I’ve been following Stacy’s blog, stacyverb, for at least a year now, and am consistently impressed by her enviable sewing and jewelry-making skills, her bold use of fun prints, and her dazzling smile. She’s also a smart, curious, enthusiastic blogger with a true lust for life, and it really shows. She’s a joy to read, I tell ya.
When reader L. wrote to me recently and asked if I’d post about style and visibility for women with mobility issues and other physical disabilities, I knew that Stacy could offer far more insight than I, and immediately hit her up for a guest post. Read on for her thoughts on her own sartorial challenges, and how she meets them.
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Hello, Already Pretty readers! Sally asked me to talk to you all about my experiences as a style-minded woman who uses a wheelchair.
Let me start by saying that all disabilities are different, and each person’s individual experience with the same disability is different. I don’t pretend to speak for all women with disabilities, or even all women in wheelchairs, but I do hope that some of my insights could be useful for many people, whether they use wheelchairs or not.
I was born with my disability (osteogenesis imperfecta), so for me, physical limitations have always been a part of my life, and they’re not something I spend a lot of time dwelling on. But for many people, especially those who have become disabled later through illness or accident, it’s only natural to focus at first on all the things your body can’t do anymore. Personal style can be a way back into thinking of your body as something other than a source of frustration. Regardless of when your disability became part of your life, maybe you spend a lot of time getting prodded, scanned, etc., by medical professionals. If so, sometimes you may feel like your body doesn’t even belong to you. But it does, and you get to decide how to adorn it.
For anyone with a disability who’s interested in experimenting with style, there aren’t exactly any rules or road maps to follow. It’s not like we see models and celebrities in wheelchairs rolling down the runway during fashion week or on the red carpet on Oscar night. This is basically uncharted territory, which means it can be disorienting – but also liberating!
When women in wheelchairs are deciding what to wear, a lot of the standard style advice simply doesn’t apply. For example: I’m short, but even if I dress in one solid color from head to toe as some experts would advise, my figure will never appear as one long, sleek, continuous line, because it’s not: I’m sitting down. My style line, such as it is, is always kind of folded at 90-degree angles. I might wear heels, but shoes will never make me taller: I’m sitting down. (Maybe you’re sensing a theme here.)
Personally, I do have some guidelines I go by, based on experience. I favor three-quarter length sleeves and avoid bracelets, because when I’m wheeling my chair, anything on my wrist will rub or bang against the wheels and end up getting ruined. But I can’t say that’s a broad rule for everyone who uses a wheelchair (for women with electric wheelchairs, for example, it’s probably not an issue). Everybody’s situation is different. Coming back to shoes, some people’s ankles don’t bend at the proper angle to wear anything besides flats. Others might feel free to wear super-high heels, knowing they don’t have to worry about whether or not they can walk in them!
As with much style advice, dressing a body that has physical limitations really comes down to accentuating the positive. Wear silhouettes that work for your shape, whatever it is. Depending on your physical situation, if you use a manual wheelchair or crutches, you might have great arms. Show them off! Tanks and halter neck tops can be your friends. Wear flattering colors. Play with clothes and find what makes you feel good, while still being practical for your disability. I love bold – even wacky – prints, so I take advantage of the fact that I’m not afraid of these things by wearing them a lot. It helps that I love to sew, because it’s easier to find crazy prints in fabric than it is in ready-made garments. I also make jewelry. A colorful necklace or unusual earrings can be a great way to draw attention to your face and away from other parts of your body that might make you feel self-conscious.
Ah yes, body image – how does using a wheelchair affect that? Again, it’s impossible for me to generalize. Maybe women with obvious disabilities struggle less with body image issues than other women because they have more pressing physical things to deal with. (If your legs can’t walk, some cellulite on your thighs probably isn’t your biggest concern.) Or maybe disabled women struggle more with body image, because their bodies are even farther from the “ideal” than the average woman’s is.
Like I said, this is mostly uncharted territory. It’s very rare to see people with visible disabilities in the media unless they’re talking about … their disabilities. (I’m doing it right now!) I don’t really have the opportunity to compare myself to other women like me because I just don’t see any. If we all had to “relate” to characters on TV shows, for example, I’d lose interest every time a character stood up and walked across a room, because I can’t relate to that. So I’m much more likely to look at someone’s outfit and think about parts of it that would or wouldn’t work for me, rather than comparing her body to mine. I already know our bodies are different – that’s just a given.
Women with obvious disabilities may be invisible in the culture at large, but that doesn’t mean we have to be invisible in real life. When it comes to matters of style, we shouldn’t make assumptions like, “No one is going to look at us anyway, so why bother?” But we also shouldn’t let self-consciousness get the best of us and make us worry that everyone is staring at us all the time. Why be afraid to take risks with fashion, of all things? If we try a look that doesn’t work, what will happen – will it cause physical pain? Will we need expensive medication or rehabilitation? Perspective is key. Our bodies have given us trouble, to be sure, but playing with style can be a way for them to let us have fun as well.