26 January, 2010

Visible Disabilities, Clothing, Advertising, and Gok Wan

I originally wrote this for my own blog, but this is an edited version.

Isabel on the DMHFfH facebook group raised a question about Gok Wan's new series of How To Look Good Naked, which started on Channel 4 in the UK last week. It is devoted to women with visible disabilities (Tracy, who is in a wheelchair, was the focus last week - the other women are blind and an amputee) who want to have a makeover and feel more confident in their bodies. MsKitton (she of our twitter feed) linked to this blog, and which point I decided I wanted to have a look at it.

I hadn't heard about this particular series, as I don't watch an awful lot of TV, but the idea struck a chord with me. After going to see a gig on Sunday, I decided that I needed an extra leg getting home and got my walking stick out (I have fibromyalgia, a chronic illness, that affects my mobility, co-ordination and ability to think clearly; I use a stick occasionally to help keep my balance - otherwise, I am not visibly disabled). I was wearing a miniskirt (with mini bustle bum-ruffles) and pink tights and boots, and I thought I looked alright. Apparently, however, I was accessorizing with a second head the way I was being stared at once I got my stick out. Attention people: just because a person has a walking stick, doesn't mean they immediately lose all interest in clothing, or mutate into an old lady. If you don't stop staring I'll shove said stick so far up your arse you'll be able to taste it.

So, yes, anyway. How to Look Good Naked... with a Difference was on Channel 4 last week, but I watched it on 4OD earlier (I fucking love internet tv catch up stuff, despite what I said about not watching a lot of tv). I don't usually watch HtLGN, mostly because I'm not a massive fan of makeover shows - I'm uncomfortable with the public critiquing of women's appearance, although at the same time I can see how it can help women become more open with each other about their body issues. I do like that HtLGN encourages body-acceptance over surgery or diets to change the women's physical appearance - it's message of confidence in one's self is a good one, at heart. That and I find Gok Wan a bit much a lot of the time. Ah well.

Like Sadie Stein at Jezebel, though, my biggest issue is that they feel they need to devote a whole series to disabled women - in a way, it is still excluding a group by virtue of circling them out for "special attention". To me, it shouldn't be a special attention thing - there should just be disabled women involved in the "regular" HtLGN series without a big thing being made about it. However, because disabled women (and men, for that matter) are so rarely seen outside of alternative and fetish modeling, perhaps drawing a big red circle and screaming "oi, dickheads, pay attention" is the way forward; we have to increase the visibility of disabled persons in shows like HtLGN (and not Britan's Missing Top Model, which was just endless rounds of trying to make typically-attractive girls who happened to be disabled look like able-bodied models while still screaming "no, they're disabled, see, they're different, we're being inclusive") before they can be seen as a normal part of the advertising and fashion industry.

I liked Tracy (the first participant) for her honesty - and her bravery - in admitting that she didn't like her body. I understand her anger at having a body that doesn't quite work "right", at being that one step further away from being "perfect". I admire her confidence, and how much she did change (while I might get almost-naked for LSG's charity drive for Haiti, total strangers in a very public place is not happening). While I don't think being confident in one's body requires the ability to get naked in front of a crowd of strangers, or that it's particularly feminist to do so, at the same time I do like that HtLGN does not require the women taking part to be typically beautiful to do so - there is a part of my feminist side that sees nudity of all forms as an important move away from restrictive bodily ideals.

It is important that disabled women and men have the same access to fashion as able-bodied people; while Tracy showed that there are sometimes clothing has to be adapted to meet the needs of a disabled person - elasticated panels in the waistband of jeans, for example - there is no real difference between asking yourself "will the sleeves catch in my wheels?" or "how long can I wear these heels for before I won't be able to walk any more?" and "will this top be too big in the chest?". They're just bodies, different sorts of bodies with different needs - but the people who inhabit them want - and deserve - the same access to and enjoyment of clothes.

The Torygraph article on the show, which is quite good.

Next step: realising just because someone isn't in a wheelchair or using a stick, doesn't mean they're not disabled.

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