“This is it; there’s no going back now,” I thought, as I stared at the two words that typically struck fear into my heart.
My disability — the secret to which I had clung for much of my life — now hovered above a published piece of writing. A piece of writing that centered around my personal experiences living with mild cerebral palsy. A piece of writing that — unbeknownst to me at the time — would transform my perception of my body forever.
I, like many other women, have had a fraught relationship with my body for the majority of my life. From a young age, I internalized messages from the media about the “ideal” woman’s body — the type of body society prizes. Tall. Slender. Symmetrical. Able-bodied.
Despite my understanding that one particular body type was perceived as the ideal, I have long found beauty in all bodies — with the glaring exception of my own.
I have always been tall, long-legged and slender — outwardly, I was an apparent manifestation of societal beauty standards — but my body image was complicated both by internalized ableism and by the immutability of my life circumstances.
I had internalized so much ableism throughout my life that — despite seeing beauty in other women with disabilities — I personally felt I needed to be able-bodied to feel beautiful.
But having been born with cerebral palsy, I knew that I could never be able-bodied, and could never attain the body — and I presumed, the feeling of beauty — for which I strove.
Cerebral palsy — a neurological disorder affecting movement, balance and posture — can cause certain muscle groups to remain in a constant state of tension and weakness. As a result — due to muscle atrophy — my affected leg is skinnier and slightly shorter than the other. Although this subtle difference has rarely been apparent to other people, for years, it was the focal point of my bodily criticisms — and my desire to conceal it from others wholly consumed my thoughts.
Eventually, I arrived at the understanding that my fixation on my disabled body was not only unhealthy and unproductive, but also was actively holding me back from achieving my dreams. How was I to resolve the years of internalized ableism that forged my negative body image?
I knew that if I ever wanted to make peace with my body and find solace in my identity as a woman with a disability, I needed to not only write about my experience living with cerebral palsy, but publish my writing.
The prospect was daunting, as I had spent years hiding my medical condition to the best of my ability and attempting to pass as able-bodied. However, I knew that publicly declaring my status as a disabled woman would allow me to love and appreciate my body in its entirety, so I forged ahead.
I began writing, but three sentences in, my breath caught in my chest and my heart raced. I was on the verge of tears as I typed the two words that evoked painful, visceral emotion.
“I can’t do this,” I thought. “I don’t want the world to know my medical history. I need to stop writing.”
Several days later, however, the alluring prospect of a positive body image and a changed life drew me back in. As I wrote, my fear and self-loathing was stripped away in tandem with my guise of able-bodiedness. I felt completely vulnerable, but through the raw nature of my writing, I began to nurture a quiet self-acceptance. But as I edited, polished, and prepared to submit my writing, I began to worry. Am I making the right choice? What if nothing changes? Have I poured out my heart and soul in vain?