The Art of Disability: ReBuilding Body and Self

Written by Marilyn Carr-Haris

VenusMiloMy perception of beauty has been shaped by images of human bodies in western art.  In my undergraduate art history classes, I studied the various ways in which artists of different eras and cultures attempted to build or paint the perfect human form.  In Classical Greece, the standard of beauty was epitomized by sculptures of gods and goddess that resembled Olympic athletes.  This classical standard of beauty had a profound influence on artists throughout the western world.  In darkened lecture halls, I viewed slides of perfect human bodies encapsulated in marble, stone and paint: Michaelango’s sculpture of David, Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the universal man, and nineteenth century impressionist paintings of voluptuous naked female bodies.  Even images of the crucifixion depicted a beautifully proportioned body of Christ.

These artists defined physical beauty as perfect, asymmetrical and well-proportioned human bodies – with the exception of crumbling Greek statues with missing limbs.  While there were various interpretations of beauty – for example, large fleshy women were revered in the late nineteenth century – the canon of western art does not include images of disabled or disfigured people.  Disability did not fit within the classical standard of beauty.

41BdnzaqVDL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_While studying art history, my interpretation of beauty was challenged as I gradually lost the ability to walk.  A spinal cord infection caused paralysis in my legs which resulted in a slow and unsteady gait.  I began to feel like a statue with missing limbs and felt diminished by the loss of function.   The forearm crutches and wheelchair symbolized a lack of ability – or disability.  Rehabilitation professionals worked with me to help me overcome my disability to enable me to fit in with my able-bodied peers.  In the rehabilitation hospital, I met another spinal cord patient – a young man in a wheelchair – who felt that women in wheelchairs were unattractive.  Strangers passing me on the streets of Toronto would say “you’re so beautiful…what a shame.”  These attitudes of health care professionals, strangers and even disabled peers confused me.  Why was it necessary to overcome my disability?  Why aren’t disabled women considered attractive?  Why is it so shocking to see a young woman in a wheelchair?  I came to realize that people were challenged by the image of a beautiful woman in a wheelchair because it upset their concept of physical beauty.  The book Design Meets Disability by Graham Pullin turns our ideas on their heads and is a great read – this book is featured in our BOOK REVIEW section.

412pVg+ScTL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_Reframe Your Life: Transforming Your Pain into Purpose’ by Stephen Arterburn. ReBuildingYou depends on your support to grow –BUY HERE – the prices are exactly the same and you’ll be supporting RBY at the same time.  Thank you!

As I adapted to my new body, I began searching for alternative models of beauty. In Toronto, I watched a dance performance of disabled children from India. During the performance, wheelchairs, crutches and canes became extensions of the dancers’ bodies; their “props” added to the fluidity of movement and depth of the choreography.  Inspired by this performance, I searched for other super-abled dancers. On YouTube, I found a troupe of Chinese amputee dancers whose performance challenges the idea that amputees have suffered a loss that needs to be overcome.  The choreography depicts an armless woman and a legless man drawing on their mutual strengths to become one unit.  Another popular video of a disabled breakdancer named “Lazy Legs” – which has received 187,000 views on YouTube shows how crutches can make a person super-abled.  Lazy Legs uses his crutches to enhance the art of breakdancing.

What inspired me to write this article was a talk by former paralympian and model Aimee Mullins. Her talkHow my legs gave me super powers focuses on her prosthetic legs – she has over a dozen pairs that include wooden legs hand-carved with grapevines and magnolias, “glass” legs, legs made out of soil, cheetah legs and “jelly-fish legs.” As a model with two prosthetic limbs, Aimee questions what it means to have a beautiful and sexy body and a disability.  She asserts that disability…

… is no longer a conversation about ‘overcoming deficiency’. It’s a conversation about augmentation. It’s a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is they want to create in that space. Sopeople that society once considered disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment.

Augmentation.  Recreating space.  Disabled architects, designers and creators.  What a powerful and amazing idea – that disabled people have the power and ability to recreate their bodies in whatever form they choose.  And that disability can be both whimsical and fashion-able.  What are some other ways of beautifying disability and making it fashion-able?  My counsellor friend Julie has suggested that walkers, wheelchairs and other mobility aids be redesigned to look “less medical.”  Imagine flamingo pink wheelchairs – or even wheelchairs that don’t look like wheelchairs.  Can a wheelchair give a person super-powers?  Can wheelchairs be redesigned to accomodate dancing?


Is it possible to make canes into a fashion accessory – and that they be used by models on the catwalks, perhaps?  The possibilities are endless.  In this new world, mobility aids and prosthetic limbs do not need to symbolize loss.  With cutting edge technology combined with high fashion, these devices can make a personsuper-abled and fashion-able. Let’s follow Aimee Mullins‘ lead by creating a new standard that equates disability with beauty.