You are beatifulIt was enlightening and frustrating all at the same time. The game was called Scruples. Popular in the mid 1980’s, it was a game where all the players were posed morally challenging questions such as:
“You invited a friend over for dinner who is a vegetarian. You are feeling proud of your bean stew until you remembered that you used a beef stock. Do you tell your friend?”

“You are running late for an appointment and the only parking space you can find that is open is an accessible one. Do you take it?”

If memory serves me correctly, players answer the questions, saying what they would or would not do in each situation. The rest of the players listen to the answer and have the right to challenge if they don’t believe what is being said. Many times I remember playing the game with family and friends and yelling “I challenge” when the answer wasn’t in line with what I knew about the person. A lively debate usually ensued.
****************************************************************************       A few weeks ago, Australia’s Women’s Weekly magazine featured Turia Pitt on the cover. The 26-year-old was running an ultra marathon in 2011 when she got caught in a brush fire. Sixty-four percent of her body was burned and she lost all the fingers on her right hand. She was quoted as saying that she hoped her being featured on the cover sent a message to young girls that “confidence equals beauty.”

In 1987, Ellen Stohl, then 23, a young woman who was a Cal State student and was paralyzed several years prior in a car accident, wrote a letter to Playboy and inquired if she could be in their centerfold. “Society’s emphasis on perfection puts a damper on self-esteem.” She wrote. She wanted to do a photo session based on who she is and not the fact that she had a disability. What was impressive was that Playboy’s first questions were “What do you look like? Are you Playboy material?” The move was not without risks. Stohl herself was worried about how her scarred and flabby body would be received, and Cal State was worried that if they were associated with Playboy, patrons might refuse to give funds to the university.

As expected, the reaction to the Playboy spread was mixed. Some people thought she was exploiting her disability, others thought it was a huge step forward in changing society’s perception of people with disabilities. Ms. Stohl now lives in California with her husband and her daughter. Currently, she teaches at Cal State University and tours the country lecturing on sexuality and disability, self-esteem and body image issues. When asked in a recent interview if she would do the Playboy shoot again, her immediate answer was “absolutely!”

A few years back a student in high school named Lizzie Valasquez was randomly on the internet one day. She came across a video of herself and she clicked on it. The video was eight seconds long and had no sound, but the caption read “the ugliest woman alive.” Ms. Valasquez is one of three people known in the world that was born with a rare disorder that makes it impossible for her to gain weight; she has never weighed more than sixty-four pounds. Obviously, she is extremely thin, causing some of her facial features to appear somewhat disproportionate. She was devastated when she discovered that four million people had seen the video and thousands of people had commented on it. Not one of those comments was positive. In fact, many offered her tips on how to kill herself.

She realized that responding to all of that hate would serve no purpose, so she refrained, but there was a time when she would ask God every night to make her look normal. If she didn’t look so different, she thought, all her problems would go away. Ms. Valasquez now travels the country as a motivational speaker, sharing a message of hope and inspiration. Her presentation is titled “What Defines You?” She has written three books and recently obtained a college degree in Communication Studies. Over time she has come to understand that “God made me look different so that I could see the beauty that is not defined by the media.”

I have to be brutally honest. As a woman with a disability, I have long struggled with self-perception and the fear that I am not attractive because of my circumstances in life. Let’s face it. Wheelchairs aren’t generally considered sexy and the occasional bowel accident is probably a real turn off to most people. And that’s completely understandable.
I have also heard it said for years that it is about what’s on the inside that counts and that if people don’t take the time to get to know who I really am then they aren’t worth knowing. I believe all those sentiments with everything in my heart.

But on some really dark days I can’t help but consider that if I was a blue-eyed blond with the measurements of a model and the physical ability to climb a mountain, my social life would probably be drastically different than it is.

And then I read stories like the three that are outlined above. I have extremely mixed emotions.  On one hand, I have tremendous respect  for each of these women who were willing to challenge the stereotypes and definitions that society had placed on them.  At the same time, I wish I had a fraction of that kind of courage.  I truly understand that my life will be different as I make it different, even though sometimes that is much easier said than done.  In order to make it different, I must take risks in much the same way as these three women did.

And the lesson I learn is that beauty needs to be defined by each of us individually, as part of our own journey. I will be pretty as long as I think I am. On my terms.

And society’s definition of beauty?

Loudly I yell, “I challenge!”