Wednesday 15 March 2017

Yes, Disabled People Wear Lingerie.

[Image: black and white photo of a walkingstick in a window with a bra handing from the handle. And because it didn't occur to me to dust, there is a scattering of dead black insects and some cobwebs on the white windowsill.]

Last year I rolled into a lingerie store to check out a rather fabulous emerald green bra and undie set that had caught my eye in their display window. I rolled around the tightly packed store grazing racks of g-strings and t-shirt bras until the inevitable happened. On the back of Lucille (my electric wheelchair) are a set of handles that allow another person to push the chair if I run out of batteries or become too incapacitated to manage my joystick. I forget they exist 99% of the time. They are behind me and I am highly unobservant even on my good days. The 1% of times are times like that day when, dazzled by the wall of lace and satin, I had deviated 1° off my safe path and caught a rack of lace teddies on a handle. I promptly pulled the entire rack of teddies to the floor. I stopped mortified as the loud clatter of plastic hangers dwindled into silence. Looked back to find a pile of plastic and lace on the floor and a single sad white teddy hanging haphazardly off one of my handles. I waited for assistance.

And waited.
And waited.

The attendant didn't even look at me and I was faced with a set of tight, black clad shoulders that either belonged to the ghost of a past store attendant, or, she clearly had no intention of turning around. Embarrassed and leaning precariously from my chair, I tried to pick up the pile. When it became clear my attempts were going to end in a possible worsening situation, that of an uncoordinated disabled woman plummeting from her chair to take out an even larger display of lace and satin, I leaned back. I twisted. Grabbed the lone teddy from my handle. Hung it back up on the chrome display pole. And rolled out. When I looked back the attendant was clearly relieved I was gone.

At no point from when I rolled in to when I left did she make eye-contact. She saw me enter, turned her back and continued to speak to the only other woman in the store. I felt like I was back in high school when the cool girls would deliberately ignore my decidedly uncool self. The classic exclusionary tactic employed by teenage girls throughout history: turn your back and continue to talk like the uncool girl never entered the room and doesn't even exist.

It was clear that I was not welcome. 
A disabled woman in a lingerie store? 
No thanks.
Too difficult.
Too ick.
Too "why would a disabled woman even want lingerie?"

I know I'm not alone in this experience and have had multiple conversations with  disabled friends who have felt excluded or discriminated in lingerie stores. People have difficulty with the concept of disability, and in turn interacting with disabled people. But the combination of disability and sexuality makes people profoundly uncomfortable. However that sexuality is expressed, from purchasing lingerie to dating, exploring sexual identities, or participation in different lifestyles, it quickly becomes clear that society doesn't want that connection to exist. (There was a massive blow up on a popular disability site a few years ago when a sex positive story about a disabled adult attending a completely legal sex party in Canada was published. The gentleman in question found it a celebratory, inclusive and empowering event. Responses were clearly split between those who did and didn't have lived experience of disability. Disabled commenters were predominantly happy for him. However, many parents of disabled children, carers, and adults without lived experience of disability were horrified even threatening to report the event and the group to authorities. Similar responses also occur when there is mention of the use of sex workers to aid disabled people in exploring their sexuality.)

Disabled people are seen as asexual by many. Or undesirable. Or as frequently comes up in comment boards when disability and sexuality are discussed, special snowflakes, or forever children who should not be sullied by icky notions like sexuality. Many simply go straight for the "how could a disabled person possibly consent to sex or any expression of sexuality?" That there are different types of disability, that we could consent, or be taught about bodily autonomy, choice or safe sex practices doesn't even enter the public conscience. That sex is a part of the human condition and should be considered a human right for non-disabled and disabled people alike is rarely discussed. We are not supposed to be confident or feel attractive. We are not supposed to own our own experience. We are to inhabit the realms of pity or inspiration and never dare to mention that our wants and needs are strikingly similar to those who are not disabled. And the idea that we might simply want to wear some hot lingerie that makes us feel confident, for ourselves, not anyone else, isn't even in consideration. The woman in the lingerie store let me know that I wasn't welcome. And she definitely didn't see me as a potential customer.

Pfft to you rude woman! I'll spend my dollars elsewhere.

Yesterday, NZ company Lonely Lingerie's new campaign came to light. It stars 57-year-old Mercy Brewer. The photographs show a confident older woman wearing some fabulous sexy lingerie. Stylistically the photographs and the lingerie are no different to what you'd see in a campaign with a younger model. This is not the conservative, stodgy, lingerie we are routinely shown in advertising directed at older women. It is unashamedly sexy. And it is fabulous. It defies so much of the narrative around older women. Women in Mercy's demographic tend to be framed as mothers or grandmothers, and advertising and society tells us there is only one acceptable form of mother/grandmother. I can't help think of Madonna wearing a revealing outfit at the Met Gala last year which was met with cries reminiscent of Maude Flanders "won't somebody please think of the children!" As if motherhood or grandmotherhood, or age, (or disability) automatically wipe away a woman's sexuality and self-expression. As a purple-haired, side-shaved, mini-wearing, 43-year-old, disabled woman and mum of two son's, I call BS on that.

[Image: An older woman leans against a wallpapered wall wearing a black bra. The entire photo is in sepia tones. Text below says "Aging can bring a quiet confidence unknown in youth, what use is beauty without confidence to recognize yourself?" -Mercy Brewer #LonelyLingerie]

I read a piece discussing the Lonely Lingerie campaign that stated that age was the final frontier of lingerie advertising. I would have to disagree and say that disability continues to be the final frontier as we so hard pressed to find any disabled women, or men, in lingerie campaigns. And an older disabled woman? I swear I belong to a group of mythical women dwelling in a land that time and advertisers forgot. I met a woman just like me at a concert recently. She had no idea that other older, less conventional, disabled women in wheelchairs existed. We bonded on shared experience and anger that we are never represented in advertising, or media, or life.

While the lack of disabled women in advertising is clear, it is equally apparent that even the concept of such a thing as diverse women's bodies remains controversial (that mythical land of diverse women is pretty bloody full! And only a few hardy adventurers/advertises seem willing to go searching for those far lands.). There is a particular part of society that is vehemently opposed to diverse women who are comfortable and confident living in a body that much of society and the majority of advertising would prefer be hidden away. Add in any hint of sexuality for those who have a different body type from the dominant advertising norm, and people become even more uncomfortable and frequently vicious.

Today I watched as US company Livi Rae Lingerie's was told that their images of diverse body types, including a disabled woman in a wheelchair were in "poor taste" and should be removed. The images show confident women speaking for and about themselves. These women, like the Lonely Lingerie campaign, defy the standard lingerie images we see that use young, thin, white women/teenagers. When this was revealed, an online campaign developed #NoShameLiviRae, and following the overwhelming publicity and backlash, the decision was reversed. How they were in anyway offensive boggles the mind. Stylistically these photos are definitely more on the conservative side of the ledger, especially when compared to the Lonely Lingerie campaign. And still someone got their knickers in a knot (all puns intended).

Won't somebody think of the children!

[Image: A smiling woman sits in her wheelchair wearing a beige strapless bra and white half petticoat. Caption says: Real Women. "I want to be an example MS or not. People can do what they set their mind to. I always felt the desire to encourage anyone, at any age to never give up and to believe that they are amazing and perfect just the way they are. Even a girl in a wheelchair can be influential" -Stacey Shartley LiviRae Lingerie Ambassador. Livi Rae Lingerie #RealBrasRealWomenRealStories #LiviRaeLingerie]
(Source: Livi Rae Lingerie Facebook Page)

These two campaigns are very different. But in both cases the women are confident. They are from groups who are not regularly seen in lingerie campaigns. They are expressing themselves. And owning their lives and their experience. For themselves and not for anyone else. And that makes many people uncomfortable.

Personally, I love the Lonely Lingerie campaign, and think the company could do great things for disabled representation in the lingerie market.

I want to see a disabled women shown as a confident sexual being.
I want to see what lingerie may look on a body similar to mine.
I want to see her unapologetically owning space and her image.
I want to see her giving a big F U to the naysayers. 

As an older disabled woman, simply seeing an older woman portrayed in this manner made my heart sing. If I were to see an older disabled woman portrayed in this manner I may break out in song and my best jazz hands and spirit fingers.

Diversity in advertising makes financial sense. If companies can't make the move because it is the right thing to do. Then surely attracting a wider market that will increase your profits is attractive.

Diversity in advertising is a powerful tool in changing the way we think about difference in our society.

Diversity in advertising is also powerful for those who are part of those diverse communities. It says I'm here. I'm not alone. I'm part of the community. And I have value just as I am.

I'll never go back to the lingerie store where I was ignored. But I do want to buy lingerie that makes me feel confident.

And I want to buy my lingerie from a company that sees me.


Sing it JT!


  1. What a shitty experience you had at the lingerie store, Michelle. Did it ever cross that shop assistant's mind that you might actually not just be a scary disabled person (oooooo, disabled) but a human being who was a potential customer?

    The disability community is a *huge* group of people, but are probably one of the most ignored minority groups when it comes to advertising and media representation. I am actually writing a piece about disabled actors/characters in media and proportionally, they are the least represented group on TV. Add being a not-20-year-old woman to the mix and your chances of seeing you staring back at you on the telly are pretty slim. Here's hoping you find some fabulous lingerie from a less-gross retailer!

  2. I hope you found lingerie in another, more welcoming store! You deserve to celebrate your body in a way that makes you feel sexy and desirable. We all do, regardless of ability.

  3. I love your attitude and your openness. I hope this sends a clear message to those out there that this that a disability makes us some type of non-human entity. And thanks for the post. You keep pulling us all together.

  4. What a wonderful article, I am an older woman (51) I am disabled and I do use a wheelchair, I haven't had any lovely lingerie since ending up in my chair 6years ago, but thanks to you... it's time

  5. I can't believe that things like that still happen in this day and age!


All who are lovely enough to comment should be showered with cup cakes, glitter and macarons. I promise to use my spoon bending mind powers to try and get that happening for all who are lovely enough to share their words. Those who go the extra step to share posts should really get a free unicorn. Or at least the gift of finding the shortest and quickest line at the supermarket on a regular basis. xx

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.