Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Susan Boyle, Physical Appearance, and Disability Prejudice


The world is much agog over the success of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent, the old country version of American Idol.

Much of the extended discussion has been about Boyle's appearance. Robin Givhans writes in today's Washington Post.
Should Boyle have a makeover?

The politically correct answer: Only if she wants one.

The honest answer: Yes.

Givhans goes on to say "The point of a proper makeover, however, is not to look like someone else but the best version of yourself ...Transformation is always part of a good story. Cinderella didn't go to the ball in hand-me-downs. She went looking her best in a glorious gown and won the heart of the prince. The ugly duckling becomes a swan."

I hear local commentary to the opposite effect. "She should stay as she is. It is what makes her unique."

I suppose Boyle should have a make-over if Boyle wants a make-over. I suspect that the root of the decision will be how she has internalized reactions to her appearance over her lifetime. And of course, I think she realizes a "make-over" in this context means to re-style one's appearance in order to conform to society's idea of comeliness, or normalcy.

In the context of disability, that's something that people with visibilities disabilities cannot do. I know as a wheelchair user I turn heads when I enter a room because I am different. I know too that my otherness is one reason I might be judged as lesser than, as less capable, as less competent, as less desirable.

Obviously, every human being moves through life being "judged by appearances." Boyle, no doubt, could have the experience of being passed over for employment if a more attractive woman were applying simultaneously, the unfairness being amplified if Boyle had been better qualified.

People with visible disabilities move about in the world realizing we are likely to be greeted with internalized versions of the judgmental ambivalence that arose from both audience and judges when Boyle appeared on stage.

It's best not to let it bother us, taking a page from Susan Boyle's book and simply be who we are.

Or, better, to use it as a tactical device to get what we want.
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