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Many people in the disability justice community have long known that the world has a limited definition of what constitutes “real” social interaction and connections. Often, relationships that are built and maintained via technology (e.g. texting, emailing, video chat, Facebook groups, etc.) are discounted as “not real,” and social media is considered separate from “real life.”
Mainstream society often limits definitions of “real social interaction” to those that take place in three-dimensional, physical space.
Many disabled people experience numerous barriers and challenges when it comes to forming relationships and interactions in three-dimensional space.
Some have challenges with driving, navigation, and mobility that prevent us from attending in-person social events and interactions. Others may experience social anxiety or sensory processing issues that make in-person interactions difficult. In addition, due to the high prevalence of ableism, it can sometimes be difficult to find friends and communities who are accepting and affirming of disability within one’s geographical neighbourhood or region, and online communication can make it easier for disabled people to find like-minded contacts.
For these reasons, many disabled people rely on digital space to form relationships and participate in communities in which they feel valued and accepted. Unfortunately, these relationships and communities are often de-legitimized and not seen as real due to mainstream biases.
As a disabled person living in quarantine, while the economic and health consequences of COVID-19 (and the government’s response to it) have been terrifying, in many ways, my social life has improved drastically.
Events that were previously inaccessible to me due to my driving anxiety are now being hosted online; I now have more of a chance to socialize regularly with people outside of my geographical area. Just as importantly, these interactions are no longer considered “unimportant” or “not real”; rather, the digital world is now real life for everyone.
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My experience with the widespread legitimization and active participation in virtual space during quarantine has also improved my eating disorder recovery in many ways.
Narrow definitions of social interaction that exclude digital relationships tend to rely on a limited definition of selfhood that is tied to a visible, physical body that takes up three-dimensional space. By this definition, seeing a person’s body is considered a crucial part of social interaction and relationships. For me, this has sometimes contributed to my eating disorder–the idea that the physical space my body takes up, or others’ interpretations of the visible aspects of my body (my appearance, body language, etc.) somehow constitute “real” communication, while the thoughts and feelings I express verbally are less real, has encouraged me to hyperfocus on my appearance and what other people may assume based on my appearance.
In the past, the idea that only those interactions in which my body is seen count as “real” has led me to define my body and myself exclusively by what others are able to see, and the assumptions made based on that.
I felt that I wouldn’t be perceived as responsible, having self-control, and making “healthy” decisions unless I conformed to the thin ideal.
Also, although some neurotypical body language can be difficult for me, I felt that negative judgments would be made about me if I did not force myself to engage in it. I felt defined by the visible parts of my body.
Even if I said that I was indeed making healthy choices and that my neurodivergent body language did not indicate anything wrong with me, this somehow counted less than what others saw and assumed.
Others’ interpretations of the visible aspects of my body were assumed to reveal the “truth” about who I am as a person.
In quarantine, I have been able to re-conceptualize myself in a way that goes so much further than what others assume on the basis of my visible characteristics.
My body, and all of the space it takes up, is a crucial part of who I am–but it cannot be reduced to the visual aspects of it and what others assume these visual aspects communicate.
My body shapes how I think and feel, the values I have come to live by, and who I am at any given moment. And it is impossible for others to know about how I feel or what my values are based on how my body looks.
While size and nonverbal language may seem to be objective sources of data, the reality is that no one knows what it’s like to exist inside another person’s body. What we assume based on another person’s nonverbal language or body size is much more based on our experiences and what we have been taught than the other person’s. Only I am the expert on my experience.
What I love about living in a digital world, not just as a disabled person but as a person in eating disorder recovery, is the expertise I am granted to speak about my own subjective experiences.
On Facebook, my statuses, comments, and messages constitute me just as much as my three-dimensional appearance. My credibility and worthiness of personhood are not judged solely on the basis of my conformity to (or lack thereof) mainstream standards around the right way to have or move one’s body.
In many ways, quarantine shatters the notion that only the tangible, visible, and perceptible qualifies as “real.” It legitimizes the intangible, subjective aspects of our experiences that cannot be reduced.
As we begin to transition out of quarantine, I hope we begin to shift our conceptualization of what constitutes “real life” and “real relationships,” and in turn what constitutes “real personhood.”
Yes, I am my body. But my body is not to be conflated with what anyone assumes on the basis of my appearance. It is also my thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, values, and lived experiences.
I hope we move toward a world in which we come to know the intangible, invisible parts of one another.
In which we see that those parts of us that do not occupy physical space, but rather mental, emotional, and digital space, are profoundly and undeniably real.
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