I never thought I would say this, but we need to talk about Kylie Jenner.
We need to talk about Kylie Jenner posing on the cover of Interview Magazine in a wheelchair. We need to realize that this is not a simple conversation. I cannot talk about Kylie Jenner posing in a wheelchair in a simple way, because this conversation is anything but simple. This is not just about whether it is okay for able-bodied people to use mobility aids and disability as edgy props to shock people. No, this is about so much more.
Kylie Jenner’s photo and the conversation around it made me uncomfortable as a disabled person, but not just because she was using a wheelchair as a prop. I was uncomfortable when I read Tweets that suggested that the wheelchair was used as a prop to symbolize the “limitations” Kylie Jenner experienced through being famous. That made my skin crawl. A wheelchair being symbolic of limitations, because the reality is that couldn’t be further from the truth. We need to talk about what a wheelchair really is.
For me, a full-time wheelchair user, my wheelchair does not represent limitations and restrictions; it represents freedom. Without my wheelchair I wouldn’t be able to leave my house, or even my bedroom. Without my wheelchair, I never would’ve been able to go to school or study abroad in England. Simply put, without my wheelchair, I would not have a life. My wheelchair is not restricting; it is the thing that allows me to have some determination about the way in which I move through the world. I am limited by inaccessible environments, ableism, discrimination, and inadequate access to things like personal care, accessible housing, employment, and accessible, adequate medical care. I am limited by a world that does not see disabled people as being fully equal to non-disabled people. We need to talk about the limitations and restrictions that exist in the world for disabled people, in this case, wheelchair users in particular, but we also need to realize that it Is society and social structures that cause these limitations, not the wheelchair in and of itself.
We need to talk about Kylie Jenner. We need to talk about privilege. We need to talk about the fact that for Kylie Jenner a wheelchair was nothing more than an edgy, sexy prop. We need to talk about why I cringe every time I see an able-bodied person use a wheelchair in this way. I promise you it’s not because I don’t think wheelchairs, and the people in them,can be beautiful and sexy, I know they can. Trust me when I say that I know that being in a wheelchair does not make you any less beautiful, sexy, or awesome than anybody else, but I also know that we live in a society that often times has a hard time seeing it. We need to talk about the fact that Kylie Jenner, a conventionally beautiful able-bodied woman who fits societal standards of beauty in almost every way is allowed to be sexy and edgy in a wheelchair, when that reality is so often denied to many wheelchair using women. We need to talk about the fact that disabled people, real disabled people, are still largely missing in media representation, especially media representation around beauty and sexuality.
We need to talk about the fact that Kylie Jenner is allowed to look edgy and sexy in a wheelchair but she has never had her ability to consent to sexual activity questioned because she was disabled. She has never had her sexuality interrogated by random strangers and put on display simply because she was sitting in a wheelchair. That wheelchair has never made her an item on a sexual bucket list that people want to try just to see what it would be like. Kylie Jenner has never heard the words, “You’re so pretty… For someone in a wheelchair.” She’s never experienced unwanted fetishization that seems to be so common for disabled women. She’s never had to balance feeling beautiful, and sexual and being sexually attractive in a world that sees you as anything but that.
I’m not saying that Kylie Jenner has never experienced anything difficult in her life, but she is not experience what it is like to live and love as a disabled woman. Kylie Jenner has so many different privileges that I cannot list them all, and because of that she has a responsibility to realize that not all stories belong to her to use as edgy, provocative props. There is nothing wrong with realizing that wheelchairs can be beautiful, but one must also realize that they are not simple chairs.
Experiencing life in a wheelchair comes with a unique set of challenges that cannot be ignored. Being a wheelchair user means that you live in a world that is not set up for you. Being a wheelchair user means you experienced spaces on a daily basis where you are not meant to fit. Being a wheelchair user means learning to be proud of who you are in a world that tells you that you would be better off being almost anybody else. For most people, being a wheelchair user means learning to accept the scars or the spasms and the parts of your body that don’t work the way everyone else thinks they should. For me, being a wheelchair user means learning to see beauty, strength, and yes, even sexiness, where most people see brokenness. It means learning to define myself outside of societal standards of beauty, and being comfortable with who I am regardless of what everyone else thinks.
We need to talk about Kylie Jenner because this is not really about her. It is about how disability can be considered cool when used as a prop, but so often the lives of actually disabled people are seen as a terrible fate. It’s about the fact that so often disabled women are not given the opportunity to be seen as sexy and beautiful outside of the realm of fetishization. It’s about the fact that it is difficult to see a wheelchair as nothing more than a prop when it is so intertwined with the way that many people experience and move through the world.
I am not ashamed to be in a wheelchair. Being a wheelchair user is a complicated and beautiful experience filled with challenges, beauty, and a unique perspective on life. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that wheelchair users can be beautiful, strong, sassy, and sexy just like anybody else, and I don’t need Kylie Jenner, or any other able-bodied person to show me that.