Disability & Body Image

"Disability" has been defined as “the inability to perform one or more major life activities because of impairment,” either physical or mental (Miller and Sammons 1999: 26). More recently, that definition has been clarified:  "Disability" is "any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions),” (CDC, 2020).  In 2002, it was estimated that ten percent of the world’s population, or approximately 650 million people, and approximately 18 percent of the US population, lived with disabilities (Gerschick and Aldrich. 2008).  Those estimates have increased: by 2011, it was estimated that 26 percent of the US population and 1 billion people worldwide -- fifteen percent of the world’s population -- lived with disabilities (The World Bank 2021).

While mental disabilities include both cognitive impairments and psychiatric disorders, physical disabilities include a broad range of impairments, from vision and hearing impairments to orthopedic, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary disorders.  The 1990 passage of The Americans with Disabilities Act helped ensure equal access to such things as education, employment, health care, housing and public facilities;  subsequent updates have expanded ADA protections, especially focusing on access to transportation (ADA.gov).  However, people with disabilities still face the daily challenges of being perceived as “different” and even inferior. Such experiences can have profoundly negative effects on self-esteem and body image. 

Men with Physical Disabilities

Independence, dominance, strength, athleticism: these are just some of the traits associated with masculinity in our society. For men with physical disabilities, however, especially those who must rely upon devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes, and artificial limbs to obtain mobility, it is difficult to live up to such masculine ideals. This often damages the self-esteem of disabled men, leading them to question their masculinity, their desirability, and their very place in society.

In many cases, “not only are men with physical disabilities…perceived as undesirable, they are also perceived to be asexual” (Zola 1982). Disabled men may internalize such widespread perceptions. One 48-year-old man described his struggle with negative body image in an interview with researchers (Taleporos and McCabe 2002: 978):

  • “I’m different and I’m aware of my difference being what it is. And I see people who I find very attractive and I’m conscious that my chances of scoring with them are non-existent…I am conscious of my difference and I don’t have the confidence to go up to other people.”

In a society that places a premium on men’s ability to attract sexual partners, to exert control over others, and operate without assistance from others, men with disabilities must struggle daily to be perceived as “real” men.

Women with Disabilities

Women who are disabled have to deal with not only that impairment but also the lower status that comes with being female in our society today. Disabled women often differ from narrow definitions of ideal feminine beauty displayed in the media, leading others to perceive them as unattractive, as not “real” women (Fine and Asch 1988).  Annie Elainey is a young woman who has a disability that requires her to use a wheelchair. She describes her experience of not being a “real” woman: 

  • “There were people who wouldn’t look at me. They would look at the person who was pushing me, but they wouldn’t look at me. And my self-esteem took a really hard hit.” (Leary, 2019) 

Disabled women themselves may come to internalize such views, which may create barriers to forming intimate relationships.  Women with disabilities are more likely than other women to remain single and less likely to become mothers. In Venus on Wheels, Diane, a 26-year-old student, described her childhood:

  • “I never heard the words, ‘Wait till you become a mother,’ or ‘Someday when you are married, you will understand.’ Even though my toys represented the perfect socialization of a little girl into wife and mother, they were probably given to me with the belief that they would be the closest I would ever get to the real thing. Neither of my parents ever felt I would someday become a sexually attractive female, let alone marry” (Frank 2000: 62). 

As Fine and Asch note, many women with disabilities “speak angrily of the unavailability of adequate counseling on sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, and childbirth from either gynecologists or rehabilitation professionals” (1988: 21).  This is due to the fact that many clinicians make assumptions that women with disabilities cannot communicate at the level that is needed to understand, a completely false assumption (Silvers et al., 2016). 


Disability and Body Acceptance

It is important to note that while many persons with disabilities may experience discrimination or have negative perceptions of themselves, they are not simply victims. They work actively to combat widespread misperceptions and negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. And, like all of us, they work daily to earn and maintain respect and acceptance from those around them.

By challenging widespread notions of ideal beauty and narrow conceptions of masculinity and femininity, people with disabilities are able to accept their bodies and achieve higher self-esteem. As Sue, a 39-year-old woman with Muscular Dystrophy, commented:

  • “I feel pretty comfortable with my body, probably even better than some of my able-bodied friends, who have worse feelings about their bodies than I do…I’d run around naked in front of anybody, I have a pretty healthy body image” (Taleporos and McCabe 2002: 977).

Ask Yourself

How does our society treat people with disabilities? Next time you are out in public, notice the countless barriers that people with disabilities must overcome just to go shopping, go out to dinner, or go to school. Steep curbs, cracked sidewalks, heavy doors or cramped restrooms may make it difficult for people with physical impairments to engage in ordinary, everyday activities.

How does the media portray people with disabilities? The next time you watch TV, note the number of disabled people who appear and how they are represented. How might such media practices affect the self-esteem of people with disabilities?

What can we do to change narrow conceptions of “normal” and “attractive” bodies (and restrictive ideas about femininity and masculinity) to allow for the full acceptance and participation of people with disabilities?