I Believe People With Disabilities Can Find Romantic Love — S0 Where's Mine?

Photo: Courtesy of Katelyn Shufelt Photography
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In the world of Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter fame, I find myself desperately wishing to be pretty enough to warrant the praise of strangers, wishing for the option to be someone’s #WomenCrushWednesday. As artificial as the adoration may be, it is more than I have ever been given. Instead, I find myself dodging white men older than my fifty-three-year-old mother who park themselves in my mentions or direct messages to racialize my apparent beauty and make me wildly uncomfortable. The question is: Where is that same energy from someone my age or closer to it?
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I feel cute now, even worthy of adoration or a shot at love, but I haven’t had one yet. I often ask myself, “Why can’t I be beautiful, too? Is there anyone in my age bracket willing to 'take one for the team?'” Or, “Would it be so bad to fall in love with me?” Now, I don’t think so: I feel like a catch most days. I am funny, loyal, and excitable. I love books and music and the smell of gardenias. I have got to be someone’s dream somewhere.
The first boy (now man) who was my age whom I thought I loved would never return my romantic interests. The reason the word thought is necessary is because I didn’t really know much about him. He was cute and nice sometimes and I thought that was enough back then. (I had thought the same thing about Stevie, Brian and Usher, so old habits die hard.) Let’s call him Harry. I knew Harry for a while. We shared classes in intermediate school and hallways in high school. He was kind to me during our middle school years and distant but contradictory in high school. I think he felt sorry for me, but there is no real way of knowing these things. I took his kindness as clues that he liked me, too, with my best friend at the time as my hype woman. I took all opportunities I had to talk to him. I tried to change myself into a girl I thought he might like. In intermediate school that meant changing the places I shopped.
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In high school, I wore what I wanted but tried my best to be friendly with his friends in the hopes of being accepted by them and, in turn, Harry. I took his frequent lingering looks and rare acts of concern or questions about the men in my life as indicators that I was getting closer to being good enough for him. He watched me often, pressed against lockers on the opposite side of the hallway, his friends tapping his arms in jest as I passed by them. He spoke to me in the comfort of empty hallways, always rushed and infrequent. He didn’t like seeing me with other boys but he never chose me. The girlfriends he chose were always beautiful, unaffected yet kind, and I couldn’t hate them even though I tried. I was never good enough, never pretty enough, never worthy enough of his public affection. He liked the attention more than he ever liked me. I know that now.
As we entered our junior year, I fell out of whatever it was that we were or weren’t. I grew tired of the contradictions and vowed to find someone in college to love me in a way that he was never going to. I left those high school hallways behind, confident that someone in college would either love me for who I was or take one for the team until he learned how to love me, even if I had not learned to love me at that point. I haven’t thought of Harry in years, until this moment. Wherever he is and whoever he is with, I hope he is happy. I am thankful for his rejection because he was never my destiny. He was just one of the roadblocks around the way.
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Despite the pseudo confidence with which I went into college, I suffered the same fate of undesirability there that I had lived with in high school. Except in college, things were worse. There wasn’t even a boy who liked the attention from me. Instead, they mostly just shot me down and left me alone. I went in expecting more – fireworks, dinner dates, nights crammed together in a twin-sized dorm-room bed, talking until the sunrise. I expected arguments between classes and coffee dates at Starbucks with the false promises of forever. What I got instead was the drunken laughter of boys loudly remarking how funny my limp was and how attracted they were to every girl in our program but me.
I had my first real kiss during my senior year of college, right before Christmas break, in a darkly lit bar. The guy who kissed me was drunk and so was I. He was balding and a townie but again, I was desperate and drunk. I wasn’t drunk enough not to be able to consent. However, if I could go back and stop myself from kissing him, I would, because when it was over, he told me that he had only done it as a favor to his friend, who was interested in one of mine. “You seem like a nice enough girl, but I’m not interested” were the last words he spoke to me. I think the constant rejection made my depression worse. I felt like I had no control over my life and turned back to disordered eating – specifically, food restriction. I thought that a thinner body might change people’s minds; it did not. All that the restricted eating did was make me sadder, because I missed cheeseburgers and pizza.
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We all have things that we know well enough to speak on. For a long time, I believed romantic love was mine. I wrote poems and stories, hoping that if I wrote about it well enough it would come to me and I would no longer have to lie to convince readers that someone wanted me, so that they wouldn’t feel sorry for me. Readers were probably tipped off by the fact that the things I wrote, especially the poems, were so bad that any real writer or poet with experience in love would know that love isn’t all clichés from movies.
Love has evaded me, slipping between my fingers and sneaking through shadows, but I refuse to give up. I like the idea of having to work for it – at least, I do most days. If I have to work for it, the wait will be worth it. Sometimes I worry that love doesn’t like me, as though I am still a young girl in middle school desperate to be liked by the popular kids. I know now that people with disabilities can be and are romantically loved, and I have to remember that when I feel myself giving up or getting down on myself. On my worse days with regard to the subject, I revert back to my former self’s thinking: Love is not possible for a girl like you. You are to be tucked away and kept out of sight. I know that version of myself is wrong even when I start to believe her again. Still, I find myself holding out hope for romantic love, no matter how impossible or naive that hope may be.
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There is a part of me desperate enough to try and find love via dating apps. Recently, I created three profiles. The first was Coffee Meets Bagel, the next was Bumble, and the last was Plenty of Fish. I never finished the POF profile, deleting it after deciding that three was too many. For Bumble and Coffee Meets Bagel I wanted to see if my disability was a huge factor in whether or not I was swipe right-worthy…and it was. On Coffee Meets Bagel I posted full body pictures, and the only matches I received were either really old men and disability chasers who said they wanted to “try me out and tell [their] friends.” On Bumble, where I posted only selfies, I received matches from people my age. I received four in total in my three weeks on the site, and two of the four that responded to my greetings said they had googled me and weren’t interested. One of them was “kind “enough to say, “You were cute in those pictures but the whole cripple thing feels like a lot.” When you google me, full body pictures show up pretty early in the search.
After feeling the weight of defeat, I deleted the apps from my phone. Maybe the love of my career and the work will lead me to meet the right person. If I end up back on one of these dating apps, though, don’t judge me. I am already doing it enough for the both of us.
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Excerpted from The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me (Atria Books, 2019) by Keah Brown. Brown is a journalist, freelance writer, and activist, who writes about living with cerebral palsy.
Edited by Kelly Dawson, a disability advocate who was born with cerebral palsy and has a master's degree in media communications.
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