My Disability Makes Many Beauty Rituals Difficult Or Impossible -- But It's Not For Lack Of Trying

Yeah, it sounds silly, but that’s the conundrum – we are told we are lazy for not doing all we can to make ourselves look better, yet if we do, it has to seem completely effortless or we’re called vain.
Publish date:
April 21, 2014
manicures, disabilities, beauty is pain

Cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein is known for saying that “there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

I get that this is supposed to be empowering. After all, there are a lot of things a woman can do to improve her appearance. Make-up, a mani-pedi and a flattering hairstyle can make a big difference.

And yet, I take exception to the notion that women are lazy for not doing these things consistently. I’m not lazy. The reason I am not always perfectly put-together is that I have had rheumatoid arthritis since I was a child. This makes many of the beauty rituals most women do easily really challenging.

I come from a long line of well-groomed women. My great-grandmother got tuberculosis, and by the time she died at age 93, she barely had any lungs left. And yet, she always wore pearls in her ears, and her hair and nails were perfect. Both my grandmothers battled cancer, but kept up their grooming until the end. My mother has made me promise that, should she ever be in a vegetative state, I will make sure to pluck any stray hairs and that her nails look good.

Yeah, it sounds silly, but that’s the conundrum – we are told we are lazy for not doing all we can to make ourselves look better, yet if we do, it has to seem completely effortless or we’re called vain.

But for me, it’s far from effortless. For example, I made a resolution to use up all the colorful nail polishes I can’t seem to stop buying.

I dug out my paraphernalia and set to work on my toes. And ouch! My elbow started protesting immediately. My wrist wasn’t far behind, and my unwieldy fingers, while not sore, fumbled as I tried to dab on the polish. Access to the actual toe nails was tricky, since my toes are hammered. It also doesn’t help that I have to be careful not to cross my right leg, since the hip prosthesis I got a few years ago could get dislocated.

The result was far from pretty. I got as much polish on my cuticles as I did on my nails. I was able to clean up the mess with some cotton swabs and acetone, and while my pedicure is not going to win any prizes, it made me happy. Tired, but happy.

Luckily, a pedicure usually lasts me a while. I can’t say that for other beauty rites. I’ve always envied women who can shave in the shower. I don’t have that kind of balance or dexterity. I’ve tried workarounds, such as step stools and shower chairs, but they didn’t stick. Shaving in the tub is also not an option, since I have a hell of a time getting out of tubs, and the last time I was in one I had to have my husband help me out. I’m fortunate that I have light body hair, and that it responds to depilatories. And I prefer wearing pants most of the time anyway.

Then, there’s the hair on my head. A lot of fancy styling tools are simply too bulky or require too much coordination for me to use. And since my elbows have gotten worse in the last five years and I can’t reach behind me, my hairstyling tends to be like a reverse mullet – party in the front, business in the back.

You may ask why I don’t just have these things done professionally. I do. I just don’t always have the funds (beauty costs, and women aren’t lazy simply because they’re poor, but that’s another article), and even when I’m flush, my RA poses challenges to the pros.

I love my hairstylist, but she usually needs to be reminded not to massage my neck too hard during a shampoo, since that can lead to inflammation. A mani-pedi can also be painful, since the stylist has to manipulate my joints. I always have to have the chat first, and most are great about it. But some get huffy, and some get rough, and I leave the session achy and resentful.

And now you may ask why I bother at all. A big part of it has to do with disabled women all too often being treated as invisible or unfeminine.

The fact that my joints were too unsightly for public consumption was impressed upon me quite young. In sixth grade, I daringly wore eye liner one day. At recess, a popular boy sidled up to me and informed me that I shouldn’t bother with make-up, since I would never be pretty anyway. A few weeks later, a girl informed me I was ugly and deformed. Ahh, middle school!

So yes, it’s a matter of pride, and it’s a matter of declaring independence from an illness that’s already taken so much, but it’s also that I enjoy the results of these sometimes painful rituals.

That old saw about beauty being pain takes on additional meaning for me, since I have to weigh whether I want to put myself through it on any particular day.

Now, can anyone recommend a line of ergonomic make-up?