Stella Young: A letter to my younger self
Dear 16-year-old Stella,
There are a lot of things I could tell you. I could tell you about moving away from home and all the friends you’ll make at university.
I could tell you about the completely fantastic career you’ll have by the time you’re in your early 30s. I could tell you that your life will be exciting and full of wonderful people who love you.
All these things are true.
But I know what you really want from me.
You want to know about sex and love and relationships — not necessarily in that order. So that’s what I’m going to tell you about, because God knows no-one else has anything to offer that can calm your fears.
All your worries about love and sex and relationships are reasonable and real. I’d be lying if I told you none of your fears are justified. Let me just allay the strongest of those fears upfront:
you will have sex. A lot of sex. Relax.
The truth is, there will be people who will overlook you, who will pass you over and ignore you. There’ll be people who are really attracted to you, but whose feelings are squashed by the social pressures of what the media and society tells them is acceptable attraction. That’s OK. It’s just the way it goes.
The good news is, it’s nowhere near as bad as you think it’s going to be. Not even close.
Those things are bound up in some other stuff you need to deal with first. You need to stop fantasising about being able-bodied, just for starters. I know it’s hard.
All the people around you occupy the same kind of physical space. It’s hard not to imagine that you look just like them, because you feel just like them on the inside. But you don’t look like them; you look like you. And the sooner you start surrounding yourself with people who look different, the more comfortable you’ll be with your own difference.
You have that one older friend with the same condition as you. You don’t really want to hang out with other disabled people, though. One is enough, right?
It is with the people she will introduce you to that you will find community. These people will make you think differently about yourself, and make you feel accepted in ways you just can’t imagine right now. That friend will be one of the most important people in your life. She’ll live on the other side of the world for most of your 20s, but she will always be your biggest cheerleader. She is the Thelma to your Louise.
She’ll also give you a really cracking book that totally changes the way you think about yourself and your place in the world. It’s called Pride Against Prejudice. Don’t delay reading it for a second longer than necessary. It’s important.
Able-bodiedness is not the Holy Grail. The body that you’re in is perfectly fine, perfectly beautiful. In fact, you know that thought that sometimes occurs to you — that you’re actually luckier than the other girls because your body is just too different to compare it to the models in Dolly? That’s the thought you should indulge.
You are every bit as liberated by that body as you are constrained by it.
Look after it. Love it.
Other people will love it too. Stop rolling your eyes. It’s true. Within a couple of years you’ll develop the kind of confidence that makes you very sexy to a lot of people.
Don’t be suspicious of everyone who finds you attractive. You will come across some people with weird attitudes, but they’re easier to spot and avoid than you think.
While we’re on that, there’s something people keep saying to you at the moment which seems comforting, but it’s wrong and I want you to know that as early as possible.
People, even Mum and Dad who love you unconditionally and think they’re saying the right thing, are assuring you that one day you’ll find a partner who can “look past disability”.
This is not something you should aspire to.
You don’t want someone who’s attracted to you in spite of the way you look, or needs to look past your physicality. You want someone who looks directly at that glorious crip body of yours and loves it for all it is and all it contains — including your cracking brain.
You’ll come to realise that you’re really attracted to non-normative bodies. We spend so much time being told what we should and shouldn’t be attracted to, but none of that works in practice.
Set yourself free from what you think you should like. You are not a more successful crip if you have a non-disabled partner. There’s something profoundly beautiful about the shared experience of difference. Able-bods are fine, but they’re not better.
I know it’s hard; we’ve all been raised to believe disability is a bad thing and able-bodiedness is always best.
We’re all products of an ableist society, and we all internalise that ableism. You will have to work hard to challenge that in yourself.
You will also see it in other disabled people and it will make you sad, but you need to know this; their relationships with themselves are not your responsibility. Point them in the right direction, sure, but don’t stick around and indulge them in their own self-loathing. It will make your own journey towards pride longer and harder. If they can’t accept themselves, they’ll never accept you.
Look Stell, you’re a Pisces; you love the love. And you’ll spend a lot of time loving people who don’t love you back. And then you’ll love people who do. Not all of these loves are forever and that’s totally OK.
You recently read a quote from sex and relationship guru Dan Savage, who said:
“Every relationship ends until you find one that doesn’t, and you only know which one that is once you’re dead.”
In your early 30s, you’ll make a decision that seems a bit unthinkable to your current self. You’ll end a long-term relationship because it doesn’t make you happy. It will take you a very long time to make this decision, but when you are ready, you will leave. I know right now you think that any relationship would be better than none, but it’s not true.
When you leave, people will say all kinds of shit to you. They’ll tell you how lucky you were to have found someone in the first place. They’ll be incredulous that you’ve passed up an opportunity to get married. They’ll make it sound like you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth.
At first it will all sound like it’s confirming your worst fears, but then it starts to make you feel strong.
There is nothing more powerful than a woman who knows her own worth.
A woman who gets the thing we’re all supposed to aspire to and passes it up for what will actually make her happy.
You will be that woman.
You must remember fellow crip activist Laura Hershey’s words every day. You haven’t read them yet, so I’ll give them to you early: “You get proud by practising.”
This is possibly the most important thing anyone will ever tell you. The journey towards disability pride is long, and hard, and you have to practise every single day.
From where I write to you now, at the age of 31, I have been practising a long time, and I’m still not there. That’s OK. Perhaps it’s not an achievement you can ever truly unlock.
What Laura said was true. You get proud by practising. Practise every day.
Other people can love you, but only you can make you proud.
The way you’ve been conditioned to think about disability can’t be easily fixed by just putting a positive spin on everything. It’s much more complicated than that, and so are you. Disabled people live complicated lives. Never decide what you think about something with absolute certainty. Always be open to having your opinion challenged and your mind changed.
Go ahead. Lead a rich and messy life. It will get better and better, and just when you think it can’t get any better than that, it will.