The Labor of Expressing Femininity as a Disabled Woman

Assorted pink and white hair removal tools, such a razors and electric shavers, on a pink background.
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It happened during the Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret years. The training bra years. Those years when periods and razors and nylons were as mysterious as ever, but became increasingly more fascinating. It occurred to me that I’d have to shave my underarms at some point soon. Then, it occurred to me that I had no idea how I would do it.

I’d recently had surgery, and five weeks in a half-body cast that held my arm up like half a football goal post, weekly physical therapy, and a gnarly little scar in my armpit had given me a noticeably better ability to lift my left arm above my head. But I still couldn’t bring it all the way up, and a protruding bone stood between the peach fuzz forming beneath it and any approaching razor. Even on the side of my fully-functioning arm, shaving would be a one-handed operation. How was I going to pull this off?

I worked on answering that question over time through conversations with my physical therapist and lots of shower experimentation (not the fun kind). Continuous maneuvering, propping my elbow onto soap dishes, endless patience, and (literally) patchy results.

Like so many disability adaptations, it wasn’t perfect and it took a lot of time and energy that nondisabled people in my life didn’t know about, but it pretty much worked.

Over time, though, I’ve become less concerned about my underarms. For someone with my set of personality traits and physical attributes, armpit-shaving isn’t worth the hassle. Other trappings of femininity are, though. And for me, with my partially-paralyzed arm, this included an ongoing process of conscious adaptation. How do I put my hair in a ponytail? (Answer: Hanging upside-down off my bed.). How do I put on a bra? (Upside-down and in the front.) How do I apply perfect winged eyeliner? (This remains one of life’s great unanswered questions.) How do I paint my nails? (I can’t easily explain this in a parenthetical aside, but trust me, they look great.)

The nature of the labor that goes into performing femininity is that it’s invisible. Or at least it’s supposed to be. As a culture, we expect women to look glossy and shimmery and smooth. We don’t want to know about the time and money that goes into this presentation.

But the nature of disability, at least for disfigured people like me, is its visibility. And visible disabilities often compel people to conceptualize disabled people as perpetual children. Womanhood doesn’t belong to the disabled. Because adulthood doesn’t belong to the disabled. For instance, my injury is called Erb’s palsy, and my Erb’s arm is smaller than my right arm. A disturbing amount of people – including strangers – take that as a cue to call it a baby arm, or my left hand a baby hand.

I can’t guess at what my gender expression would look like without Erb’s palsy, but I can say with relative certainty that I put a lot of work into learning how to make myself look how an Adult Human Woman “should” look in an effort to be seen and treated as an adult. “Surely this low-cut top and heavy black eyeliner will make everyone think I’m super mature and they won’t even notice my arm,” thought teenage-Hannah. This may shock you, but she was incorrect.

Where does this infantilization leave us adult disabled women?

What we all must do is keep asserting that all disabled people who identify as women are, in fact, Adult Human Women. We must recognize that our gender expression is as complex and necessary and genuine as anyone’s.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my pedicure is chipping.


Hannah is freelance writer and digital communications professional whose interests include disability, labor rights, feminism, and education. She’s an avid consumer of horror movies, brunch, and an irresponsible amount of secondhand clothing. She lives in Brooklyn with three friends, two of whom are cats.

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