Author’s note: I’ve been working on this for months trying to get it right. It’s not quite right yet, but I think it’s time to let it fly free.
I see it every day. I read it from people I respect and whose opinions I cherish. Well-meaning people who care deeply about people in my communities. I hear it from commercials, mass media, and even simply random strangers. Sometimes it’s directed at me, and sometimes its directed at someone else, either present, or not. It’s a qualification. A statement. A description. Someone is described as “beautiful”. Most of the time, it’s meant as a compliment. A statement of how good that person is. How wonderful they are. Sometimes, it’s a statement about a person’s looks. But much of the time, it’s neither. It’s a qualification. Oh, my beautiful autistic friend. Her beautiful son with down syndrome. His beautiful daughter who has cerebral palsy. As if being beautiful is the only quality that makes this person worth acknowledging.
I read a blog post a while ago, by a mother of twins (a boy and a girl). She told a story about a visit to Santa, something many young kids anticipate quite a lot. The boy was asked what his favorite subject was in school. The girl? Santa told her she was pretty. On the surface, things like this seem harmless. The problem, is that repeated over and over, it teaches people that their brains are not important. It’s what’s on the outside that matters. People who are far more eloquent and educated in this subject than I am have written great articles about how harmful telling little girls that they are “pretty” or “beautiful” can be to them as they grow older (example here). The important thing is being able to take pride in yourself, *inside* and out. Being “beautiful” is not an antidote to being “less”.
This is where I start to see a problem. I am going to talk more specifically about the autism community, because that is what I know best, but I have seen this in nearly every other disability community forum that I have ever looked into. I see “my beautiful autistic friend” written out over and over and over again. All you really need is “my autistic friend” if you’re trying to make a point directly related to autism. All you actually need is “my friend” most of the time. Beauty has nothing to do with it. When autism positivity groups compile pictures of awesome autistic people, or blog posts about the good parts of life, the most common adjective used to describe an autistic person is beautiful. As if we’re objects to be admired from afar and that “beauty” is our only redeeming quality, rather than anything else about us. Even other autistic advocates use it to describe each other. But by using the word in the context of “autistic (but) beautiful”, we are continuing to undermine our own humanity, reducing ourselves to something that only holds value by our looks.
I am not a particularly “beautiful” person by any standard. I am fairly petite, and do not have many of the typical features considered “beautiful” by society. Mostly, this is because I don’t care to conform to that. I choose comfort and practicality. My life is lived by creating and employing coping mechanisms for interacting with the world, and I am 100% OK with that. For me, that is my power and my choice, and I am confident in myself and comfortable with how I look. However, I (and many other disabled adults like me), and not a “beauty”. When someone calls me “beautiful”, it feels like a kick in the stomach, because I know that the word is not there due to physical beauty. It’s there to attempt to compensate for something else. To compensate for my “other-ness”. As if “beauty” makes me more of a whole person. There are a lot of positive, powerful adjectives that I can use to describe myself. Things like “passionate”, “friendly”, “kind”, “curious”, or “intelligent”. I might, on occasion, “write beautiful prose” or “wear a beautiful dress” or even have a “beautiful personality” (hah!). But “beautiful” on its own, is not a word I use to describe myself, because, honestly, I’m not, and it’s not something I want to be. By constantly qualifying statements about disabled people with comments about their “beauty”, we’re putting undue pressure on a population to feel self-worth based how we look. We know we often look different. Why not value us for who we are, instead?
Just as society is finally learning to treat young girls as whole people and not just “beautiful” little objects to be admired, I’d like to challenge members of the disability community (disabled people, friends, family, and colleagues) to do the same. We, disabled people of all ages, are so much more than “beautiful”. We are “clever”, “confident”, “creative”, “funny”, “caring”, and many, many, many other adjectives. Some of us truly are beautiful. Some of us are not. Some of us fall somewhere in between. We are people, and deserve to be treated and spoken about as such, without qualifications. If you have to use an adjective (and please consider whether you even need one in the first place), pick one that highlights what you like best about that person. I’m willing to bet it isn’t their “smashing good looks” that has made them valuable to you.
Language is incredibly powerful. While I appreciate being valued for my qualities, I don’t need to be qualified to be valued as a person. So please, don’t call me “beautiful”.