As a result of cultural obsession with the “perfect body” and both externally and self-imposed idealized standards of how we should look, we often experience an affective alienation from our own bodies. We develop and retain an image of how we “should” look to others, measure ourselves against this standard, feel the disparities between the ideal and the reality, and, in the end, we recognize and dread our inability to attain to or retain our idealized perfect form. In the end, we lose a sense of “at-homeness” in our own bodies; we feel that our bodies are such an imperfect refraction of ourselves that we feel out of place in our flesh, an aversion to our bodies.
Dualistic anthropologies, like those traditionally upheld in Christianity, assert that the “real you” is not the outward body but an immaterial essence, often called a “soul,” that resides within the body. Such matter (body) and spirit dualism can no longer be scientifically or theologically defended. We are our bodies; our bodies our us. Our body-selves have real bearing on who we are, and dualistic anthropological assumptions only serve to foster and encourage our sense of alienation from and criminalization of our bodies, our material natures.
Susan Wendell a philosopher and herself an other-abled person, maintains that “the oppression of disabled people is linked to the more generalized cultural oppression of the body and, more concretely, of physicality...” Ellison, in summarizing Wendell states,
Our culture idealizes the body not only in terms of ideal physical appearance, but also in terms of responsiveness and control of body functions. Because so few persons measure up to the idealized standard of either beauty or bodily performance, people generally feel alienated and displaced from their bodies (p. 42).
Ellison (p. 43) goes on to assert, “ The cultural preoccupation with bodily perfection oppresses disabled persons, but it also alienates all persons from their experience of embodiment and heightens their fear of bodily change.”
Against the norms of a culture that values idealized beauty and autonomy, an other-abled person symbolizes all that is dreaded: mortality, loss of autonomy, and disparity with body-image ideals. The other-abled lack autonomy. The other-abled person is vulnerable—she is dependent on the care of others; hence, she is at odds with a culture that moralizes and esteems autonomy and self-reliance as a cardinal virtue. And, to the degree that the other-abled person misses the mark of autonomy, to that degree is she even moralized into marginalization.
Cultural myths of radical autonomy reinforce the oppression of the disabled. The disabled represent those who have not managed to control the neediness of their bodies. Therefore they appear not only as different, but as wrong... [The hatred of the disabled] is rooted in their lack of autonomy, along with their visible embeddedness in nature and the body (p. 43).
The other-abled remind us of who all of us are. Humanity is actualized not in radical autonomy but in immersive vulnerability and dependence on intra and inter-community relationships. None of us stands alone; no one stands with her own bootstraps. Instead of seeing disability as a sign of moral failure, weakness, and instead of seeing our existence in dualistic differentiation from our bodies, we should view the other-abled as a symbol of our shared human condition. We are all body-dependent, we are all dependent on one another. Mutualistic dependency is the ideal, not the aberration. As Ellison proposes, maybe the other-abled should be viewed as a sacrament of our human reality: at-homeness in and identification with our body-selves, dependent on a complex web of relationships.
Our moralized normalcy of able-bodied autonomy, idealized beauty, and aversion to the body not only encourages the oppression and marginalization of the other-abled, but it engenders alienation from our bodies while diminishing our shared humanity. A sacramental vision of the other-abled reminds us of our shared interdependence, vulnerability, weakness, and embeddedness in the flesh, our bodies. “...we live in, and because of, our bodies... [and] We live because of, not in spite of our embodied connections” (p. 44).
Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality. Louiseville: John Knox Press, 1996.
Wendell, Susan. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability.” Hypatia: A Feminist Journal of Philosophy 4:2 (Summer, 1989) in Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice (see above).