Long time readers know that I hate commitments. I try not to make them on the blog because inevitably I fail to keep them. Perhaps I have a problem with authority … (yes, I hear you laughing & it’s ok, I am laughing with you). Nevertheless, I really, really, meant to do a Friday health post every Friday. Truly I did … but as per usual, life got in the way.
So here’s the harsh truth, I didn’t fulfill my commitment to walking 30 minutes a day every day this week with GirlTrek. As a person with disabilities that impact my mobility, any commitment to long term, sustained, movement is refracted through what my body is or is not capable of on any given day. This of course runs counter to the Reagan era slogan “anyone can walk 30 minutes a day” that has been repeated from the top down so often that no one even stops to consider the limits of ability; or worse, they assume those limits are a direct result of your lack of participation not that your participation depends on the lack of your limits. In this discourse of health, there is no room for modification. The belief that large women or inactive women are sloth-like and differently-abled people are whiners who have internalized their own victimhood are embedded at every level of the Western world’s obsession with “health.” In fact, the discourses of health currently circulated in the U.S. have far more in common with eugenicism than the people supporting them seem to understand. The emphasis on perfect bodies and “restraint” as a sign of “moral fortitude” coupled with societally accepted judgment and even threat of harm against those whose bodies, and even attitudes, fail to conform to an arbitrary ideal were the precursors to several genocides on our planet. While the conflict has often been shaped along the lines of fatphobia and “health”, the hidden targets have always been differently-abled people who fat or thin may not be able to meet these able-bodied norms.
Since I live in the land of the able-bodied, my abilities are hidden, and at least with regards to my mobility issues they are adult onset, I find myself often succumbing to the myth of universal ability. While I would never expect others to bend their bodies to an able-bodied norm, I still, occasionally, believe that I can. So on Monday morning of last week, despite all the warning signs, I laced up my tennis shoes, got our two endurance walker dogs leashed up, and began my trek. My thoughts were simple: The pain you feel in your leg is psychosomatic, if you just do it, it will go away. Raise your hands if you have ever been told that your not really differently-abled, it’s your diet or your lack of exercise that is in the way? When other people say it, I call ableist fail, when I said it to myself I just let that internalized lie take me straight into the mouth of pain.
10 blocks later, I could not walk at all. My knee buckled underneath me and sent me to the ground. Sitting there in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk, I remembered the day that I permanently damaged muscle, bone, spine … I remembered all the rehab and the way my colleagues treated me. In the first week they were sympathetic, in the second they began to wonder why I was not better since I was “not in a cast.” By the third week they began to act as though I was faking it and by month’s end I had been summarily dismissed from multiple curriculum, awards, and fellowship committees “due to non-attendance” as if my 5 days a week of physical therapy was optional and their decision to hold meetings during those hours was not. I could not even get into my office because the door into the building was made extra heavy to keep out the cold, so heavy that neither I nor anyone in a wheel chair could ever hope to get the door open on our own & the genius who designed the building put the buzzers on the inside doors but not the outside ones. Imagine for a moment being reprimanded for not holding office hours in a building where you have to literally wait for up to 30 minutes in the ice and the snow for some student or colleague to come by to open the door for you … Come to think of it, that was the year I decided to leave Snooty Poo U.
Luckily, I live on a fairly active street. Young kids run up and down it, several dog owners walk their dogs through it, and yes, the gang bangers down the street hold huge summits and drug runs through it as well. In fact, it was one of the latter who helped me up. He looked at me, sitting on someone’s lawn with my dogs, smiled, and asked if I could stand up. If I were just a little more bourgeois, I might have said yes and waited like a dumba** for someone else to come and help. (And to be clear, no able bodied middle class folk who passed me that morning offered to help before he came by.) Instead of internalizing race and class based fear, the way some of the gentrifying new neighbors did when they crossed the street to avoid walking by me, I told him the truth. He in turn reached his large tatted arm out to me, so I could grab it and lift myself. The gesture, designed to allow me to have the most power possible in a situation in which I needed an aid to get to my feet, made me wonder if he had differently-abled relatives or had learned how to be helpful to differently-abled people without ablism in some class. Sad thing is, even when people are helping you, most of them do it in a way that infantalizes you and renders you dependent.
He walked me back to my house, while taking a phone call.
When we got there, he said “You know mami, you look good in sweats but maybe you should go to the gym or somethin’ where they have people to watch out for you.” Ya se fue his anti-ablism in sea of sexism meant to make me feel better about by abilities. It’s ok that I can’t walk because I am pretty …
Two days later, when I could feel my leg again, I laced up my shoes again. This time I was listening to my body and my body said, “walk for 30 minutes, ehh, let’s make it an hour.” I didn’t need people to watch out for me like an infant, I needed to watch out for myself.
And as I came around the large hill back down toward my neighborhood, the gang bangers car with the painted faces for every person they’ve “dealt with” drove by me. It slowed and then backed up right against the curb where I was. The boy who helped me two days before leaned out the window, and asked “You got this profesora or you need a ride” and his boys laughed at his double entendre.
I smiled back and said “If I get a ride, then how is the whole neighborhood gonna know how good I look in my sweats?!?”
As they drove away, my mind wandered back to the way our culture ties concepts of beauty to the myth of healthy bodies to able bodied norms. I thought about how my tumble days before had forced me to face my own internalized ableism, turned solely in on myself, and the way my two exchanges with the young man from my neighborhood both deconstructed and reinforced the connections between sexism, ableism, and “health” that underpin oppressions even as it undermined discourses of class and the engendering of fear. For a moment, I was embodied theory; my life, was the reminder that our discourses disable and only when we look past them can we really succeed. It is not about being a supercrip or the cool professor who can hang with the gangbangers, it is about moving past isms to listen to oneself and one’s own body to do what is right for not only your own survival but ultimately everyone else’s.
So, I didn’t walk for 30 minutes a day this past week. I walked when my body said it was ok and I swam when it did not. And some days I staid home. And while that may not fly with any program that assumes “everyone can walk for 30 minutes a day” (a statement put out by the government and physicians invested in the “get healthy” movement, not by GirlTrek itself), I’m done internalizing the ableism.
Please note, that everyone’s abilities are different and that some people can and do walk every day without incident. As the images from the paralympics show, differently-abled athletes challenge the normative thinking that differently-abled people are handicapped by their abilities and therefore unable to do sports or to compete. The reality is, assuming anyone can or cannot do something on the basis of their ability is based on ableist assumptions. We know our bodies and we know how to listen to them. And like everyone else, we do have days where not wanting to do something manifests physically and has nothing to do with our ability to do that thing, and most of us can and do differentiate between those moments and actual physical limitations. The point of my story is that I chose not to listen to my body in order to fit into a discourse of health that blatantly ignores, erases, or punishes physical difference and what I learned about myself from it.
All images come from the Beijing Paralympics and are unattributed.