making our disability activism fully intersectional, and making sure we don’t neglect disability in wider activist circles, that we can start to understand how to make change. We have to discard previously upheld patronising and fetishizing images of disabled people in the media, ensure that we platform and uplift disabled voices, making everything we do accessible to everyone, and acknowledge that ableism does not operate in a vacuum, but instead there are many more impactful structures of oppression at play. 

Ellie Redpath

I'm Ellie (she/her), a third year classicist at Magdalen and your disability columnist for this year! Activism and writing are my passions so I'm hoping to combine them in this column. You can usually find me procrastinating in one way or another - working on things with the SU Women's Campaign, dreaming of the day charity shops can open again, and spending far too much time on Twitter.