The strangest compliment I've ever received was :“You don't look like you're in a wheelchair.”
Granted, I wasn't sitting in my wheelchair at the time, but as I was sitting on a bench in a train in the designated bike area (do you have designated bike area's in the US or is it a Dutch thing? It is also, in a lot of trains, the only place a wheelchair will fit) and my wheelchair was right next to me and there was no one else in the compartment, the question the guy had just asked before “Is this yours?” did feel a little strange to me.
But then he told me he had asked because I didn't look like someone in a wheelchair and I was amazed, because I didn't think there was a specific look for disabled people.
“Why?” I asked him, and he said he couldn't believe that someone with legs as beautiful as mine, who seemed to be fully aware that her legs were gorgeous, would have non-functioning legs.
I decided that he probably didn't mean to tell me that disabled people should not be pretty, or at least have the decency to have ugly-looking disabled body parts, so I said “Thank you” because that's what you do when someone acknowledges that your legs are gorgeous.
Ironically, the reason for showing of my legs is not hiding my disabililty, but accepting it as it is.
It is easy to objectify your body if it's not healthy. I have health professionals and care takers touching me on an almost daily basis. I feel rather detached when touched.
Furthermore, I have pain, always, in quite a lot of joints, especially my legs. One of the reasons I'm a wheelchair user, is that when I walk over 15 feet, I not only sprain or even dislocate my ankles, but also the pain gets so bad that it leaves me unable to do anything for the hours afterward.
But even when I'm not on my feet, they hurt, due to the damage caused by the constant dislocations. The best way to deal with that pain for me, is to shut down all feeling in my legs, which is doable when you're not using them anyway, because you're in a wheelchair. (And here I am, distancing myself from my legs even in writing).
However, in constantly shutting down the feeling in your legs, in medicalizing your body, it is very easy to lose the connection with it. I will usually refer to my feet and ankles as “those” rather than mine, “that ankle hurts,” not mine, “it has dislocated,” not mine.
One of the things I can do to reclaim my body, is displaying it.Choosing printed tights and bright colored high-heeled shoes each night (I'm not a morning person, the outfit choices I make in the morning are very unique), gives me a moment of sheer joy in my legs and feet. Getting compliments on my legs or shoes helps me in not forgetting they're there. I need that.
I might have shown off my legs no matter what they looked like, but it so happens to be that years of physical therapy, not walking too much and lucky genetics have made my legs real pretty.
Even before I was displaying symptoms, and it became necessary to make a statement about my legs in my clothing, I've never been a fan of pants in general or jeans specifically, and apart from a two-year period in my early teens trying to fit in (which happen to coincide with my onset of symptoms, although that may be uncorrelated), I have always, always worn skirts.
I haven't been able to walk unaided since the age of 12 and in all my years on crutches I have worn skirts. Yes people stare at my legs, they do, but they will do that, no matter what I wear, at least now I can tell myself that they look because my legs are unexpectedly pretty.
So when I became a wheelchair user three years ago, I never considered changing the way I dress.
In fact, I cannot think of a good reason to wear pants, they don't flatter me, it isn't as easy to look professional in the office when wearing pants without looking too formal, the seams hurt my skin, and pants hide your shoes.
I'm not saying I didn't change anything about the way I dress when I became a wheelchair user, some things had to change due to practicality. I cannot wear wide skirts because they might get stuck in my wheels, so I usually wear pencil skirts, this has the extra benefit of showing off my butt -- not that anyone sees it, as I'm sitting on it all day, but I know it looks great.
I had to throw out all my long coats, because they also get stuck in the wheels. I had to change my gloves and I need to make sure that I'm not wearing a top or a coat with sleeves that cover my wrists or part of my hands, so that they don't get damaged by the wheels.
But all in all, I like to think my wheelchair fashion is pretty much the same as my walking fashion would have been. Except for one thing; since I don't have to walk, I can wear whatever shoe I like, as long as I can get it on without dislocating my ankles. So I wear the most incredible shoes to work, to parties, and anywhere else.
They will never get worn down (well I sometimes scuff the toes, since I tend to forget my feet are in front of me), so I own something between probably 50 and a hundred pairs, and my collection is only growing.
I like that. Apart from the not walking thing, it is one of the best aspects of being in a wheelchair, but apparently it does make me look like I shouldn't be in one.