Last night, I went out to ice cream with another para athlete from the training center. We’d both had long, hard weeks and were looking forward to unwinding with a delicious dipped cone in the parking lot of an old school drive-in. There was a long line of eager Colorado Springsians waiting outside on this perfect summer night; the shop must have anticipated this, because there was also a guy in a goofy suit making balloon animals for the kids as they waited.
*I should preface this by acknowledging my own bias. I’m slightly traumatized by balloon-makers, having been the recipient of many unwanted balloon dogs and poorly-timed jokes from the oblivious-to-social-cues clown who roamed the oncology floor the year I was on treatment.
I had a feeling when balloon guy approached us that it wasn’t going to be a great encounter, but what came out of his mouth still surprised me.
“Sooo are you two friends because of this, or is it just a coincidence?” he asked, gesturing towards both of our prosthetics.
Never one to have been praised for my poker face, I couldn’t hide my look of disdain. Thankfully, my friend jumped in with a deadpan retort that we were in the same accident (which actually made me smile because it sent balloon guy on a nice little guilt trip). I let my friend handle the rest of the dialogue, then just as the guy was getting ready to leave us alone, he dug a little deeper.
“Well you’re both beautiful. All of this aside, you’re still beautiful,” again gesturing at our legs. The implication was that attractiveness and physical challenges are mutually exclusive; that we had to compensate for having one leg by looking good in other ways.
I was fuming on the inside, and as much as I wanted to tell this guy off, I stayed silent. But the interaction struck a chord, bothering me the rest of the night and into this morning. It caused me to break into tears when I recounted the story to my mom on the phone today. It also caused me to sit in my car for 20 minutes before today’s run, dreading the start of it because I knew the likelihood of hearing another triggering comment like the one I heard last night is highest when I’m out running. What a terrible feeling, being temporarily robbed of the thing that makes me feel the most free by the knowledge that there’s a world of people out there ready to draw attention to my body.
Some may read this and say that I’m being uptight or overly sensitive. But it wasn’t just balloon guy who made me this upset. It was balloon guy as well as every person before him who felt the need to question me about my body before learning my name. I’ve been dealing with situations like these for 15 years. For over half my life, I’ve fielded the question “what happened to you?” on an almost daily basis (this question is usually asked out of the blue, with exactly zero small talk preceding it). For a while it didn’t bother me. I would laugh it off, answer the question, be polite about it. But quite honestly, I’m tired of doing that. 15 years of justifying my appearance has worn me down, and I’m just too exhausted to do it anymore.
While balloon guy’s tactlessness was a little extreme, the more innocent interactions can be just as difficult. Whenever I go out for a run or a ride, it is almost certain that I will hear 2-5 people yell “you’re amazing!” or “you inspire me!” On the surface, this seems nice. But in reality, comments like these have the same effect as balloon guy’s joke or the question “what happened.” They all draw my attention away from whatever it is I am doing and toward the thing that makes me different. The funny thing is, if it weren’t for the people that I encounter in public, I would probably not even think of myself as having a disability. But thanks to their comments, I am constantly reminded of the fact that my body is not normal and never will be.
It’s taken 15 years of unwanted interactions, a couple years of therapy, and even a conversation with an expert on body objectification, but I’ve finally reached some important realizations:
The story of how I lost my leg is a boundary that I get to set. Just because somebody asks, doesn’t mean I have to share. It is not my job to explain my appearance to others. It is not my job to protect strangers’ feelings by providing polite responses to their questions about why I am the way I am. And contrary to the belief espoused by many in the disability community, it is not my job to “educate the world about disability one person at a time.” If I am to use these interactions to educate people, I would rather have it be about appropriate social boundaries than about the personal details of the most painful period of my life.
For a long time I had neither the words nor the courage to respond to strangers’ questions in a way that felt right for me. But I think now I finally do. The next time somebody approaches me out of nowhere and asks what happened to my leg, this is how I plan to respond:
“I’d rather not discuss it with you. I know you’re probably coming from a good place, but that’s a really personal question to ask, and can be traumatizing for a lot of people to answer. In the future, I’d stay away from asking that question of somebody that you don’t know.”
I like this answer because it gives me some of the power back; I am neither staying silent nor submitting to them by giving them the answer they’re looking for. It maintains respect for the other person while also setting a firm boundary, and hopefully, sets them up for more positive interactions in the future.
For those of you reading this who are wondering what you should say if you see someone you don’t know with a body that deviates from the norm, my answer is simple: don’t say anything. While your intentions may be good, the impact it will have on the person will likely not be. I can guarantee that the person already knows they look different and does not need to be reminded. I can also guarantee that the person has much more important things to be thinking about; they do not need their attention to be directed away from those things.
I think all any of us want is to be really, truly seen. It may be tempting to ask a person about their prosthetic as a way of connecting with them — as a way of telling them that you see them. But I believe that the best way we can show somebody we see them is not through what we say, but through what we don’t say. What you are effectively saying when you leave my leg out of the conversation is that you see me not as an abnormal body with a story to be told, but as a whole person.
So to balloon guy, in the unlikely event that you read this: if you see me again and do feel inclined to engage, ask me how my peanut butter dipped cone is tasting. Because that part of my life matters much more to me than the one that you chose to point out.