Ever since I was a preteen, I’ve cared deeply about my personal style. Chalk it up to living in a small beach town, but clothing has always been my platform for self-expression and individuality, like it is for so many others. During my confusing and uncertain adolescent years, I naturally gravitated toward pieces I saw in magazines: lacy tank tops, fun headbands, and heels that made me feel decidedly grown-up. But it wasn’t until a few years later that my feminine fashion choices would become a mask for the aspect of my life I so desperately wanted to hide: my physical disability.
As a timid young girl growing up with cerebral palsy, I subconsciously internalized which of my peers were “fashionable” from a very early age — and none of them seemed to have anything in common with me. Sure, we all shopped in the girls’ department at the local Macy’s, but all of them were able-bodied, and I wasn’t. It didn’t help that I couldn’t wear many of the early 2000s trends either — skinny jeans didn’t fit because of my leg brace, and neither did UGG boots or ballet flats. I loved fashion, but much of it wasn’t accessible to me.
Then, when I turned 12, I was cleared by my doctor to stop wearing my brace, and the fashion world became my oyster. I persuaded my mom to buy me flip-flops with floral accents, mini skirts to show off my brace-flee legs, and yes, eventually my very first pair of skinny jeans. Yet even with this newfound sartorial freedom, I still struggled with body image issues due to my disability. I seldom saw people who looked like me on the runway at Fashion Week or featured in ad campaigns, so naturally, I assumed that my disability somehow rendered me unfashionable. When it came to style, I felt like I was behind the curve, as if I’d magically become the best-dressed teen girl alive if I only were able-bodied. Of course, that wasn’t the case, but I thought my cerebral palsy tainted my femininity so much that I had to overcompensate for what society taught me to believe I was lacking.
By the time I went off to college, my style was undeniably and unapologetically feminine. I arrived on campus with a veritable bouquet of floral dresses, skirts in a rainbow of colors and patterns, and embellished going-out tops. Back then, I figured that I had purchased these items because I genuinely liked them, but as the years wore on, I realized that wasn’t the case at all. I truly believed that baring my legs and arms would draw less attention to my hemiplegia than wearing a pair of shorts because, in my experience, most people don’t expect women with disabilities to dress feminine. While it pains me to say it now, I constantly felt like less of a woman than the able-bodied women who surrounded me. I remember thinking that if I made traditionally feminine style choices, then no one would assume I was different, and I would successfully avoid the shame I felt about my disability.
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