Disabled According to Who?


ImageReading, talking and blogging about the medicalization of women led me to go through my feminist theory readings that I saved from two semesters ago (yes I am a hoarder). While flipping through stuffed folders, I found a piece by Rosemarie Garland-Thomas titled “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory” which interestingly correlates with my Feminism New Media and Health class. This article delves into how feminist theory can deepen the approach of disability studies to better understand how gender impacts the ways in which women’s identities are constructed and maintained by society. Similar to how feminist theory works to debunk essentialist notions of femininity, disability theory emphasizes that disability is not a natural state of the physical inferiority of the body. Instead, it is the “…culturally fabricated narrative of the body, similar to what we understand as the fictions of race and gender,” (Garland-Thomas 5). The significance of feminist disability theory is that it integrates the process of how women and the disabled are “subjugated” to their bodies.

Audre Lorde, author of The Cancer Journals demonstrated her experience with breast cancer before and after her mastectomy. While in her post-mastectomy state, Lorde discusses her problematic recovery process as the hospital officials seemed more concerned about replacing her amputated breast with a prosthetic breast than her physical and mental well being. During her recovery, it was all too common for hospital officials and representatives from plastic surgery companies to encourage her to obtain a prosthetic breast as a result of her mastectomy. Feminists challenge the assumption that obtaining a prosthetic breast or breast implantation will help the patient feel unchanged, normal and still feminine, as if without breasts, a woman is no longer a woman. The intersections between medicine and appearance in the case of breast cancer survivors are treated as a cosmetic issue, when in reality it is far from that. Breast cancer is a serious illness and instead of helping women wear their post-mastectomy scars proudly as survivors of breast cancer, the institution of medicine is concerned with women appearing normal, erasing any “imperfections” away.

The representation of women as disabled goes beyond appearance. It has also combined with hegemonic/patriarchal discourses on feminine characteristics.  An example of this is found in the works of Aristotle when he stated that women were “lacking”, irrational and imperfect compared to men. We live in a world where men are dominantly described as being physically strong and women are adversely described as weak, this in turn shapes the way women are treated in society. Aristotle stating that women were ruled by their emotions therefore unable to vote resulted in disabling women from public activity.

Feminist disability theory addresses the “status of the lived body, the politics of appearance, the medicalization of the body… [and] the construction of social identity…” (Garland Thomas 4). Understanding this structure of relations can help us critique how society treats in the category of women.


2 responses »

  1. I love that you pointed out the misfocus of doctors after a woman’s mastectomy. I’ve had a personal experience that’s similar – though not on the same level perhaps.

    As soon as I was diagnosed with diabetes, I started wearing an insulin pump. My doctors seemed more concerned with suggesting ways for me to “hide” my insulin pump – as if this was the major cause for concern when I was being diagnosed with a serious, incurable disease. Thankfully, I had a supportive community of family and friends to get over the emotional difficulty of the diagnosis, and I wear my insulin pump wherever it’s comfortable – usually right on my hip.

    • Yes! It’s interesting because throughout history and currently we notice that the treatment of men is not necessarily based on the aesthetic apperance after healing. Men are able to wear eye patches, scars, etc. with honor, presenting that they survived and are proud of that. Yet, in the case of women, serious illnesses are reduced to an aesthetic concern. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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