Body

Disability and Catholic Feminism (Part II): The Wide Reach of Ableism Narratives

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April 29, 2021

In the first part of this series on disability and Catholic feminism, I wrote an introduction to disability advocacy and vocabulary. As you engage in online spaces, you will often see disability advocacy label itself as working against “ableism.”

Recognizing Ableism

“Ableism” is a broad term that refers to treating others (and ourselves!) better or worse based on physical ability, health, or capacity. It is important to recognize that ableism is always a functional negative — even if the things you say seem positive — because it insinuates that the opposite (disability, sickness, or injury) is negative. For example, my brother Matthew uses a wheelchair when we are out of the house. This is not because he can’t walk, but rather because he can. And he is fast and strong! Since he doesn’t understand boundaries and the differences between things we do and do not own, if we go to Target and he’s not in his wheelchair, he would tear toys from their boxes faster than lightning! He would grab people we don’t know thinking they are friends, and if we heard an unexpected loud sound, he might become frightened and collapse onto the floor, unwilling to move. He knows that he is safe and secure in his wheelchair.

However, many of my friends first meet him when he is in his wheelchair and assume that he can’t walk. If they find out he can walk and say, “Oh, good! He’s not as disabled as I thought!”, we could consider that statement to be ableist, because it assumes that people who can’t walk are “worse off” than those who can. Even if such a statement is well-meaning, it sows a seed of looking down on others.

The Intersection of Ableism and Feminism

Ableism and feminism intersect in many ways, in no small part because for centuries, women were treated in medical settings that viewed men as the standard and, therefore, saw women’s bodies as “atypical,” a word often used nowadays to refer to disabled persons. Women’s bodies are still treated in many medical schools as the non-normative, or non-standard, version of the human body. Gynecology and obstetrics are specializations not all residents choose to pursue in depth, and even then, many issues of women’s health may actually be more accurately housed under other specializations. Not all doctors have experience with the unique components of the female body, and not all women’s health problems are traced back to the womb.

We see these issues in the ways that birth control and weight loss are viewed as the catch-all solutions to a variety of women’s health concerns, replacing exploration into their root causes. Women’s pain is often taken less seriously, and these issues are even more likely to occur for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) women. The maternal mortality rate is astronomical in the United States, particularly for women of color. These problems can be situated under the umbrella of ableism and can be masked when we settle for the narrative of “strong women” without asking why they have to be strong in the first place.

In my last article, I talked about vocabulary and how we can be disability advocates in ways as simple as changing the terms we use and share online. When we discuss social narratives, we are talking about the stories, feelings, and beliefs we cultivate through experiences and media. Beyond interpersonal relationships, larger narratives are at work in the entertainment we consume. When we think about the pressure placed on women’s bodies, it is easy to see how the media impacts our opinions. Hollywood actors, fashion week models, and Instagram influencers all present, through their success, narratives about which “kinds” of women are beautiful.

Feminism and ableism also intersect prominently in the areas of weight loss and wellness culture. Women are constantly sold ableist lies:

“You’re always healthier if you’re skinnier.”

“You can achieve perfect health on your own.”

“You’re a better mother if you do things naturally.”

As we continue to unmask how beauty standards are both racist and sexist, we can also see how they are ableist. Not all bodies are skinny! Not all bodies move in the same way! Not all bodies work as we’re told they should!

Fat phobia (the fear of being at a larger weight or clothing size) is deeply ableist and hurts women of all sizes. Women who struggle with eating disorders have a more difficult time recovering, women who are larger feel pressure to slim down in order to be taken seriously, and women who find themselves at our culture’s “ideal size” face immense pressure to stay that way — when, as women, our bodies are not meant to “stay” any way. We cycle and flow on purpose.

As women, our bodies are not meant to “stay” any way. We cycle and flow on purpose.

The “Need” for Healing

It is also important to recognize that the media functions in ableist ways regarding physically and cognitively disabled persons. More often than not, cognitively disabled characters in movies and television function in stereotypical and harmful ways. We call them “tropes”: common, clichéd narrative devices. Some tropes of cognitively disabled persons include being childlike, being frequently confused, pining after a romantic partner who will never return their affections because of their disability, being untrustworthy and having to prove their worthiness, being the subject of miracles or the impetus behind the protagonist’s personal growth, and (most frequently) being killed or sacrificing themselves after proving their worth in order to elicit emotion from the audience.

This is a reflection of “inspiration porn,” and it is deeply harmful, especially in media directed at children. Our kids need to know that people with disabilities are kind, trustworthy, and no one to be afraid of. We need to teach our loved ones that disabled people do not exist solely to inspire us and that disabled persons are just as worthy and capable of familial and romantic love as anyone else. We need to see disabled characters as heroes in their own right.

We also need to accept disabled persons regardless of whether or not their story includes healing of any kind. This acceptance can be difficult within church settings, where we often focus on healing narratives. Some priests might use stereotypes of healing in their homilies when expounding upon Gospel readings that feature Christ’s healing miracles, especially of the deaf and blind. We must be careful not to assume that all people experiencing disability desperately yearn for healing. Some do, but others don’t!

Disability and illness can be so challenging, both for the person experiencing it and for people who care for them. It can be painful, ostracizing, and confusing. But this should not mean that the end goal for all persons is perfect healing. It is neither realistic nor helpful to assume that a person’s existence should be oriented toward perfect healing, because there’s no such thing as perfect health in this life. Sickness, disability, and injury are a part of human life. Even if you are fortunate enough to have perfect health and live until a ripe old age, you will likely experience disabling conditions as a natural part of aging. What’s more, God is no less good and no less present in the life of a sick, injured, or disabled person if he or she never receives healing.

God is no less good and no less present in the life of a sick, injured, or disabled person if he or she never receives healing.

We also need to be careful about how we frame our discussions of Heaven. Some people in my extended family say things like, “I can’t wait to see what Matthew will be like in Heaven,” or “In Heaven, Matthew will be exactly as he should be.” Statements like these ones hurt, because they suggest that Matthew is some sort of mistake that God will work to rectify in this life and the next. We don’t know what Heaven will be like, nor do we know exactly what our bodies will be like when our souls are reunited with them. We do know that Jesus retained his wounds after his resurrection. We also know from Scripture (John 9:1-3) that disability is not a function of or punishment for sin (though some Christians still think so).

We should stop using disability as the go-to example of worldly suffering that will be rewarded with perfect healing, because doing so creates a narrative that we can somehow achieve or earn perfect health. But what happens when we don’t? We might feel we have failed, that our faith isn’t strong enough, or that God doesn’t love us.

We should stop using disability as the go-to example of worldly suffering that will be rewarded with perfect healing, because doing so creates a narrative that we can somehow achieve or earn perfect health.

Ableism and Our Own Bodies

The most insidious ableism is often the ableism with which we treat ourselves. Even as an able-bodied person with a disabled family member, I often catch myself being hard on myself when I’m not as productive, physically active, or alert as I think I should be. I catch myself saying, “If only you’d do X workout, take Y supplement, lose Z amount of weight, then you’d feel better and be a better person.”

Negative self-talk is often deeply ableist. When we expect ourselves to prove our worth through high levels of productivity, earn bodily autonomy through diet or exercise, or look like others in order to be accepted, we’re operating with the  assumption that one type of body is best — which suggests that all other bodies, whether yours or someone else’s, are bad. The first and best way we can fight ableism is by changing the narratives in our head around our own bodies. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we love our disabled neighbors well and be anti-ableist if we perceive ourselves in an ableist way?

The first and best way we can fight ableism is by changing the narratives in our head around our own bodies.

Much of the work to combat ableism comes down to fully accepting bodies that won’t become the bodies we think of as “normal,” “healthy,” and “beautiful.” One way of doing so is offering a prayer that sounds like, “Lord, help me see that all bodies are good, exactly as they are.”

Self-hatred can run deep, as can grief around ourselves or our loved ones’ being disabled. Accepting all bodies as good can begin with working to think neutrally about our own bodies by not passing judgment on them. It means starting from “I am” or “It is” and moving to “I am good” or “It is good.” It means simply thinking, “This is how it looks and feels to be in this particular body. This is my body.”

I am.

I am.

This is my body.

This is my body.

It is good.

It is good.

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Madison Chastain

Madison Chastain is a Bay Area, California, transplant working and earning her master’s degree in Chicago. Madison is an ex-military brat who’s lived all over the place, with a love of baking, boxing, yoga, and writing. She has two younger brothers, one with profound special needs, who motivate her commitment to surround herself with and advocate for young people and persons with disabilities. Madison loves a good art project when she’s not knee-deep in reading or sharing time with her friends at L’Arche. You can read more of her writing at theologyforeverybody.com.

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