My friend watches closely as I slowly take the lid off the gift box I’m balancing in my lap. I unwrap each object carefully, not wanting to leave any tears in the white tissue paper: a white beaded elastic bracelet, teardrop-shaped white earrings and a fabric swatch I will soon learn is the color of my bridesmaid gown. I’m slipping the bracelet onto my right wrist, effusively thanking her for giving me jewelry I can put on by myself despite my poor fine motor skills, when she gently stops me.
“Look,” she says, “There’s one more.”
I reach into the box again and unwrap the last gift. It’s a clear, plastic heart. On its front is a black sticker with gold trim. On the sticker is gold lettering, the kind a princess might write with her quill. It says: MAID OF HONOR.
It takes me a moment to understand I’m receiving a proposal of my own, one that signifies the importance of a lifetime bond.
“Well,” she smiles, “will you?”
“Oh … oh … YES!” I say.
She crouches and hugs me while I bounce in my sparkly blue wheelchair — my version of jumping up and down.
I’m single, but, in terms of how I’m perceived by others, my disability is more significant than my relationship status, or even my womanhood. I do have a sexy sparkle at all times, but it’s my wheelchair’s, not mine. The American beauty standard is a social construct, and I would have to be constructed differently to have a place within it. There are no people with disabilities in Dove’s Real Beauty campaign or in Wren’s viral ad of strangers kissing. I usually wheel the streets as though I am invisible. As any Harry Potter fan knows, sometimes invisibility is a valuable quality.
I’ve never been catcalled, even though most skirts look woefully short on someone who’s constantly sitting. No one makes embarrassingly overt insinuations about his or her single friends, offering to set me up. And though I recently turned 35, no one has ever asked why a nice girl like me is still single.
Of course, the same identity that gives me that coveted invisibility sometimes makes me more vulnerable to sexual degradation than my able-bodied friends. I’ve never been catcalled, but men do stop me on the sidewalk and ask if my vagina works. I’ve never been set up on a date, but I have been propositioned for threesomes. No one ever asks me why a nice girl like me is still single, but, since I’m sitting, men regularly talk over my head while addressing more appealing women. Still, in social settings — family celebrations, workplace parties, weddings — where my single, able-bodied friends might complain about attracting attention, I’m usually left alone.
I haven’t attended many weddings. So when my friend asked me to be her maid of honor, I was especially honored. Even though her wedding was her day, she thought about how to make it accessible for me. The bridesmaids' bouquets had white ribbon looped at the bottom, because looping a ribbon around my hand was easier for me than grasping stems. All the bridesmaids' dresses were cobalt blue, of varying styles and lengths. After visiting four bridal gown shops, I found a cobalt blue dress fitted enough that it wouldn’t rub against the wheels of my manual wheelchair. The bride even let me choose whether I wanted to wheel down the aisle or walk with my quad canes.
The bride wasn’t giving me only the chance to honor our relationship by standing (or sitting) beside her. When she made her wedding accessible, she gave me a chance to be a woman, instead of a disabled woman frequently upstaged by her (admittedly sparkly) wheelchair.
I thought my friends would be as excited for me as the bride and I were, but I was wrong. When I told my friends I was going to be a maid of honor, most of them paused before saying: “Isn’t she afraid you’ll ruin the wedding photos?”
The bride was furious when I told her, but my friends weren’t entirely wrong. I wouldn’t ruin the day for the bride, who had asked me to share it, but my presence would change what wedding photos — and weddings — are meant to represent. On an average day, I can move through the world without being noticed. When I am visible, though, on display at a wedding, it feels as if no one wants to look.
Weddings are reminders that anyone could find love, which is why the wedding industry spends so much money marketing a very specific image of how women who deserve love should look: thin, beautiful, perfectly coifed and able-bodied.
From a traditional perspective, I’d make a terrible girlfriend or partner. I can’t walk alluringly in high heels, coyly cross my legs, or even hold someone’s hand while crossing the street. I don’t mind those things, but a wedding isn’t a testament to the strength and confidence of a single woman. Weddings glorify partnership. When my friends asked if the bride was concerned about whether I would ruin her wedding photos, I heard them saying: You accept these flaws, but is it fair to ask someone else to?
As overtly as they cater to traditional beauty standards, weddings aren’t declarations of desirability. Ideally, they’re declarations of love. Why shouldn’t those moments be as imperfect as they are beautiful? I’m not claiming that, as a maid of honor, I symbolized the inherent imperfection of love. At my best, I was just trying not to trip while slowly stumbling down the aisle.
Perhaps my own stumbles are especially ungraceful, but who deserves to define grace? Maybe it isn’t a physical trait, such as the shape of someone’s face or the wideness of someone’s smile. Maybe it’s in the moment when someone who, when offered the promise of a shared future that’s bound to be imperfect, cries: “Oh … oh … YES!”
Jill Summerville is a freelance writer in Ohio.