Women of all shapes, sizes, and abilities struggle with body image and sexuality. Ask any woman and she will likely admit to battling with feelings of inadequacy and comparison at some point in their life. For women with disabilities, these feelings are often amplified. Not only are these women faced with discrimination in all forms, they also are underrepresented in popular culture and media. Bachelor fans witnessed this first hand as Abigail Heringer arrived as the first candidate with a disability. Abigail is deaf and positively represented the disability community in her boldness to attempt to find love on the reality TV show. Abigail’s recount of her experience served as a slap in the face to able-bodied viewers that individuals with disabilities are constantly faced with unequal opportunity, as well as desexualized or underrepresented. Accurate representation of women with disabilities in media and equitable education on sex and sexuality can be empowering. It is important that women with disabilities, specifically Down syndrome (DS) are considered in conversations regarding body image and are properly educated on issues of sexuality. For women with DS it might be more than empowering – education on issues of sexuality can be life changing.
Sexuality has been historically considered taboo for women with disabilities. This history leads to hushed conversations on the topic of sex for girls as they become women. The development of sexual identity is difficult to navigate for individuals without a disability, and is only made worse in the presence of a mental or physical impairment. Sexuality is an important aspect of our self-concept that may affect our socialization with others, our behavior, and our life-style choices. It comes as no surprise that people with DS specifically are often outcast, resulting in decreased social interaction and education on sexuality. A study found that as many as 83% of teenagers with Down syndrome are not being educated by parents or health care providers on sex and sexuality. However, these individuals experience the same human emotions and desires including intimacy and sexual contact. Without the discussion and education on safe and healthy relationships, women with disabilities are not presented with the same opportunities. Like everybody, individuals with Down syndrome have the right to express sexuality in a way that is satisfying and socially appropriate. It is crucial to consider that understanding sexuality improves development of affect, facilitates relationships, increases self-esteem, and leads to integration. As a graduate student in occupational therapy I recognize that care providers, like occupational therapists have a responsibility to initiate communication and provide support and education to promote positive body image and facilitate relationships with clients with DS.
Aside from educating individuals with Down syndrome on sexuality, it is imperative that women with disabilities are uplifted and empowered through media and interpersonal interactions. In today’s culture, it feels as though able-bodied women are constantly being drilled with advertisements and exercises to promote positive body image, yet women with disabilities are rarely included in these movements. It was discovered that 77% of teenagers with Down syndrome said they would change something about their body if offered the chance to do so. Individuals with DS are no different than typically developing individuals when it comes to issues of body image, in fact, these individuals often have defining features that make them more likely to be the targets of hurtful comments and complete dismissal.
To be sure, stereotypes exist that individuals with DS have a generally “happy go lucky” outlook on life and rarely express negative emotions towards themselves. However, it may be that this has more to do with the way that individuals with DS externalize their emotions, than suggesting that negative body perceptions do not exist for this population. In my own experience working with Special Olympians, it’s hard to forget hearing an athlete with DS saying she’ll never be as good as her friend because she is much heavier.
In my experiences with individuals with DS through GiGi’s Playhouse and Special Olympics, often all it takes to empower and uplift an individual is something as small as a high five or a “you are so strong, capable, loved, etc.”. People without disabilities need a greater understanding of the ways in which their actions and perceptions towards this community impact people with DS’s perceptions of themselves. There should be more opportunities for individuals with DS and varying disabilities to be represented in media as models for other individuals such as Katie Meade, a model with Down syndrome who created a Fearless campaign which strives to make individuals with disabilities believe that “Beauty belongs to everyone. Every single one of us.” Katie serves as a role model to women with and without disabilities because she reminds us that everyone deserves to feel beautiful and that can only be accomplished when women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities are empowered, properly educated, and adequately represented in mass media.