Performing disAbility

Photograph of Ju's crossed feet in silver bootsWhen the brace was finished, I still had the problem of what to wear with it. None of my clothes fitted any more, further stripping my identity: my T-shirts were all too baggy to fit under the brace and too tight to fit over it, as were my jumpers; I had a similar problem with my trousers, added to which I could not reach up under the brace to fasten a zip or fly buttons (which in any case would chafe); and the fact that I was wearing 18 month-old men's boots meant that they were not, in the opinion of my osteopath, giving my feet enough support (Mr Crock also warned me of the need for sensible footwear).

Lack of cash meant that it took some time to overcome this problem, although luckily the brace proved to be so hot that I could only wear one layer under and one layer over it, which cut down on expenditure. I also faced another problem, since I was forced to change my style of clothing from my previous baggy, androgynous choices. I wanted to wear mostly clothes which fitted under the brace rather than over it, since this would outline my real figure rather than the figure which the brace imposed, and would separate me from the brace in the process. But trousers with elasticated waistbands tend not to have pockets and are more obviously women's styles, while tight T-shirts are really meant for children -  their appropriation by clubbers notwithstanding. And despite my mother's best efforts, I have never been a convincing femme. (At no time did I even consider wearing skirts or dresses with the brace, although I didn't realise this until a colleague at Falmouth College of Arts, Ruth Heholt, pointed it out.)

I was still fighting to preserve my own self-image, so I decided to play up the Camp style in which I had always indulged on the rare occasions when I dressed up. Camp is an ironic, parodic, performative and most of all queer style, which acknowledges that identity is socially constructed rather than biologically determined while rendering queer people as proudly visible in society. Since disabled sexuality is always regarded as Other - we are not supposed to be sexual, so when we are, this is regarded as deviant - it was particularly appropriate in the circumstances.

The disabled body, signified by its "deformed" appearance and/or its accompanying aids, is both invisible and regarded as a spectacle by the rest of society, with anyone having the "right" to pass comment on and to ask questions about it. In particular, it is an object of medical spectacle, with disabled people being required to reveal their bodies and to discuss them on demand, and it is further objectified medically in X-rays and MRI scans - we rarely have control over our own images. Disabled people, meanwhile, are expected to reveal every detail of our lives to meet the requirements of the state which regulates us. Our lives may not be visible, but in no way could they be described as secret.

I wanted to acknowledge the extent to which I was performing a disabled identity rather than reflecting a biological essentialism, using imagery which would shift the balance of power over my body in my favour and emphasise Pride. If, as soon as others see the signifiers of disability - since my experiences are similar when I am only using the stick - I am expected to play a role for them, I wanted to challenge their expectations of what that role would be. And if they feel that, because I am disabled, they have the right to look at me - and then to patronise me, to abuse me, or to look away after dismissing me as being of no account - I wanted to challenge their expectations of what that look would reveal, and to make them look again.

I also wanted to use imagery which reflected both the way in which disabled people are regarded as asexual and genderless, and the way in which we are regarded as deviant and as exotic objects of desire when we assert our right to be sexual. I therefore chose to continue to wear androgynous clothing, but also to heighten both the cyborg and the BDSM effects of the brace's appearance in my choice of clothing. BDSM was an appropriate metaphor to use for several reasons. It acknowledged both orthopaedic fetishism and the dominatrix, corset effect of the brace's appearance (which was further heightened by the fact that I use a stick), and at the same time underlined the fact that Jo had transformed the brace into an object of desire. Then, BDSM is a performative, narrative sexuality which explores power, control and trust. However, disabled people rarely have power and control over the effects of our impairments, and there are no safe words to stop disabled pain - whether physical or emotional, we have little choice but to take it.

Photograph of Ju looking into a camera as if it were a mirror Having decided on the style which I wanted to portray, I decided to stick mostly to black clothing, with some green, grey and silver. I had always worn these colours through choice, but as an undergraduate had also found that it was the cheapest way to create a coordinating wardrobe. Wearing tight black clothes without zips or buttons would also remind me of my dance training and the physical abilities which I do possess, and would be reminiscent of the wetsuit which is part of the ju90 image. As well I liked the cliché of wearing black to work in the art college where I was then teaching; for this reason, the first item which I bought was a black, polo-necked body. I also bought two pairs of black velveteen loons; a pair of black cotton leggings; a pair of black boot-cut nylon/lycra trousers; and black and grey T-shirts bearing the legends "ALL THIS AND BRAINS", "CRAZY BITCH" and "SHINE ON", plus two with barcode designs and one with a spaceship logo - at least when people stared at my tits, they got the message.

Over the brace I could simply wear larger sizes, so bought a new green fleece and hooded black top that were very similar to previous surfwear buys (I liked the play on netsurfing too), and which could be worn together as well as separately. Luckily my winter coat, a black leather puffa jacket, was big enough; the style was only made in men's sizes and until now it had never fitted properly. (While revealing my body in the brace emphasised my femaleness, covering the brace rendered my breasts and hips invisible, because the straps over my chest made my clothes hang away from my body.) I also bought some boots bearing the logo "THE ART", which were as sensible as the doctor had ordered except that they were silver; for the record, the doctor approved of them highly.

I was now ready for my first public appearance . . .


Photograph of Ju's feet in silver boots seen from above, with Ju standing on silver sheeting and the soles of the boots glowing purple in ultra-violet light Audience responses can be emailed to mail@ju90.co.uk


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Dr Ju Gosling aka ju90's ABNORMAL: How Britain became body dysphoric and the key to a cure is available now for just 3.09 for the Kindle or in a limited-edition hardback with full-colour art plates for 20 inc UK postage and packing. Book cover