Disability, Illness & Non-normative Bodies

In an age when the media barrage us with images of ideal beauty, and define only fit, healthy, active bodies as desirable, people with disabilities and serious illnesses are seldom portrayed as attractive, complex or even fully competent individuals. Disability and illness bring social stigma, leading some to fear or even reject people with certain physical conditions. Those labeled “not normal” by society on the basis of disability or illness can experience significant forms of discrimination and isolation. Such experiences often have negative effects on their self-esteem and body image.

All societies have notions about the “normal” (or normative) body, but these norms vary greatly across cultures. In some cultures, people are expected to modify their bodies through such practices as tattooing, neck elongation, earlobe elongation, scarification, tooth filing or body piercing. Such practices are often both an important part of initiation rituals, and a powerful expression of ethnic identity or spiritual commitment. Ear-piercing has long been a socially acceptable practice in the US, both other forms of body modification, such as tattooing, scarification, cosmetic surgery and extreme tanning, are becoming increasingly popular. While such practices can serve as a form of creative self-expression, they can also have some negative physical, psychological and social effects.