Original content post by our blogger Aimee Louw. Check all of her contributions.
I’m sitting there eating a spinach salad in Boston Pizza with an older guy I had met in a grocery store parking lot. It’s a first date. We have nothing in common.
He, a displaced east coast fisherman looking for a good time, preferably to a soundtrack of 80s hair rock, me, an uncomfortable college music student looking for validation, experience, and excitement.
He’s eating heartily and telling me about lobster, flipping through one of those 1990’s-era drugstore photo albums. He’s describing the different types of lobster traps and lamenting that there is less and less work every year on the sea. I’m nodding and picking at my food, thinking he’ll find me more attractive if I eat less.
We make a strange pair, to be sure, but not for the reason he thinks.
We’re eating, he’s talking, I’m listening, and then the question comes. A question I have grown accustomed to, growing up with an atypical body, but a question that shocks and hurts all the same when I hear it:
“So, what’s your… your…” and he elaborates with hand motions, expecting me to fill in the rest.
“Your, you know…”
“Umm” I stall.
Silence, salad, shame, and images of lobster fill my being. Then he pipes up with,
“don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me, I have a niece who was born with… well… she needs help.”
“Don’t worry, I think you’re beautiful anyway.”
It hurt to realize that while I was wondering if my date found me cute and if he would want to see me again, he was asking himself, basically, what my problem was. I felt uncomfortable but at the time didn’t know exactly why.
Time has passed and I have done a lot of soul-searching. My way of thinking about disability and the expectations placed on us has expanded. So here’s why I was uncomfortable:
There’s this often unspoken expectation that people with disabilities should a) explain ourselves when dating, and b) that we should know that we’re deficient and therefore be grateful for whatever attention we get.
Basically, we’re throwing non-disabled people’s perceptions of how a person should look and communicate off, and it is up to us to do what we can to fit their expectations. And if we can’t, we are expected to apologize for that in the form of explanations. On their terms.
In the moment, I felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t the person bringing up the topic of disability. He was. There’s power in asking about someone’s experience when that person is part of a minority. I did not mention or show that I would be open to discussing that very intimate part of myself. It didn’t even cross my mind until he brought it up. And at the time, I was just learning about what my disability meant for me, let alone anyone else.
It was our first date! He felt completely entitled to every bit of information about me, while disregarding my entitlement to personal privacy. He didn’t consider how his question would make me feel.
It’s hard as young women seeking love to stand up for ourselves when we put our feelings on the line. And while I joke about this obviously wrong fit of a date now, at the time I was smitten and did not write him off because he overextended his boundary.
The thing is, from where I sit now, I would slap that older man going out with a girl half his age and tell him that he should know better than knocking her confidence down just so that his affection or attention can bring it back up again.
From where I sit now, I would tell that younger version of myself that it is he who is making things awkward. I would insist on making him spell out his prejudice, his questioning the difference my body signifies by staying silent, saying with my eyes ‘you want to make this awkward? Let’s dance!’
I would tell her that spinach salad is delicious, but not enough for the solid appetite she had and I have still. That buying into the expectation for girls to not eat is not a good way to get a boyfriend. I would encourage her to eat with all the fervour and pleasure in her being! Because we should never deprive ourselves in the name of acceptance.
Most of all, I would tell her that she does not have to disclose anything that she doesn’t want to… ever! Not to dates, not to friends, not to bosses, nobody. And when she does want to share that side of herself she should accept nothing but respect and openness from the person on the opposite side of the table.