On Beauty and Disability

AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Born with a rare congenital disorder called sacral agenesis, philosopher and journalist Chloe Cooper Jones gets a drink with a stranger whose ideas about beauty send her deep into reflection about her own body, being invisible, and the Western ideal of beauty. The man shows her a photo of a supposedly stunning beauty. “I’d wondered, not for the first time,” Jones writes in The Believer, “what my life would have been like had I been born with this woman’s hair and face and body. The recurrent thought is that I could have had anything I wanted.” Rather than leaving the bar after the man makes a disgusting confession, Jones probes deeper to examine the misleading idea of objective, unalterable beauty; how men use her, “some sad cripple,” as a prop to make themselves look sensitive; and the way getting to know a woman personally does and does not change men’s perception of beauty.

“This may be more than you want to know,” he said, “but if a woman is not, like, model-beautiful, I can’t even keep up an erection when I’m with her.”

I had multiple feelings collide. I was disgusted by what he was saying, but I wanted him to keep talking. It was clear he could confess all this to me because I was not visible on the same plane as these other women—the threes, the sixes, the tens. I saw that my body barred me from his realm of possible women. The feeling brought with it a strange relief, as if I’d been looking in a distorted mirror and someone had just replaced it with a normal one. What he reflected back wasn’t kind, but it was clear. This is how men see me. The indifferent man offered no excuses or apologies.

“Really, it’s a curse,” he continued. “I’d like to be able to date more women. But it’s not like you can control these things.”

“Can’t you?” I said.

“Of course not,” he said, looking at me in disbelief.

Jones recalls a relationship she had in her youth, when a boy she knew suddenly found her attractive, and how his change in perception permanently altered her.

“You grew on me; you made me laugh enough times that I started to want to be around you more; you are smarter than my last girl.”

I remember the pang of pride I felt when Jim said this. I remember how it motivated me, like a dog wanting to please its owner, to prove my worth to him over and again. 

Jim’s perceptual shift, not what he said in the library, is the worst part of this story. It embedded a damaging idea in me, one I’d recognize deeply when I read Scarry years later: beauty is a matter of particulars aligning correctly. My body put me in a bracketed, undercredited sense of beauty. But if I could get the particulars to line up just right, I could be re-seen, discovered like the palm tree is discovered. In order to be accepted as a whole person deserving of the whole range of human desires, I had to be extraordinary in all other aspects. My worth as a woman wasn’t apparent otherwise. 

In this new light, I started to see my work, my intellect, my skills, my moments of humor or goodness, not as valuable in themselves, but as ways of easing the impact of my ugliness. If only I could pile up enough good qualities, they could obscure my unacceptable body. 

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