disability

The presence of lead paint on toys made in China this year brought the threat of lead poisoning to the forefront of the American mind. Parents, pundits, and politicians called on the U.S. government to DO SOMETHING. But lead poisoning was a problem for low-income families long before the China toy scandal and there was little to no outcry in the popular press.

Lead poisoning in children can increase the risk of cognitive delay, hyperactivity, and antisocial behavior. Many older homes and apartments available for rental in low-income neighborhoods still have lead paint and ingesting paint dust and paint chips is the most common way to get lead poisoning. Blood tests show that children living in poverty show much higher exposure to lead than other children.

According to William Ryan, if you are a landlord, renting out a residence with lead paint without making tenants aware of it is a crime. But, instead of enforcing compliance among landlords, the most common response to the threat of lead poisoning has been to warn mothers. Here is a representative poster:

Ryan writes that, while lead poisoning is often described as a problem involving negligent or ignorant mothers, it:

…is more accurately analyzed as the result of a systematic program of lawbreaking by one interest group in the community [landlords], with the toleration and encouragement of the public authority charged with enforcing that law.

So as long as the threat of lead poisoning was more-or-less restricted to the poor in the U.S., it was considered the problem of individuals (mothers) and the state refrained from doing much more than promoting individual responsibility. But, as soon as the lead poisoning threat affected middle class children through the toys from China, state intervention seemed appropriate.

Ryan again:

To ignore these continued and repeated law violations [by landlords who rent residences with lead paint], to ignore the fact that the supposed law enforcer actually cooperates in lawbreaking [by ignoring landlord infractions], and then to load a burden of guilt on the mother of a dead or dangerously ill child is an egregious distortion of reality. And to do so under the guise of public-spirited and humanitarian service to the community is intolerable.

CITATION: Ryan, William. 1998. Blaming the Victim. In Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. See also his book.

Elizabeth (from Blog of Stench) sent us a link to a story in The Times Online about “disability dolls,” such as these dolls that depict Down’s Syndrome:


Here is a passage from the Times Online article:

Carol Boys, chief executive of the Down’s Syndrome Association in the UK, says: “Anything that helps to ‘normalise’ Down’s syndrome and promote inclusivity has to be a good thing. If the Down’s syndrome dolls give joy to those with the condition and their siblings, we fully support them. However, there is a range of products on the market of varying quality and accuracy, so we would advise people to purchase with care.” Boys adds that it is difficult to know with any certainty what Down’s children generally think of such toys: “We have no idea what they think of such dolls, because there has never been any research done to find out.”

However, some professionals have their reservations. Jenni Smith, a chartered educational psychologist in London, says: “I feel that children who have disabilities, including children with Down’s syndrome, tend to see themselves as ‘like everyone else’ and to offer a toy that ‘looks like them’ may only emphasise the difference.”

There are a lot of issues these images–and the article–might be useful for, most obviously depictions of people with disabilities and arguments about whether they “should” (or “want” to) be shown as “normal” (?). I thought it was fascinating that an opponent of the dolls used this analogy:

“In early research into race stereotypes, in which black children were asked to choose from three dolls – one black, one brown and one white – and say which doll they would be most like, almost all chose the white doll,” Smith says.

The use of that example to argue that kids like to associate themselves with “a positive, generally accepted image,” as she goes on to say, might not be all that comforting to a lot of people.

The other thing that hit me when reading the article is the way adults were discussing whether or not children with Down’s Syndrome would like the dolls…but (as Boys says in the quote above), apparently no one has bothered to just go out and ask some kids with Down’s Syndrome if they like the dolls or to watch and see if, given the option, they actually play with them. Wouldn’t that be more effective and respectful of the children under discussion? In general adults often discuss children as though they would be incapable of providing input or expressing desires, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this tendency is exacerbated when the children have a disability or are otherwise considered “extra sensitive.”

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Ironically* titled “Disabilities Downplayed for ‘Britain’s Missing Top Model’ Contestants” (my emphasis), this article discusses a new televised modeling competition featuring only disabled models:

Among the eight lovely ladies who will duke it out onscreen are women without limbs, some who are partially paralyzed and one who is deaf.

See the images below or click here for the slideshow.

I have many of the same questions about this program that I have about Viktoria’s spread for Bizarre Magazine and Elizabeth had about Disaboom advertising. Notice that, of the eight contestants, at least seven appear white. Half are (let’s face it) artificially blonde. And they all more-or-less conform to contemporary Western standards of beauty. In only one photo (maybe two) is the disability even visible.

I guess, basically, what I’m asking is: Are we trying to challenge a hierarchal system by gaining access to the top of the hierarchy? From there, who will we look down upon? And, if there’s no one to look down upon, what was the point of gaining access?

As Audre Lorde famously said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

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* Catherine writes: “Apparently this is an attempt to challenge the fashion world, but if we’re “downplaying” the disabilities, aren’t we attempting to obey the rules of the fashion world? What’s the point?” Special thanks to Catherine D. for the link!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Elizabeth A. at blogofstench sent us her post on this ad for “Disaboom, a site of news, networking and such for people with disabilities and their hangers-on.” 

She notes how the site and the ad challenge the stereotype of disabled people as asexual but, much like Viktoria in Bizarre magazine, does so by conforming to normative standards of attractiveness.  But I really liked her observations regarding the extent of his disability. She writes:

…not only is this guy the picture of modern white bourgeois hegemonic masculinity, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s also passing as non-disabled. Tattoos aside, he looks like a non-disabled guy sitting down in a chair that just happens to have wheels. While some people indeed use wheelchairs with no back and no handlebars and a low-slung profile, other people with disabilities have much more obvious tools that they use; an electric wheelchair, for example, can have six wheels, headlights and tail lights, a control box with joystick and horn, storage pouches on either side, footrests, leg braces, head rest, reclining seat, adjustable cushions and posture support, a backpack on the back and an obvious computer on board, all of which are much more obvious than a discreet little set of wheels under your butt… I feel that the Disaboom ad downplays the unavoidable obviousness of some mobility aids in its attempt to make the guy in the picture seem more stereotypically “non-disabled.”

Not to mention, I might add, a disability that interferes with urination and defecation or one that caused involuntary body movements.

Yesterday, one of my favorite blogs, Sociological Images, picked apart amputee alt model Viktoria’s appearance in Bizarre Magazine.

What makes Viktoria “bizarre”? Is it her amputated leg? Is it the fact that she has an amputated leg and is still incredibly sexy? Or is it that she has an amputated leg and still considers herself a sexual person? Is this empowering? And to who? Surely the disabled are desexualized in this country, so it’s nice to see that challenged even, I suppose, in a magazine about weirdos. And yet, I suspect her sexuality is acceptable, fetishizable, only because she conforms to expectations of feminine beauty. In the big scheme of things, does she reproduce the standard of beauty, unattainable for most women, that crushes women’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth? And will disabled women, most of whom (like most non-disabled women) could never dream of being so beautiful, actually look at her and be able to identify? Or will this just draw attention to another way in which they don’t match up?

Now really, I think that SocImages went a little overboard with Viktoria (especially when they dismissed her comments about sexuality as “standard porn star talk”). Maybe it’s because I know her little better than they do, but I think that they oversimplify the genuine place that she comes from in choosing to be a model. However, they do bring up an important discussion that’s been nagging me for some time. What is an alternative model, and what is an alt model’s role in visual culture? In my life, at various points, I came up with 3 different definitions. I believe in each of them, and I have a problem with each of them as well. Here they are below. Which one resonates with you? Do you think it’s a combination of the three below, or something completely different? Opinions, please.

1. The model who challenges society’s notions of beauty.

Examples:

Kenyan-born trans model Biko Beauttah, photographed by Bode Helm.
Velvet D’Amour, photography credit unavailable.

I love these models, but the issue here is that, while they appear to push the boundaries of beauty in some direction, they usually wind up brutally reinforcing another traditional notion in the process. For example, trans models make us rethink gender/beauty, but with their self-presentation they usually reinforce the ideal of a sleek, hairless feminine figure, thus fueling the hair-removal industry. In fact, epilator-manufacturer Philips Norelco has already found a way to to capitalize on this to great effect – just watch this ad. And large models like Velvet D’Amour and skinny-by-comparison but still-considered-plus-size recent ANTM winner Whitney Thompson help to redefine weight in modeling, but what makes them “legitimately beautiful” in the eyes of the mainstream world is their “correct” bone structure, their blond hair. Without some “redeeming quality” of this sort, the world doesn’t recognize them as models, and wouldn’t even give them a shot at making a difference. Mainstream media often presents them as beautiful “in spite of,” not “because of.” While their individual messages are empowering (I love Velvet’s interviews), I don’t find our culture’s use of these models empowering at all.

2. The hottie with strange hair/tattoos/piercings/latex.

Examples:

Mosh, photographed by Vance.
Scar13, photograhed by Nadya Lev.

Like it or not, it’s a valid definition – arguably the most widely-embraced one at that. This idea is epitomized by the Suicide Girls motto: “redefining beauty, one hot, naked chick at a time.” Underneath all the hair dye and black eyeliner, the ideal remains the same: symmetrical faces, clear skin and slim figures with a slightly above-average degree of variation as compared to mainstream modeling. Alterna-porn sites and alt modeling agencies such as Nocturnal Models helped cement this concept, but the biggest reinforcement came from self-proclaimed “alt photographers” and “alt models,” in whom they chose to include and exclude as they built up their online “spheres of influence.” This definition doesn’t make me happy now, though I had no problem with it at 21, when all I did was go clubbing and take pictures that reminded me of how I felt when I was dressed-up on the dance floor. When I realized that my own photography was reinforcing the same standards of beauty that make it difficult for women to have a healthy self-image, I took a step back.

3. The self-made persona.

Examples:

Feisty Diva wearing a hairpiece she created, photographed by Nadya Lev.
Anachronaut, photographed by Nadya Lev.

Another definition of alt model is someone who completely reinvents themselves from head to toe. This could be someone you’d never otherwise notice on the street, yet through inventive styling, self-applied makeup, self-styled clothing and hair, they create a whole new persona for themselves. The ultimate example of this is Mana, who goes from being a middle-aged man to a gothic Loli. These people make up their own beauty, owning their look from head to toe for the purpose of expressing an artistic ideal, proving a political point, etc. But are are they really “models,” or artists who allow you to take their portrait? It’s the most positive concept to me, but is it a valid definition of “model”?

So there you have it. Three definitions, some of which conflict with each other. And still, even after writing all of this out, I’m not sure if I’m even satisfied with my own personal definition, which draws on all three. Something’s bothering me. Something’s missing. Anyone have any idea?

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Nadya Lev, a photographer, blogs for the Coilhouse.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The images below are from a slide show to accompany the cover of a British magazine, Bizarre. You can see the slide show and the article accompanying her cover here. Thanks to Jason S. for the link!

What makes Viktoria “bizarre”? Is it her amputated leg? Is it the fact that she has an amputated leg and is still incredibly sexy? Or is it that she has an amputated leg and still considers herself a sexual person?

Is this empowering? And to who? Surely the disabled are desexualized in this country, so it’s nice to see that challenged even, I suppose, in a magazine about weirdos. And yet, I suspect her sexuality is acceptable, fetishizable, only because she conforms to expectations of feminine beauty. In the big scheme of things, does she reproduce the standard of beauty, unattainable for most women, that crushes women’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth? And will disabled women, most of whom (like most non-disabled women) could never dream of being so beautiful, actually look at her and be able to identify? Or will this just draw attention to another way in which they don’t match up?

Also, are these images really about her sexual-ness, her desire? Or are they about how sexy she is, the extent to which she can inspire desire in others? That is, is she just an object like any other pin-up girl? How are her images any different than those in mainstream pornography and men’s magazines? She speaks in the article about her own sexual curiosity and openness, but this is standard porn star talk and it’s very difficult to know whether it is genuine or performance. Would it matter if we knew?

This photo shoot of Viktoria for Bizarre magazine actually seems incredibly ordinary to me.

UPDATE: Comments on this post have been closed.