How I’m Embracing Femme In A Disabled Body

"Femme is a way for me to signal both my womanhood and my queerness, however subtly, in a society that consistently tries to strip me of both."

I can’t remember a time when my wheelchair wasn’t an integral part of my life and a literal extension of my body. I got my first power chair at the age of two. It was black, fast, and massive so I’d have room to grow. When it was time for a new one in late elementary school, I opted for a bright yellow frame with “Girl Power”—a nod to my all-consuming love of the Spice Girls—stitched onto the backrest in pink thread. I embraced my girlhood early, with bold colors, an overt rallying cry, and no hesitation. And I made that embrace visible through my wheelchair.

It didn’t last, though. My next chair was plain black, as were the ones that followed. This was partly because I wasn’t given the option again (the vendor assumed I’d want something less flashy, something that wouldn’t call attention to itself, since I was older) and partly because, while I knew how to be a girl—a child—I didn’t know how to be whatever came next. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I felt somewhere, deep down, that femininity as an expression of womanhood wasn’t meant for me. That knowledge lived right alongside stop, drop, and roll and don’t touch the stove: things I’d learned so early, they might as well have been instinct.

During middle school, my sister convinced Mom to buy us a giant makeup starter kit. The case was zebra-patterned faux-leather, and inside were tiers upon tiers of eyeshadow, lip gloss, and blush. So many circles of color—shiny and matte, bright and neutral—all lined up in trays that unfolded like a pop-up book when you opened the mirrored lid. It was a veritable treasure trove for two pre-teen girls just starting to experiment with their appearances.

For me, it was also a source of fear and incomprehensible guilt. Even well into my twenties, wearing makeup felt like breaking some unwritten rule, and wearing it in public felt like outright sinning. It’s a well-known trap that women who put effort into their appearance are vain and those who don’t are slobs. As a disabled woman, that trap was compounded: Putting effort into my appearance felt fraudulent, while not doing so felt like admitting I really was the not-woman everyone else saw.

Autostraddle recently published a roundtable of queer folks discussing what femme means to them. I’d been claiming femme for a while, with some hesitation, but seeing how others arrived at and approached their femme identities solidified how closely my own femme-ness is tied not just to my queerness, but also to my disability.

I’ve clearly always had an affinity for the feminine, but being femme is different. It isn’t just lipstick and dresses for me; it’s explicitly and visibly claiming the womanhood I’ve always been denied because of my disabled body—not least through constant infantilization and desexualization.

Of course, it’s not as straightforward as simply claiming the label. It’s often physically difficult to explore being femme given the notorious inaccessibility of fashion. A few weeks ago, I went shopping with a friend who also uses a power chair. We navigated the mall crowds in single file, weaving through too-narrow aisles in every store. We laughed as we wrangled clothes off racks that were heads taller than us, and laughed even more when we tried to put them back. Almost nothing we found would fit a seated body well. I ended up buying a sheer, flower-printed shrug made to be loose. When I tried it on at home, I found the excess fabric bunched awkwardly around me rather than flowing prettily. It was just one out of many, many shopping disappointments throughout my life.

Things are (very slowly) improving, at least. There are disabled models appearing on runways and scoring big contracts, and disabled fashion designers creating clothes for disabled folks. But we’re still largely unseen in the fashion world, and our few sartorial options are often expensive. I don’t even really know what my style is because I’ve had so few chances to experiment. Do I like floral or polka dots? Dresses or blouses? Pinstripes? Clashing patterns? Scarves? Belts? Leather? I have no idea.

Then there’s the issue of my wheelchair—all bulk and metal and utilitarian matte black, designed with function, not form, in mind—as a kind of “accessory,” one that’s aesthetically antithetical to my femme identity. It’s the first thing most people notice about me, the thing that draws their attention far more than my clothes or makeup or curly hair. My chair is my freedom and my mobility; it’s a core (and loved) part of both my disabled and queer identities. It’s also the visual cue that, for some, marks my exclusion from traditional femininity—which is what led me to claim femme in the first place.

I’m still not sure how to navigate my identity as someone who is both femme and disabled. I imagine I’ll never find any perfect solutions, but disabled folks are nothing if not resourceful. If I can’t play with clothing, I can play with makeup and accessories. If my chair clashes with my “look,” maybe there are ways to modify it: neon paint or ribbons or Christmas lights. Or maybe I’ll incorporate its mechanical masculinity into my overall appearance, either as a way of rejecting abled, heteronormative expectations, or as a way of pleasing myself.

My femme identity isn’t just capable of including my disabled identity; it’s built on it. That means simultaneously accepting the things that might keep me from fully expressing my femme-ness (while still critiquing the ableist institutions and structures that create those limitations) and reveling in the joy that comes with defining and being femme however I choose.

Femme is a way for me to signal both my womanhood and my queerness, however subtly, in a society that consistently tries to strip me of both. Femme is an aesthetic I’m only now allowing myself to discover as well as an attraction I’ve always felt. Femme is me and I am femme. So I will revel in who I am, loudly and passionately—with as much red lipstick, glitter, and heavy eyeliner as possible.

This piece by Kayla Whaley originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.

Other recent stories include: