Q: Why are disabled people so ugly?
A: I feel like I ought to be insulted that you asked this question, which presumes that disabled people are indeed ugly, because in general, we’re not; we’re just ordinary-looking, some not so good-looking, some gorgeous. It’s down to luck whether we look pretty or not—well, luck and a talent for style and grooming.
I’m one of your “ugly” disabled people.
This is a photo of me at a recent protest against repealing the Affordable Care Act; the sign says “Don’t Let Us Die”. (Disabled people like myself are at risk of dying if we can’t get health care, and that’s not an overstatement.) We’re wearing party hats because the ACA turned seven years old, so we’re holding a “birthday party”. This is a candid photo taken by a news reporter, so it's not a posed picture.
Let’s analyze this. Why do I look “ugly” in this picture?
- Loose clothing. I have autism and related sensory processing disorder, which means I wear clothing about two sizes too big. Anything tight gets on my nerves, and takes energy I could be using to deal with something else.
- Buzz cut. The hairstyle is all about comfort. I could look “prettier” if I had long hair, but I cut it off because otherwise it gets in the way, and because I have to take extra energy to take care of long hair. So it goes.
- Big, clunky wrap-around sunglasses. Not a highly stylish choice, but absolutely necessary for my sanity. My vision is very sensitive, and I’d get a migraine if I didn’t wear sunglasses outdoors, even on rainy days.
- No make-up. I could look “prettier” if I wore some, but having stuff smeared on my face would take up energy I don’t have. Are we sensing a theme here?
- Overweight. The clothes may make me look fatter than I am, but I’m still carrying about fifty extra pounds. This is unrelated to my disability, other than that because I am low-income, I am unable to afford the expensive, nutrient-dense food that would give me the nutrition I need with fewer calories. Because of my disability, it’s hard for me to cook for myself; I eat mostly prepared food, which can be quite low on nutrition.
- Clothing. The newest piece of clothing I’m wearing is more than five years old; this is down to my low income. Due to my disability, I wear a “uniform” of black pants and polo shirt every day, which helps save energy.
- Androgynous, but not good at fashion. I don’t look stereotypically feminine, probably because I’m not really female, nor really male. This is a sociocultural thing, a gender identity, that has little to do with disability; but because of my disability, I am unable to spend money or time on perfecting an androgynous style that “looks good”. Suits cost money. Tailored anything costs money. And all of that outfit design would take a lot of energy.
Why am I so focused on saving energy? Because I need it to do things like going to to that protest. If you’re disabled, you’re on an energy budget; you have only so much of it, and if you go over your budget, the debt catches up to you in a massive way—physical illness, breakdowns, or just plain being unable to care for yourself for a while. And if I want to do anything other than just keeping myself alive, I have to cut some corners. I simplify everything. And because I do, I can splurge on things like standing on a street corner, yelling at politicians as they go into a fund raiser, because I’m aware that there are a lot of other disabled people who could never, no matter how hard they saved up their energy, make it to a protest like that even at the cost of being exhausted afterwards. And they’re at an even greater risk of dying from losing health care than I am.
But there’s something behind this, something we all should be aware of, because when we’re aware of it, it causes much less harm. It’s simply this: Humans have a sort of evolutionary survival mechanism that tells us to stay away from disease, and to mate with those who are healthy. That’s where the concepts of “ugly” and “pretty” come from; they’re just stand-ins for whether or not you’re healthy and fertile.
So once you know that, once you know that that’s just how your primitive, animal self reacts to people, you can gauge your reaction with a bit more wisdom. Your lizard brain just looks at somebody and goes, “Are they going to give me a disease? Could we have healthy babies together?” and doesn’t care about anything else. In reality, that “ugly” person could become your best friend for life; or you could find that their personality and their mind are so charming that you fall in love with them despite what your primitive lizard-brain is trying to tell you about their looks. Because there’s so much more to a relationship than that early “ugly/pretty” reaction.
Some disabled people look “ugly” in this lizard-brain way because they are ill, or because their faces are not symmetrical. Those are indications that if you mated with them, your babies might not be as healthy. However, even for the purpose of judging whether you could have healthy babies, “ugly” is a horribly imprecise standard. Nowadays, if you wanted to tell whether you could have healthy babies with somebody, you would just go to the doctor and get check-ups.
But “ugly” is something your primitive self sees. It’s not something invented by your humanity or your compassion or your ability to communicate and empathize. “Ugly” is a concept that’s been around since our ancestors were laying eggs. We’ve gone long past that now, and so should you.