Recovering a Body Lost in Self-Hatred and Stereotypes

Thoughts on the Keah Brown Experience of Misrepresentation and Stereotyping of People Living with Disabilities

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I propose to share some thoughts on the title of my article after an emotional reading of an essay from Keah Brown titled ‘We are all unruly: the body on the other side of self-hatred’ which was published by Gay Magazine on Medium which can be read via the embedded link below:

The essay opened my eyes to a number of things which were explored by Keah Brown including her own personal experience dealing with cerebral palsy, stigmatization, stereotyping, and other forms of injustices against people with disabilities. Some of the issues explored by Keah in the essay appealed to me and also resonated with me directly and indirectly.

I also believe that the experience shared in that essay also resonate with many persons living with disabilities other than Cerebral Palsy around the world. That is why I have chosen to push beyond the efforts of everyone who is trying to see to a fairer treatment of those living with disabilities to add my voice and encourage individuals and Governments to do more in the way people living with disabilities are seen and treated.

Who is Keah Brown?

A smiling Keah Brown. Image courtesy of Medium.com

Keah Brown (born in September 19, 1991) is a disability rights activist, author, journalist, and writer. She is the creator of the hashtag #DisabledAndCute, which first went viral in February 2017 and caught the attention of Sophia Bush, Brie Larson and other celebrities around the world.

Her book The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me was published in August 2019. The book contains personal essays/stories in which Keah relates to issues of beauty and body image, romantic love, culture, and physical pain as a black woman with cerebral palsy and other invisible disabilities.

Keah’s writings range from fiction and nonfiction to blogging, interviews, essay pieces about TV and movies to beauty and fashion to sports to popular culture and body positivity. Her writings have been featured in Cosmopolitan (magazine), Teen Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Bustle (magazine) among others including Essence (magazine), Gay Mag. etc.

Her criticism of the entertainment industry has been uppermost in many of her articles and interviews including “Season Four of ‘Orange is the New Black’ Has a Race Problem” (Cited in the peer-reviewed Canadian Review of American Studies, in 2017) and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls (September 2016) respectively. In her interview, Keah suggested that she wanted to see more women of color with disabilities acting in lead roles on film and TV.

Cerebral Palsy, you mean? What is that?

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Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect muscle tone or posture, motor skills and coordination. It is considered the most common motor disability of childhood and about 1 in 323 children has been identified with CP according to estimates from the Center for Disease Control and Preventions’ Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network

Cerebral Palsy is typically diagnosed during the first or second year after birth which means that if a child’s symptoms are mild, it is sometimes difficult to make a diagnosis until the child is a few years older.

Some famous persons have been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and they include the following: Nicolas Hamilton (English racing driver who competes in the British Touring Car Championship and the half-brother of Lewis Hamilton); Christy Brown (Irish writer and painter); Maysoon Zayid (American actress and comedian of Palestinian descent. She is one of America’s first Muslim women comedians); Jhamak Kumari Ghimire (Nepali writer who writes with her left foot); and Abbey Curran (American beauty pageant contestant. She is the first woman with a disability to compete in the Miss Iowa and the first woman with CP to compete in Miss USA. She created a nationwide pageant for girls and young women with disabilities to gain confidence through pageantry) etc.

Having CP does not mean that a person is incapable of engaging in major activities that other people engage in and it does not stop them from becoming successful adults. It is important to note that those with CP are intelligent and can do as much as other people without CP. Children and adults with Cerebral Palsy need the right amounts of quality services, care, love and support to stay well, active and be a part of the larger community.

To read more about Cerebral Palsy, check the article by clicking the link below:

The Lost Body of Keah Brown

The essay titled ‘We are all unruly: the body on the other side of self-hatred’ details the personal story of Keah Brown who experienced self-hatred growing up for parts of her body which she considered to be “my problem areas.” She recalls how at 15 she returns back from school and goes ahead to mark those “problem areas” which included as she writes ‘…my chubby cheeks, expansive forehead, and my nonexistent belly fat and ended with my right arm and its bent fingers and my right hip and leg.’ This births a bumpy journey she takes before a change which she reflects on in this essay.

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

Keah’s difficult battle to accept herself starts early as she was born with cerebral palsy. She keeps marking her body with ‘marker and blade’ from the ages of 15 to 23. She even sets dates she wanted to end her life which didn’t take place especially as two separate deaths in her family put her off her plans — her grandmother and Uncle Scott. It was disappointing for Keah who describes her decision to end her life in these words ‘…I wanted God to suffer knowing that he created someone so physically and emotionally imperfect. Killing myself was letting him off the hook. I wanted to punish us both.’

Her struggles meant she took more time to scar herself and mark her body which acted as reminders to her of what she battled with for a long time — acceptance of herself. She needed that change which she calls ‘the necessary catalyst for growth.’ She is the one who appears on both sides — as the reflection in the mirror and as the real representation of that reflection. It is now difficult to be disturbed by all the negative images she had been dealing with which she puts in these words ‘…I am both here on the other side and I am the other side itself. There is power in both being in a place and knowing you yourself are that place, in being saved and saving yourself.’

In her admission, ‘saving myself was not easy. There were times when those markers that marked those problem areas were blades. I cut myself open just to see what was inside, in the hopes of finding pieces of myself I could love. I was unsuccessful, but I relished the controlled pain and the ability to punish myself the way I thought I deserved.’

The Recovery and Reclamation Process of Keah Brown’s Body

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Keah’s miracle of ‘reclamation’ happens in 2016 when she wakes up a few days after Christmas to look into the mirror. She takes a look at the image in the mirror and says the words “kinda cute.” This new-found ritual dominates her life for over two years which grow from just those first two affirmative words to saying four things she liked about herself every day. These self-affirmations have kept her going strong and it is this belief that pushes her each step of the way.

That eureka moment in front of the mirror births a new image she has of herself and she becomes “unruly” with matters relating to either body-shaming or cultural stereotypes. Even though the process of reclamation is a slow one as Keah affirms in the essay when she writes ‘The road still isn’t easy; effort is still necessary to keep myself in this happier mindset. I say the four things still to remember my worth and save myself from myself every day,’ she makes a lot of slow but steady progress which has been demonstrated in her essay and in her activism slogan #DisabledAndCute which went viral in February 2017and became popular around the world. Her essay encourages others with disability issues similar to hers to disallow people from making them feel less of themselves or defining their bodies based on biased cultural ideas of what a beautiful, a complete or a perfect body is or should be.

Keah is a champion of reclamation and her essay encourages her readers to value their scars and their bodies differently from how the rest of the world views them. How we see ourselves matter the most. People should never define us by our appearances or anything that makes us who we are. She writes: ‘The ability to see your body without disgust and without the influence of a culture that sees your body as an inconvenience is something we all deserve. Selfishly, I want so much more for myself and my community — to be seen so that no one else feels the need to mark their bodies the way I did or feel the urge to be someone else simply because the world expects us to hate our bodies the way they hate our bodies.’

An Unruly Body is Beautiful

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There is a pretty new definition that Keah gives to her body. In doing this, she steps away from having anything to do with the definitions ascribed to her body by the people who surround her. She goes ahead to even challenge the supposed status quo and then give herself a newer way to believe that being ashamed of our bodies is a silly thing:

‘My body is unruly, and that’s what makes it beautiful. I don’t need to fit in or disappear to escape the inevitable. There will be days when I find myself unable to look into that mirror and smile or wink at my old scars, and there will be days when I grow angry at the fragility of my aching bones and limited range of motion, but on those days, I will and I do try to remember all that I have done in this body that I and many before me have deemed unruly. You want to know a secret? Every single body is unruly. Every curve, every bump, bruise, scar, body roll, mole, and freckle create an unruly body. All of our bodies are unruly, and that’s why the idea that we should be ashamed of such unruly bodies is silly. The work of shifting that frame of mind isn’t easy. It took me 24 and a half years, but it is necessary work.’

It is evident that our bodies do not need the misrepresentation it gets nor does it need to be stereotyped by popular culture or the mass media. We have to take over what our bodies mean to us. We need to redefine our bodies and hold on to whatever we tell ourselves we are because each and every part of our body should be unruly whether bearing scars or not. The beauty of an unruly body should not be in doubt at all.

Misrepresentation, Stereotyping and Injustices: Issues affecting the Disability Community

There is a part of Keah’s essay dedicated to quashing all the cultural stereotypes that had been made of her womanhood and her disability, with occasional rejections in the disability community due to the ‘the nearly nonexistent representation of disabled people of color in mainstream media and the community’s insistence on ignoring other identifiers for a watered-down version of representation that reads very white and male anyway.’ This aspect is what has been found many times in mainstream media and as the clarion call for support of not just disabled people goes on and on as well as the support for disabled people of colour like Keah and many others, the barrier to be identified and represented which is caused by cultural issues ought to be disintegrated for people with disabilities to have the freedom to do the things that they can do with the abilities that they have which many are failing to see or do not care to accept as valid based on the stereotypes with which people with disabilities have been described.

Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

Self-acceptance is something that psychologists and the likes speak of much of the time. They prefer that someone who is body-shamed or someone who has a self-esteem issue should accept their bodies the way they are and also protect them along with all their flaws. Keah affirms this when she writes: ‘My body is mine, and because I am important to myself now, so is my body in its every scar, bump, fat roll, and bruise. No one body is worse just because it comes with limitations and because it does not fit the tired and unrealistic standards we set for bodies, yes, our bodies are unruly and often unpredictable, but so are the human beings inside of these bodies. That doesn’t make us any less worthy of a life full of love, respect, understanding, and patience.’

When the power of reclamation is exercised by Keah, she breaks through barriers that hinder her which have been created by society and by way of her decision to accept her body and then predict that being proud about ourselves can come in leaps and bounds:

‘There is so much power, joy, and relief in reclamation and the act of taking back control of the identifiers and words once used to cause you pain, but there is even more power in self-acceptance and the ways in which we view our bodies… I do smile at myself and wink at my scars, because my real power came when I shifted how I viewed my body from the lens of the world to the lens of the person living in the body. The view of ourselves in our unruly bodies is what matters more than the label of unruly itself. We can be the versions of ourselves we are proudest of during every bad and good day or moment. We can wake up and live happily.’

Keah Brown’s campaign for the sake of those living with Cerebral Palsy and other forms of disabilities show that she is not doing that for her sake alone, having gone through bits of her own ugly experiences but she does this for the sake of her future and the futures of those living with disabilities. It is with this mindset that we experience a different side of Keah who shuts down the systems that attempt to stifle her and her creativity via what she writes.

What now for the Disability Community?

Photo by Julius Carmine on Unsplash

The disability community is constantly faced with issues of stereotyping and misrepresentation which continues to be promoted in the media and pop culture. Such issues cannot be treated with a relaxed attitude and that’s why the voice of activism championed in several quarters especially by disability rights activists has to be taken up by the Government of various countries and other well-meaning individuals so that the fight for more representation in the front row of vital sectors will not be limited to just a few and based on stereotypes.

The disability community must come together and also refrain from segregation even in that community and make their voices heard. The community needs to also push for more equality in mainstream media and other areas where they had been less representation or no representation in the past. This will ensure that the disability community is not marginalized.

Keah Brown, writing for Essence.com in an essay titled: How One Woman Celebrates Her Disability with the #DisabledAndCute Hashtag delivers her manifesto on what the hashtag she created hopes to achieve. She writes:

The hashtag is hopefully a conversation starter between the disabled community and mainstream media. We don’t need to be felt sorry for. We deserve opportunities in every aspect of the word. For journalists and writers like myself, I wish that we would be hired in more newsrooms and editorial boards so that we can tell our stories in a non-exploitive way. I wish that we were in more writers’ rooms so that television shows and movies didn’t treat disability like a death sentence or a death wish.

My hope is that more magazines hire disabled people in editorial positions as well as models. I want to be on the cover of a mainstream media magazine and to show the world who I am, who we all are. I think that it is time we challenged the standard of beauty.

As it stands

Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash

The loss of self-esteem is very dangerous. It is worse to even have confidence issues as well along with a visible or an invisible disability which can be picked on by people, pop culture and worse, by the individual(s) involved. The story of Keah Brown opens our eyes to see that it is much easier to reject ourselves than to accept how we look or feel. It is evident too that whatever we define ourselves as is more important than what others stereotype us to be.

People with disability are pictured in misrepresented terms in popular culture, mass media etc and it is what is peddled around that is easily accepted by others. So many persons attacked the idea of Keah starting the #DisabledAndCute campaign because they did not like the choice of the word ‘Cute’ in the hashtag. Keah did not want to feel terrible about that choice and instead stuck with it. She explains this fully in the following words from her essay on Essence.com

www.essence.com/culture/disabled-and-cute-creator-keah-brown

There was a celebration of disability in a way that I had never seen. I was lucky in that the positive far outweighed the negative. However, some members of the community were upset with my use of the word ‘cute’ because the word can be very infantilizing when non-disabled people call us cute when we do anything. Those few angry people began attacking me personally, and I took it to heart. First, I felt guilty; I questioned why I didn’t use a word that made everyone happy. I questioned the hashtag and wondered if I had made a mistake. Then, I remembered that at the end of the day, you couldn’t make everyone happy. I reminded myself that this hashtag was as much for me as it was for anyone else. I believe that criticism is fine, but my critics were chastising me for using cute and not sexy or fine. I know that I don’t feel sexy or fine, I feel cute, and I think that is perfectly okay to say. In the same way that many disabled people reclaimed cripple, I want to reclaim cute.

Just as Keah and some other disability rights activists have voiced their concerns on social media and other platforms on the images of disabled people portrayed on various platforms as helpless and needing extra to become successful, it is important to keep reiterating the fact that CP or any other kind of physical disability cannot limit anyone and those with any of such conditions should be treated more as humans than vessels of pity. Those with such conditions should be made to rise through the ranks and show what they are capable of doing in mainstream media and other areas. Such progresses will be more than acceptable to all and sundry compared to the misrepresentation, stereotyping and injustices suffered by those with disability of one kind or the other.

Disability does not mean incapacity. Bodies that are being defined by a stereotyped standard serve to only compound the problem of acceptance of people the way they are whether disabled or not. Each person’s humanness is more important than how they look. How we look cannot define what we can do and so there should be a level-playing field for everyone.

Each and every one of us need to reclaim our bodies the same way Keah did and find a way to see how beautiful our bodies are beyond the bruises, the scars, the bumps and all other features that could make we or others uncomfortable. As no single body is perfect, acceptance is then necessary to keep us going.

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