“Melissa Blake should be banned from posting pictures of herself.”
Those were the words that greeted me one afternoon as I was scrolling the internet. It was just 10 words, left by a stranger in the comments of a YouTube video I was mentioned in, but they packed a powerful punch. I winced, but not as much as you might think.
Did those words hurt? Absolutely. Was I surprised by them? Not in the slightest. Sadly, I’ve come to expect them.
Let me back up a little first, though.
I’m a freelance writer and blogger, and I write extensively about my life with a physical disability, as well as women’s issues. I’ve always been open and candid about what it’s like to live for 38 years in a body that makes some people very uncomfortable, and over the years, my writing has made people equally uncomfortable. But living in my world ― a world that wasn’t made for people like me, even though 1 in 4 people in the United States live with a disability ― has shown me that we still don’t talk about disabilities enough. And when we do, our conversations are all too often filled with stereotypes and misconceptions. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about ― that old, antiquated idea that disabled people live out their days at home, closed off from the rest of the world, maybe a blanket draped over their lap.
It’s a disgusting tableau, isn’t it?
But like I said, it’s nothing I haven’t heard before.
After I wrote a CNN op-ed last month suggesting that we should all unfollow Trump on Twitter, a conservative YouTuber mentioned me in one of his videos. The comments on his video were filled with people attacking my appearance. There was no thoughtful critique of what I wrote. No mention of the actual content of my op-ed. No, no, no. People just went straight for jabs and insults about how I look.
I was inspired, to say the least. So inspired, in fact, that I posted this tweet as a defiant, cheeky response, in which I wrote: “During the last round of trollgate, people said that I should be banned from posting photos of myself because I’m too ugly. So I’d just like to commemorate the occasion with these 3 selfies…”
Yes, my disability does make me look different. Trust me, I know that. I’ve known that my entire life. I was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disorder, and have spent years coming to terms with my disability.
Growing up, the mirror often felt like my biggest enemy. I’d see myself, see my wheelchair, see my deformed hands and think, Maybe I am just ugly. Most of my scars were hidden under my clothes, but that didn’t matter because I could still feel them ― I could feel every one of them (and trust me, after 26 surgeries, I have a lot of scars) and I sometimes felt like the world could sense those scars too. I was so certain people would be repulsed by them in the same way I was for most of my teenage years.
It doesn’t help that we live in a society with very strict definitions of beauty ― what it looks like, who qualifies and, of course, who doesn’t. Everything from commercials to Instagram feeds gives us this aspirational, unattainable ideal.
Pretty is good. Pretty is acceptable. Pretty is perfect.
And anything that deviates, even slightly? Well, it’s bad and unacceptable. Disabilities are included in that message, and we see it play out far too often. Take something as harmless as the Disney movies we all grew up watching. We’re presented with a beautiful princess, like Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” and an ugly villain, like Ursula. And in the case of “The Lion King,” it doesn’t get much more literal than a villain named Scar.
Indeed, we’re taught that being disfigured is synonymous with ugly. I saw it play out in real time in those YouTube comments ― thousands of comments about how I was ugly and disgusting. Some people wonder why I’ve struggled so much with self-acceptance when it comes to how I look and our society’s notion of what “beautiful” is. It’s because of comments like these — comments that dismiss me and deem me unworthy because of my disability.
It’s been a little over two weeks since I tweeted those three photos, and that single tweet has gone viral ― receiving nearly 300,000 likes and 30,000 retweets! I’ve been getting a lot of press and have been interviewed by Good Morning America, People, the BBC, MSN, CBS 2 Chicago and the Chicago Tribune. The post has also been shared by celebrities such as George Takei, Jameela Jamil and Blink-182′s Mark Hoppus.
That tweet ... brought disabilities and beauty together ― two things we don’t typically associate with each other. That tweet showed the world that those two things can exist together and that disabilities can be beautiful.
In that one tweet, I owned my beauty. For the first time in my life, I felt worthy and deserving. In less than 280 characters, I found the sense of self-confidence I’d been looking for since those days spent analyzing myself in front of the mirror.
I’m not a beauty queen. I know that. I’ll never win pageants or be on the cover of a fashion magazine, but that doesn’t mean I’m ugly.
In fact, I’m realizing more and more how my viral tweet wasn’t just about clapping back at internet trolls, though I admit that did feel good. That tweet also brought disabilities and beauty together ― two things we don’t typically associate with each other. That tweet showed the world that those two things can exist together and that disabilities can be beautiful.
Needless to say, the last two weeks have been a surreal whirlwind in the best way possible. I had no idea my one simple tweet would end up going viral, but I’m so glad it did because I really feel like we’ve started a much-needed conversation. And I’m here to tell you: Yes, I’m disabled. And, yes, it’s OK for people with disabilities to celebrate their beauty.
I’m sure there will still be people who think I’m too ugly to post selfies. I mean, how could people with disabilities be comfortable in their own bodies, much less celebrate themselves and actually feel beautiful?
Who does that?
I do, that’s who. I’m going to keep doing it, too (see the #MyBestSelfie hashtag that I started). Consider it my defiant, cheeky message to the world. My body will never be perfect, but it’s real. And to me, real is beautiful.
Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers relationships, disabilities and pop culture and has written for CNN, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Cosmo and Glamour, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @MelissaBlake and read her blog at MelissaBlakeBlog.com.