I started dressing feminine because of my disability and, TBH, I’m done
Since I was a preteen I care deeply about my personal style. Bet on living in a small seaside town, but clothing has always been my platform for self-expression and individuality, as so many others have. During my confused and uncertain teenage years, I naturally turned to the pieces I saw in magazines: lace tank tops, playful headbands, and heels that made me feel decidedly grown-up. But it wasn’t until a few years later that my womenswear choices became a mask for the aspect of my life I so desperately wanted to hide: my physical disability.
As a shy young girl growing up with cerebral palsy, I subconsciously internalized which of my peers were “trendy” from a young age – and none of them seemed to have anything in common with me. Sure, we all shopped in the local Macy’s girl’s department, but they were all valid, and I wasn’t. It also didn’t help that I couldn’t wear most of the trends from the early 2000s – skinny jeans didn’t fit on me because of my leg brace, neither did UGG boots or ballet flats. I loved fashion, but a lot of it was not accessible to me.
Women with disabilities can be feminine, stylish and sexy no matter what they wear.
Then, when I was 12, my doctor allowed me to stop wearing my braces, and the world of fashion became my oyster. I persuaded my mom to buy me flip flops with floral accents, mini skirts to show off my strappy legs, and yes, finally my very first pair of skinny jeans. Yet even with this regained sartorial freedom, I still had body image issues due to my disability. I rarely saw people who looked like me on Fashion Week catwalks or in advertising campaigns, so naturally I assumed my disability made me look old-fashioned. Style-wise, I felt behind the curve, like I would magically become the best dressed teenager in the world if I was only fit. Of course it wasn’t, but I thought my cerebral palsy had marred my femininity so much that I had to overcompensate for what society had taught me to believe I was missing.
By the time I left for college, my style was unmistakably and unabashedly feminine. I arrived on campus with a veritable bouquet of flowery dresses, skirts in a rainbow of colors and patterns, and embellished going out tops. At the time, I thought I bought these items because I really liked them, but over the years I realized that was not the case at all. I really believed that baring my legs and arms would draw less attention to my hemiplegia than wearing shorts because in my experience most people don’t expect women with disabilities to dress in a feminine way. Although it pains me to say it now, I constantly felt less of a woman than the able-bodied women around me. I remember thinking that if I made traditionally feminine style choices, no one would assume that I was different and I would successfully avoid the shame I felt about my disability.
What bodily acceptance means to me as a woman with a disability
And then something happened. I decided to finally open up about my cerebral palsy and, consciously or unconsciously, I no longer felt the need to present myself as openly feminine. I started working makeup-free with jeans and sneakers, and I loved it. Gone are the days of scouring my closet for the most feminine outfit I could find – I dressed only for myself. Upon reflection, my perceived lack of femininity was deeply rooted in ableist beauty standards. The point is, women with disabilities can be feminine, stylish and sexy no matter what they wear.
Now, almost three decades later, I finally feel comfortable enough in my skin to wear what I want. I no longer feel as though I have to dress in a feminine way to navigate the world, or in the dressing room. I admit that I still have a soft spot for feminine looks, but not as much as I like to dress in leggings. Either way, I’ll always be quite a woman, and I don’t need a floral dress to prove it.