When I was in third grade, I asked my friend Maddie if I was the girliest girl she knew. “Well, sure,” she said. “But sometimes you’re…cool.” I was furious. I loved Hello Kitty and wore pink skirts and said “sorry” a lot. I was a girly girl.
But over time, cool girl became my new mold. By middle school I was the girl who preferred tree-climbing to ballet, classic rock to boy bands, chilling with the guys to gossiping with the girls…and would tell you about it any chance she got. The role fit me like a glove, so long as I shaved off certain parts of myself. I really did love tree-climbing—but secretly, I was also dying to hear five cute British guys tell me “What Makes You Beautiful.”
“Fat,” “loud,” “opinionated”—by this point in my life I’d heard a thousand ways a girl could be too large. So I only gave myself enough room to be one thing at a time. The brain or the beauty. The tough chick or the sweetheart. The cool girl or the girly girl. Congratulating myself for rejecting the rules of traditional femininity, I didn’t notice I’d still reduced myself to a type.
An unexpected complication to this came in high school, when I became disabled. Using a wheelchair, I took up more physical space than I’d ever counted on. I couldn’t diminish that square of four wheels by leaning on one foot or angling a knee inward. At the same time, I found myself fighting for space of a more metaphoric kind: the space to be a full person.
In a backwards way, I used disability stereotypes as my roadmap. People so often spoke to me in baby voice that I stopped acting goofy in public. I used big words so people would see my intelligence, though if I went too far, I’d be pitied as the “tragic disabled genius.” I learned not to show if I was angry or sad or tired; someone was bound to assume I was upset about being in a wheelchair. But I couldn’t be too happy or I’d get called “inspiring.”
With my personhood in question, my womanhood was hardly considered. Unless I showed it off of course, which I did—form-fitting tops, short skirts, lipstick, though all in moderation because a “disabled slut” would be deemed “sad.” I’m not proud to say that I thought about getting a boyfriend just to show the world I could. What a pastiche of prove-’em-wrongs I was.
I was so used to being reduced to the chair that, in order to prove I was more than that, I reduced myself even further. I buried my humanity in order to make people believe I was human. It was an extreme version of what I’d been doing my entire life.