on ability and relevance

The first time that blogger failed, I had a post up announcing that “glasses are sexy!” along with the following picture:
sexy glasses
Shortly afterward, I met with a friend for lunch, who casually expressed surprise, “You know, Nahida, that post was kind of ableist.”
Pushing aside my slight hurt, I asked, “What do you mean?” but even as I did I could see what she meant: I wouldn’t tell someone xir broken arm was sexy, because it’s fetishizing and creepy, what the hell was I doing implying, “Hey it’s really sexy that you can’t see at full capacity.”
“But that’s–” my voice trailed off as I thought. But that’s what? Different? Because glasses are a lot more socially accepted compared to pretty much every other tool for pretty much every other physical disability?
But even the sexualization of socially acceptable characteristics is (rightfully) offensive. I’m constantly irritated when men tell me, “You’re really smart. That’s hot,” because it’s fetishizing and belittling, and it means they’re not taking it seriously. Instead this characteristic has conveniently become an object of sexual attraction, something to be put away when they’re done. My intelligence is a real part of me that does not exist for the fetishes of others.
I tried to pretend that it was someone else, telling me my glasses were sexy. Considering that I need them, and depending on the context–yeah, I may possibly find it really, really strange. If I had just gotten new frames, and it were a friend comparing the old with the new: “Your glasses are sexy,” I’d be flattered, because she clearly meant the frames themselves–not the fact that I have to deal with horrible vision. If it were in a different context however, a stranger saying, “It’s really sexy that you wear glasses,” I’d be a little disturbed–and though I wouldn’t immediately have known why, it would be the same subconscious discomfort I’d feel if they’d said, “It’s really sexy that you wear a cast,” had I a broken arm.
If I’d decorated the cast, I wouldn’t mind someone telling me it looked good.
“I meant the glasses themselves,” I explained meekly.
She smiled, “Yeah I know what you meant. But what if you said that wheelchairs are sexy?”
“I was just thinking something along those lines. I think… when people say glasses are sexy you can safely assume they don’t mean that the characteristic of less than 20/20 vision is sexy, because they’re practically a fashion trend. Like sweaterdresses or high heeled shoes. But wheelchairs aren’t nearly as openly accepted or willingly accommodated. A guy telling you your wheelchair is sexy sounds like the same ass who tells you you’re exotically beautiful and fetishizes your race, or tells you how your intelligence is sexually attractive.. and he’s your boss or something.”
Context counts for this one, but I’m still tentative with that conclusion.

While I don’t have a cast or a wheelchair, I emphasize that glasses are sexy because I wear them. Is it not as douchey when it’s a way of reclaiming what others disagree about?

All the cool kids have sideways crappy cellphone pictures.

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23 Responses to on ability and relevance

  1. Debora says:

    This one's really tough. What if someone told you that you had sexy blue eyes? Should that be different from telling you that your intelligence is sexy?

  2. Nahida says:

    …Yeah, I don't know. In a way that almost sounds like it's promoting acceptable normalcy if we discriminate. The goal isn't to tell people what to or what not to find sexy. It's to get them to accept you as a whole human being.

  3. KelsShells says:

    That, and I sort of feel that we're on the edge of vanilla privilege here. It definitely should be emphasized that the purpose is not to tell people what they should or shouldn't find sexy and submit them to sexual shame.

  4. aziza says:

    Did you just get glasses? Because in your second post on this blog you listed yourself as "abled."http://thefatalfeminist.blogspot.com/2011/01/feminist-vital-stats.html

  5. Nahida says:

    No. I've had them for a while. I just didn't think of them, which goes to show that different disabilities come with different levels of privilege. I'm privileged enough in being short-sighted to not be constantly reminded that short-sightedness is, in fact, a disability.

  6. loriadorable says:

    "Is it not as douchey when it's a way of reclaiming what others disagree about?"Do people really still think glasses are ugly, though? I mean, as far as I know, they've moved past 'ugly', through 'fetish' and into the realm of 'acceptable and normal.'

  7. Nahida says:

    That's very possible. Maybe I'm stuck in my own space–I have memories of glasses being undesirable…and I think even now, when they're accepted as "normal" they're still viewed as less attractive (Dorothy Parker: Men seldom make passes / at girls who wear glasses)–hence the whole calling them sexy.

  8. Nahida says:

    Of course, the fact that it's in the realm of "normal and acceptable" at all contributes to why it's different to calling wheelchairs sexy, which would still be devaluing and objectifying because people who use wheelchairs are marginalized.

  9. Flint says:

    Wearing glasses doesn't make you disabled. I wear glasses or contacts, and I also have a neurological disability. The one is not like the other–I don't face social barriers or stigma for wearing glasses, nor do I notice a difference when I switch to contacts. Glasses are just a tool used to focus vision–as to why wheelchairs are stigmatized when they're just a tool to aid mobility, the disability is created by society, not within the person.So, yeah, it is different. :)

  10. I think that what's really useful here is distinguishing between impairment and disability. Where impairment is the actual physical/mental condition that a person has, and disability the ways in which society marginalises them because of this. An easy example (and I apologise if I'm mischaracterising the experiences of wheelchair users here): people have physical impairments which make it difficult/impossible to walk about. So they use wheelchairs. Then society shows up with its narrow doors, steps, too-high things, people generally standing and being significantly higher than eye level, sidelong glances, Special Smiles and complete inability to interact normally with a person using a chair with wheels on. Those things and more are what disable the person- since disability is a social construct. So in general, those of us who wear glasses to correct for vision impairments are not necessarily disabled. In my experience (which is culturally specific, natch), people don't really notice glasses, society doesn't have very many ways of specifically making life awkward for glasses-wearers. The very fact that many otherwise-abled glasses-wearers don't see ourselves as disabled stands to this. Generally, when a group's socially marginalised, the members of that group know all about it. Which is why there's a huge difference between saying "your wheelchair is sexy" and "your glasses are sexy". One is a site of intense social marginalisation. The other, not so much. Not on the axis of abled/disabled, at least. Like you said yourself, there's a lot that's irritating about the sexualisation of 'acceptable' characteristics. And there's also conversations to be had, like KelsShells pointed out, about vanilla privilege. But those are whole other cans of worms!

  11. Nahida says:

    @Flint and @considertheteacosy: Thank you! And Jesus, I didn't mean to imply that it was within the person. =(Heh. I've tried wearing contacts. Can't even get them in.

  12. KelsShells says:

    LOL Maybe you were thinking about insurance.

  13. Nahida says:

    Haha. The friend I was talking to actually knew more about the subject than I did, so I assumed she knew when she said it's considered a disability. I just called her now and she said she meant it to point out how ridiculous everyone is about physical disabilities when we all use tools–it's just a matter of actively discriminating against people who use certain ones.Our conversation might have been all over the place.

  14. Ellie says:

    Gah! Sorry Nahida. Yeah I meant to be rhetorical, as in, "Why ISN'T that considered a disability." Theoretically, it would have been ableist.

  15. Nahida says:

    Communication fail. =D

  16. Flint says:

    Considertheteacosy said it better than I could. I didn't think you thought it was within the person either, I just wanted to clarify there is a difference and I don't think it's ableist or fetishizing to say that glasses or sexy. Or, if it is fetishizing it shouldn't matter, like KelsShels said.I hate having glasses on my face. I only wear them when I run out of contacts and can't immediately afford more.

  17. Ozymandias says:

    Most of the guys I know with them have an overall liking for nerd girls, and regard the glasses as part of the "look." I wonder how this relates to the concept of glasses-as-fetishizing-impairment, because essentially what they seem to be looking for is a girl who's too busy reading to bother putting on contacts.Interestingly, I have less of a problem with people fetishizing personality traits than physical traits, partially because it's hard to distinguish between (frex) "roleplayer fetish" and "I want a girl who shares my hobbies."I think that there is a difference between having a type, and being a douchebag. I don't care about men who have a fetish for bisexuals, as long as they don't ask me for threesomes or assume my attraction to women is less real or threatening than my attraction to men. (I suppose racially this would be the difference between the person who just happens to think dark skin is pretty, and the person who is all EXOTIC BEAUTY MAIDEN OF DARKEST AFRICA/THE ORIENT LET ME COLONIZE YOU WITH MY DICK.)A lot of the turn-ons around axes of oppression probably have some kyriarchal resonance. I get tongue-tied around very pale women because of my attraction, and that's probably something to do with me being subconsciously racist. But I'm not sure that that necessarily makes the turn-on wrong in and of itself (as long as, of course, there's no douchebaggery involved). I have absolutely no idea how any of this applies to wheelchairs.

  18. Nahida says:

    Essentially it's the difference between finding something attractive and involving someone who does not wish to be involved with that attraction. Men who have a fetish for bisexual women are fine as long as they're not expecting a threesome–which not only communicates that they believe your relationship with your partner is less real in that they wouldn't ask that of a straight couple (generally speaking) but also is involving the women into his fetish because now it's become a form of sexual harassment.

  19. Nahida says:

    Ozy, have you read this piece by Clarisse Thorn? I really related to it when I read it because it's what I've encountered in my experience when men have told me that it turns them on that I'm smart. That's sort of what I was referring to when I mentioned fetishizing personality traits.

  20. Ozymandias says:

    Nahida, I've read that before, but I love a chance to read it again. :) I <3 Clarisse so much. Tbh I haven't encountered that very much; most of people who have told me my intelligence turns them on are the sort of guys who like it when I go on a ten-minute tangent about how CDOs work. So basically there's a difference between "fetishizing" and "being turned on by": whether you recognize the humanity of the person you get off on. Don't silence women because they're smart; don't view a bisexual woman (or, God forbid, a lesbian) as a threesome delivery mechanism that's inexplicably broken.

  21. Nahida says:

    I love Clarisse too! *squeals* And goodness yes, of the times it's happened, there have been occasions when it's fetishizing (i.e. I wish you were smart at my convenience and only when I like it) and occasions when he understands that I am a whole and complete person and is simply expressing genuine admiration in addition to being turned on rather than just using it to fulfill a fetish.

  22. Riven says:

    Interesting posts. Im a wheelchair usi g disabled muslim feminist and came across your blog by typing in all of the above. I love it!Am now reading it all while ignoring assorted children ;-)

  23. Nahida says:

    Awwe, thank you!

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