On Disabilities, Relationships, and Gender Roles

As America has begun defining and redefining gender roles and gender types, now is the perfect time to explore the effects physical disabilities have on sexuality and gender types. Disabled people are often overlooked when people discuss the tensions that arise from stereotypical gender roles, however, trying to fit these societal molds for females and males can be difficult when living with a disability. Indisputably, gender typing impacts everyone: women are told they should not pursue certain careers, men are asked to mask their emotions, and boys and girls are expected to play different sports. Disabled people are no exception to this, and yet it is harder for them to meet these expectations. Superficial distinctions between genders are the most obvious culprit of this issue. For instance many disabled women are unable to apply makeup or wear high heels. Men often cannot attain the “ideal” muscle tone due to chronic fatigue or inability to lift weights. Admittedly, these are superficial qualities, yet when searching for a romantic partner or perhaps even a friend, people look for these qualities before seeking out someone who is kind, intelligent, or funny. Yes, people do search for these more substantial qualities too, but one’s physical appearance is more accessible at a glance than one’s personality is. Disabled people are not immune to the desire for companionship, however, they often struggle to find a partner willing to accept them. Disabled men are not typically viewed as masculine and strong and disabled women are not typically viewed as beautiful and feminine.

As an 18 year old woman with spastic cerebral palsy, I have faced the pressure to be feminine and elegant. Comparing myself to my peers, I always believed I fell short of society’s finicky beauty standards. While other girls walked gracefully down the hallways in middle school, I stumbled because I drag my toes when I walk. Other girls could go ice skating with their friends, and laugh over the few times they clumsily faltered, whereas I could not even step foot near an ice rink without flailing. Yes, these are minuscule aspects of life, but once I missed out on one event in middle school, I missed out on another, and gradually, there was a barrier between me and my able-bodied classmates. Noone wanted to take the ramp instead of the stairs; noone wanted to wait for me to catch up.

It is no surprise that in middle school, I developed severe body image issues and social anxiety. I thought no guys would want to talk to me because I stutter, and am hard to understand at times. I thought that compared to other girls, I was high maintenance because of my mobility issues (e.g. I need help cutting up food and carrying my backpack). Due to my lack of confidence and perceived lack of femininity, I began wearing makeup and dresses everyday. I also began to exercise and count calories, which gradually became an obsession. If I could not be as elegant as other girls, I would at least be skinny, or so that was what I told myself. I managed to lose 24 lbs, but I also lacked a social life and a sense of purpose. No amount of weight loss or makeup could replace love, and yet the lonelier I became, the harder I tried to do that. I never went to school without some sort of cosmetic product on my face for six consecutive years, I exercised religiously, and my mind was fixated on calories, however this was all a distraction from my loneliness and perception that I was inadequate. I was a slave to femininity, and yet I constantly felt like I was not feminine enough because of my disability.

I now know that I am not alone in my endeavors to fit society’s expectations for my gender; my guy friends who are disabled commonly lift weights too heavy for them, try to exist on protein, and conceal their emotions. Often when I ask them why they go to these lengths to be masculine, they admit that women like “tough guys,” and that their physical limitations often inhibit masculinity. Instead of lifting their girlfriends, disabled men rely on personal care attendants to lift them out of their wheelchairs, instead of fixing up an old car, they rely on public transportation just to go to work every morning. This leaves the perception of childlikeness or vulnerability on women. Most women do not want to have to worry about their significant others’ health concerns for the rest of their lives, so they often do not consider these men fit to be in a relationship. The vicious cycle continues as disabled men try to change these perceptions, but in the effort, they isolate themselves further. No woman wants to talk to a man who only cares about lifting weights or wheelchair basketball, yet no woman wants to talk to a man who is weak. Of course, there are men and women in the world who see beyond appearances, but people do not always realize when they are being shallow. Everyday, people share pictures of physically attractive celebrities on social media, and everyday I overhear snippets of conversations about a “hot guy” some girl met at a party or how “cool” he was; all too infrequently, I hear girls talking about a nice guy they met, yet it cannot be said that nice guys do not exist. Nice people exist, however, everyone is too busy concerning themselves with appearances to notice.

It is also worth noting that women like me with spastic diplegia may (fortunately) never be housewives; cooking is difficult with one hand, doing laundry is a cardiovascular workout, and if I tried to mop the floor, there is a good chance I would slip. This extensive list of limitations may deter people from befriending, dating, or even marrying a disabled person. Perhaps I am foolishly a hopeless romantic, but I was taught that love goes beyond the surface. If people cannot see past a physical disability, they may miss out on the companionship of an amazing person. This is why I want to challenge conventional gender roles; they are barriers to people everywhere.

The recent change in gender roles is controversial, and angers people who fear change, however too many people are isolated and ostracized because of these social norms. These issues need to be taken into account when considering the effects of gender roles. I will never fulfill the stereotypical female role that society insists I do, and yet I am a woman who can be a productive member of society.

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