Tag Archives: disability

LINKAGE: T-Shirts, “The Colour of Beauty,” Fatuosity, American Able, Tavi vs. Terry

These first few links are for Hoang, who responded to a query on our Facebook and requested that we consider the function of the t-shirt in politics. Hoang is specifically thinking about the thousands of “red shirt” anti-government protesters in Thailand. As Michelle points out in the comments, the political situation is far more complicated than Western press reports can convey, and I know virtually nothing about the histories leading up to the present conflict. The most I can say about it is there are certainly precedents for political movements to adopt a textile or a garment as a signifier of solidarity (e.g., Gandhi’s khadi cap for anticolonial Indian independence), and as Minh-Ha mentioned, t-shirts are often chosen as carriers for political messages because they are understood as a “democratic” garment (in the small-d sense): cheap to make, cheap to purchase.

This is not necessarily relevant to the rapidly escalating situation in Thailand, but it is one example of the t-shirt as a medium for a political message: You Might Find Yourself here discusses British designer Katherine Hamnett, who in 1983 wore her “58% Don’t Want Pershing” t-shirt to meet then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, of whom Hamnett was no fan.

But she decided to seize the photo-op [upon being named designer of the year by the British Fashion Council] to make a political statement. The United States had recently deployed controversial Pershing II guided missile being in West Germany, and Hamnett wore a slogan T-shirt declaring “58 per cent Don’t Want Pershing”, specifically ensuring that the lettering on the shirt would stand out in photographs. She wore it under her stylish jacket, and removed the jacket just before meeting the prime minister. She made headlines the next day.


Also in t-shirts, Kathleen Hanna is hosting a contest to design a Julie Ruin t-shirt, the only project she’s been involved with that hasn’t had one. The deadline is June 1st! Check out the entries so far here, here, here, and here.


From Racialicious, Latoya Peterson posts on The Colour of Beauty (dir. Elizabeth St. Phillips, 2010), a short documentary film that follows up-and-coming black model, 24-year-old Renée Thompson, as she tries to get cast for New York’s Fashion Week, with a partial transcript. The film is part of a series from Work For All: Films Against Racism in the Workplace, a project in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada and Schema Magazine. (You can watch the video at Racialicious or Work For All. I can’t for the life of me get it to embed here!) Reflecting upon an agent’s explanation that “white” features read as “elegant,” Latoya prompts, “And the idea of white faces as ‘elegant’ implies that those who do not carry those features cannot have an elegant face. I’d love to see a list of fashion codewords. Readers, what do you think?” Really, it’s a great exercise in the codes of race discourses about beauty and ugliness.


Fatuous, self-described as “fat, girl, academic, writer, Australian, chronic procrastinator, fashion slave,” is in the midst of writing a dissertation on fat embodiment and sexual subjectivity. Love it! Check out Fatuosity, in which she shares her reading lists and smart observations about the myth of a “natural” body, fat and sexuality, “fat diva citizenship” (borrowing from incredible scholar Lauren Berlant), and a fat aesthetics:

A recognition that fat bodies are different to thin bodies (and different to other fat bodies, and that thin bodies are different to other thin bodies, and that the line between fat and thin is pretty impossible to locate definitively) and that finding ways to make a fat body look as much like a thin body as possible is not necessarily the ultimate aim of the game.  That there might be a way of fashioning fat bodies, of valuing the visuals that doesn’t have to be about ‘curves’ and cleavage (although it can be), that isn’t about adapting and adopting a certain set of standards, that isn’t about ‘what’s inside’ being the only thing that counts.


In online magazines, we’re excited that the beautiful Style Sample released its newest issue, featuring Shini Park from Park and Cube as its cover girl and an article about fashion photographer Shae Acopian Detar authored by Fashion Intel’s Natalie. And the always smart Worn Fashion Journal posted this interview conducted by Julia Caron (of à l’Allure Garçonnière) with the creators of American Able, the American Apparel parody by photographer Holly Norris and model Jes Sachse. I particularly like these answers:

What do you hope people will take away from the American Able series?

Holly: I’m really interested in where it will be seen. It is showing on digital screens that are typically ad space, and has the potential to make people do a double take and question what they are seeing and how it differs from a regular ad. I think the realization that it’s a spoof makes people question and critique why – why do they only ever see able-bodied people in fashion advertising? People with visible disabilities are rendered invisible by mass media, and I think the reactions to American Able really highlight that. Even when there are claims of ‘diversity’ it is usually really lacking, to say the least. One rarely sees people with disabilities in advertising, unless it’s in a group photo and then it often seems more tokenizing than anything else.

Jes: It’s Holly’s project, but personally? I hope people see these ads in the TTC, laugh, and put on something skin tight when they go home and stare at their bodies. It’s like an invitation to a healthy dose of vanity. Why does fashion necessarily have to give people complexes? I’d love to be a model. I love designers and fashion, it’s art on bodies. I guess I love modeling because I feel like I embody a piece of that stare in my own work. That “I see you lookin’ at me” stare. I know I don’t look like a stereotypical model, and I like my body, but I get stared at a lot, in a different way. So when I pose, I have the opportunity to engage with my voyeurs. Or act indifferent about their gaze. Or make them question the politics in their stare. Or seduce them. Or pierce them. It’s really fun.


Lastly, though I’m sure by now “everyone” has seen it, I need to give some blog love to Tavi Gevinson, a.k.a. Style Rookie, for her fearless foray in feminisms and her recent post calling out photographer and industry darling Terry Richardson for his sexual assaults on models, and as well those who support him. With all the blunt and sawed-off sarcasm of a whip-smart teenaged girl, she skewers at least ten of their excuses in one fell blow:

And, let’s clarify: you don’t love women just because you have sex with them and like taking pictures of their ladyparts. I’m not saying that’s all Richardson does, but “love” entails “respect” and also “the basic human decency to not use pictures of someone’s lady parts for your photography show without her permission” and also “the basic human decency to not pressure a girl into giving you a hand job because OH MY GOD I WILL LITERALLY NOT BE ABLE TO PRESS THE FLASH BUTTON ON MY CAMERA UNLESS YOU TAKE NOTICE OF THE FACT THAT I HAVE NO PANTS ON. ALSO I’M A PROFESSIONAL.”


Filed under LINKAGE

GENDER/QUEER: “Butch/Femme Crip”

Crip Wheels, a blog composed by a black queer “wheelchair dancer,” features thoughtful observations on disability and dance, among other things. This brilliant essay, “Butch/Femme Crip,” addresses the tangle of queer sexuality and gender presentation (including but not exclusive to the way clothes interact) with corporeal bodies in general, and disabled bodies in particular. The importance here lies in the uneven distribution of gender and sexuality to certain forms of physical presence — to muscles, to movements — and in her challenge to those qualities problematically assigned as distinct to those embodiments. For all that the following excerpt is quite long, it is nonetheless just a taste of the intellectually provocative writing about moving the body here.

When we got into it, the last two women with whom I almost had sexual relationships told me that they read me as butch. Theoretically speaking, it is a little perverse to argue from the point of view of how someone reads me rather than saying I explicitly identify as butch (or not). But I choose to do so because this particular approach shows how disability complicates what we think we know about possible identities.

Behind that word for them was my fascination with my own body, with its muscles, and with its physical strengths. That’s something a lot of queer women notice about me, and it is the source of many jokes among my friends. I say queer women, because the straight ones in my life are usually too shy to comment on it. But also behind that word for the two women in question was my active enjoyment of my physicality. I love the power of my body; I flex my muscles, I pat them in public (sorry peeps, I really do; I love them). Yeah, it’s funny. Yeah, it’s sexy. But for the purposes of this conversation, I wonder about that understanding.

To say that it is “butch” to somehow forefront muscularity and physicality strikes me as an interesting insight into how we approach understanding conventional femininity. It is to say that somehow conventional femininity does not explicitly prioritize the tendons, sinews, muscles, and bones of its female bodies. But how can you have breasts, vaginas, tummies, and asses without the underlying structure of your body? Is it to say that somehow conventional femininity is only the visible surface of the body. Is it to say that femme is the performance of the hyper surface — the explicit recognition and enhancement of aspects of conventional femininity? And that butch is somehow the recognition and acceptance of the deeper muscular structures of the body?

If this is what it means to be butch, then, I suppose, that even in my 5 inch heels, even in my see-through mesh dresses, I am butch. But I also think that disability skews — I almost wrote queers; I so wanted to write queers — disability skews that particular assessment of these aspects of my butchness.

Scenes from my life.

You see me on the street. I’m wearing a low cut tank top. Your attention is caught by my ripped back muscles. I turn towards you, flex my arms, and push away. You think:

  1. Oh, what an athlete. Wow! Sexy.
  2. It’s a pity that she’s in that chair. Such a strong upper body must compensate for her legs.
  3. She should cover herself up a bit.
  4. Ugh, and you look in other direction.

You see me in the cafe. I’m wearing the same low cut tank top. I admire my arms. Sip my coffee. Look at my arms again, stroke them, and smile a long smile at you. You

  1. Smile back and ask if I need help or anything?
  2. Panic. Fuck. Did she just … flirt with me? Shit.
  3. Pretend you didn’t see, turn, and leave.
  4. Smile and come right over.

You see me in the audience at a dance performance. I’m wearing a mesh dress, pointy heeled boots, and something in between to make it decent. Every muscle in my arms and back is visible; the curve of my breasts rises out of the baggy over-dress; my body gleams through the sheen of the blue mesh. Wizard pushes me into the space. You

  1. Wonder if I feel sad watching all those beautiful dancers, given that I can’t move.
  2. Wonder if I am for real. Disabled people don’t dress or look like THAT.
  3. Wonder about what Wizard is doing with a woman like me.
  4. Wonder what it would be like to fuck me.

OK. So, I am imagining the viewer’s responses. But these are moments from my life of last week. No, you don’t get to ask what happened next. And in each vignette, I really think that the question of whether you see me as butch or femme doesn’t really happen unless you integrate or get past the disability question. And what about my choices and my perspectives?

My muscles are as they are because I use a chair and because I dance. Because they are a direct consequence of my disabled life, I would argue that you would have to think twice before you interpret them and my enjoyment of them as part of a butch identity.

My decision to wear impractical shoes is as much a consequence of me not having to walk in them as it is a decision to participate in a particular understanding of femininity. But what do you see? A sad attempt to look normal? A pair of high heels on a woman? Or something so over the top that it slides into the devotee/fetish view of disabled female sexuality? Note that this is a risk that is only present for disabled women. It’s a long way for nondisableds to go through femme to fetish. Merely presenting certain aspects of traditional femme for a queer disabled woman puts her at risk of becoming a usually straight object of the devotee community.

Would you recognize it if I made a pass at you? To see it, you would have to acknowledge an awful lot. You would have to understand that disabled people have sexuality, that it can be a queer sexuality, and that I am looking at YOU.

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ART: Highway to Heel

Earlier this year, the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College presented the first exhibition to address the intersection between disability identity and female identity in RE/FORMATIONS: Disability, Women, and Sculpture. The following is an excerpt from the exhibition essay, “Leaving Venus Behind,” by Davidson College English professor and co-curator Ann M. Fox.

One corner of [Harriet Sanderson’s] Molt, with Scurs is made up of multiple pairs of high-heeled shoes, lined up against a wall, their heels fashioned from the tips of canes. There’s both kinship and whimsy in this installation. Sanderson’s use of a curved cane tip for the heel of a woman’s dress shoe makes the point that such dress footwear can limit the mobility of even the most ambulatory user in the name of beauty, rendering them fully stopped, as if against a wall. And the high-heeled shoe is, of course, unstable and impractical for the body with limited mobility. But the installation also creates the hybridized cane/shoe as an object of whimsy and playfulness, reminding us that canes and shoes are, after all, paired to create mobility in their actual lives as objects. The normal heels of the shoes have been amputated from the bodies of the footwear and lay scattered about the gallery with other cane tips that seem to have exploded free from the “cane chair.” As the viewer looks at the new shoe/cane creations, there’s something sexy and dangerous about the sinuous hooks of the highest heels, a rendering of disability as vehicle for haute couture. Ultimately, these shoes are not a simplistic reinforcement of ableist metaphors to critique beauty norms; they become a kind of expression of alternate movement and “disability cool.”

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