Nikki Frittmann is a notetaker and reader/writer for students with disabilities at AUT University. She has Spina Bifida and lives in Auckland with her husband and two cats. Every second month she shares her musings with DPSN.
This morning, my husband and I sat down together and watched a bit of MTV. Now, I’m getting a bit too old for that sort of thing, I freely admit it – but as I love music, and haven’t caught up with the latest fashions in that area for a very long time, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what’s “new”.
A very beautiful woman (I still don’t know her name) was singing a song, while lying on a beach and wearing (only just) a bikini. What I couldn’t help noticing (despite it not being my usual interest) was her figure. It wasn’t just a good figure…it was amazing.
When I was young enough to enjoy MTV, if it had been around back then, there was a very famous singer called Stevie Nicks, of the band Fleetwood Mac. While she didn’t lie on sun soaked beaches in bikinis (at least, not in her music videos, or not that I’m aware of anyway), she was very attractive. With ash-blonde hair and big eyes, she wore long, flowing skirts and knee-high boots, which were right in fashion at the time.
I remember I badly wanted to look like her. In fact, I wanted to look like anybody but myself. My biggest wish was to be tall, or even sort-of tall, with long hair and clear, tanned skin.
Unfortunately, like the rest of my family, I remained short and stocky, with a build that could politely be called “solid”. If you weren’t so polite, you’d call me “overweight”. Then, when I was 10, I got braces on my teeth, which lowered my self-confidence even more.
Watching MTV today reminded me of how the media – TV, radio, the internet, magazines – love to push images at us of the “perfect” body and face – thin waist, buffed abs, big muscles for men, and big…um…chests for women. What’s more, these days especially, they’re usually dressed in very little, so as to show off those curves as much as possible. It sends a message that says, “Sure, you can enjoy the music – but look at this person! Aren’t they beautiful? This is how a person should look – this is how YOU should look.”
Growing up disabled, with predominantly able-bodied people featured in media, I was deeply unhappy with my physical appearance. I couldn’t see why I couldn’t look like my female music idols, why I couldn’t be thin, have hair like in the shampoo advertisements, long legs, curves – and the braces were going to be removed eventually, after all. Surely after that, I could look like a model or celebrity.
I did my best. I bought those long, flowing dresses and struggled to walk in knee-high boots (as if I wasn’t already struggling to walk as it was). I didn’t have long hair, but I fluffed up my short bob style haircut until I thought I looked like Stevie Nicks – well a bit close, anyway. Only, you see, I didn’t. Every night when I looked in the mirror, I saw looking back at me this short-haired, plump, spotty-faced teenager. In fact, apart from being white, I probably looked more like Stevie Wonder than Stevie Nicks, and I didn’t look at all like him, either.
It didn’t help that I grew up among people to whom looks were important. “Make the best of yourself,” I was often told. So I tried, I really did. But no matter how much I brushed it, my hair stayed in the same messy birds-nest it always did. My face remained spotty no matter how many lotions and potions I put on it. No diet would shift my big tummy and worst of all, when I looked at my twisty ankles and crooked back in the mirror every night, it told the truth – I would always, always have this disability.
The truth is, those people on MTV and places like it have teams of people behind them, helping them look that way. They also probably (or some of them) have good genes, that give them the sort of body type allowing them to have the slim figures you see on the screen and on the glossy pages of the magazines. I read somewhere once that very few of us do. The rest are average!
To make matters even more complicated, the difference between when I was young and now, is photoshop. It, and other software like it, means that what you are seeing isn’t always necessarily real anyway.
Besides, how they look when they’re at work probably isn’t how they look at the weekends. I once watched an episode of Dr. Phil featuring a young woman who wanted more than anything else to look like Beyonce. “But did you know,” said the good doctor, “that when she wakes up in the morning, even Beyonce doesn’t look like Beyonce!”. Dr. Phil probably knows Beyonce personally, so I’ll take his word for it!
I’d really like to see the day when the media’s idea of “beauty” includes disability. Heather Mills, ex-wife of Paul McCartney (another singer from my younger days) was an amputee and a model. A friend of mine recently told me he had seen a photo on Facebook of a young woman with the caption, “Do you think she’s beautiful?” He certainly did, and it took my able-bodied friend fully five minutes of looking at her picture to see that she was disabled.
That’s what I’d like to see – people with disabilities appearing so much in the media, that no-one thinks any more just about the airbrushed “ideal” body type.
In the meantime (unlike me when I was younger), I’d really like to encourage you to be you, not the latest music star. I’ve learned as I get older that Stevie Nicks is great at being Stevie Nicks, there doesn’t have to be another one. In just the same way, the young model in the music video I saw this morning is an individual with quite a different body type to me, and I could probably never achieve her physical figure, even if I wanted to – which, these days, I don’t.
As for my disability, I’ve learned to love that too, crooked back and all. I walk with a swagger, quite cute, I think! And, like the wrinkles I’ve picked up over the years, it’s given me life experience not everybody has, as well as turning me into quite a different person, I believe, than I would have been if I had been born able-bodied. I’m proud of that.