I have been doing this instagram-as-performance art since 2011. My very first post was a peony (a recurring guest on my feed), followed by a picture of my wheelchair covered in adventure dust with the caption "symbol of power" and then followed that with a decade of me being in my underwear on the internet! I have been hailed as the "most important sex icon of our generation" by @jeffpreston.
But #sexicon was always in me.
This photo is me at about 15 years old? my neon yellow wheelchair rests behind me, I perch against ...i think milk crates? My head tossed back, hands on hips, shoulders angled, modelling.
In this photo, from about 5 years ago, I'm lifting the hem of bright blue dress up to show that my underwear matches the peak of bra you can see. You can see the remote shutter in my hand. You can't see my wheelchair, but I'm sitting in it and establishing my dominance by having the camera low and angled up at me. And the first picture, the most recent, my robe is thrown open to show my underwear match, my hand is on my rim and holding the remote shutter, I try and always make sure the shutter is visible in my pose. I want to make sure you know I am taking my own picture. I'm tossing my hair back, but my eyes are on you. Carefree and consciously visible at the same time. This series feels to me like that Nayyirah Waheed poem in Salt. "I have always been the woman of my dreams."
An ongoing theme in my art has been an exploration of legitimacy. In particular, what happens when I challenge the idea that there is someone or something in a position to legitimize me. What if ...I could do it myself? I mean, at least to get the party started!
Say, for example, I wanted to be an underwear model, then I put on underwear and modelled. I took the photo, I published the photo, I provided the commentary for the photo. When do these actions become 'legitimate'?
it's common to delegate a sense of legitimacy to our professions, to the gatekeepers, to the roles we feel we are 'allowed' to play, to factors like payment, status, approval. It's natural to feel lost when those are taken from us or dispossessed when they are unattainable. But when we have to externalize our sense of legitimacy for recognized fundamental personhood (a common aspect of the disabled experience, especially with the constant advocacy forced on us to just live) --well, I spent a whole year in bed when I was a teenager unable to reconcile with the idea of a whole future of that.
About five years ago (a scene depicted in that last photo), I was particularly happy with the discovery of a tripod, a remote shutter, the sun-drenched balcony of my friend Abena who lived in Barcelona, and the new underwear I had ordered from a lingerie company called Naja. The real fun was that I was taking my urge to create self portraits so seriously. But I was the only one involved. I love how obsessive I get, how deeply focused, how expansive the process becomes, which at first is sparked by something frivolous, playful, or silly. It takes so little to get started. And then it just ravishes me. I mean, I am entirely spent after a photo shoot. Later, I can contemplate for hours, so deeply, what other connections and layers are there. And then write all that down or philosophize with a friend. I get truly high being swept up in art.
I wasn't commenting on the profession of modelling --or the serious work it takes to be recognized in any field-- but once the photo existed and was posted, it was a way of playing with the thrill of visibility. It can be a source of revelation and freedom for our community, and used against us, sometimes all in the same strike.
My life story is a collection of all the ways I experienced 'illegitimacy’. Uneducated, unfathered, divorced, disabled. Even the label 'artist' --depending on which portion of society you poll. My memoir is a confession of how I craved legitimacy, but also that I came to pursue it by questioning what it is made of, to see if I could make it myself, instead of striving for the pre-packaged mainstream version. I asked what does my personhood look like or feel like to me?
Enter, my practice of self-documentation.
Now add representation.
To represent, you must also fix. Pinning ourselves like butterfly carcasses in shadow boxes. But we must, or be pinned. And then we are pity-shamed out of ourselves right in the middle of our moments of pride. In some ways, I think an undercurrent to our call for representation moves along the lines of: how can we make legitimacy for ourselves -and- assign our own values to what we do and teach that to the world and each other.
Recently a friend, who has wanted to write for all the years that I've known them, told me that they feel they lack the vanity needed to get to work telling their story. Vanity is an interesting word to use to describe the juice it takes to self-express. But, I think it makes sense that perhaps a reason why so many resist, struggle, spend years *wanting* and no years doing, is because it feels like a 'bad' thing. To be vain.
I looked it up. "Devoid of real value, idle, unprofitable," from Old French vain, vein "worthless, void, invalid, feeble; conceited"
DID YOU CATCH THAT, LOVERS? INVALID. As in, disabled! As in, I WAS MADE FOR THIS SELFIE LIFE.
Butt also, invalid means no one has legitimized this.
So, five years ago, I took a series of selfies celebrating the confluence of sun and eco friendly panties and the discovery of tripods. Naja, the makers of my lingerie, found my photos, reposted them, and then did a profile on me. Ironically, legitimizing my underwear modelling activities and my self professed sexicon status by using photos of me modelling their underwear in their marketing and calling me what I wish to be called.
Recently, Naja sent me a gift of more lingerie, interviewed me for a little profile, and I took some photos for them again. I thought of it as a little 'where are they now' journey for me.
More from etymonline on the meaning of vanity: Meaning "elated with a high opinion of oneself"
Meaning, actually someone has legitimized it --for themselves. There may be an art to being elated with a high opinion of yourself in a way that is constructively directed. What has happened in the last five years? In the last ten since I started on instagram, in the last twenty-five since I had a neon yellow wheelchair and posed like a model for my friends on FILM? More of the same, only my presence takes up more digital space than it did then. I am grateful for my vanity. Truly, thankful. Because It meant that I swelled up my chest with the full force of my conceit and called my wheelchair a 'symbol of power' as my opening statement to the digital world ten years ago and never looked back.
It has not been in vain.
(July is Disability Pride Month. It culminates with celebrating the signing of the American with Disabilities Act on July 26th. I'm Canadian and our history is different, but the online disability community is global and we celebrate each other's wins and work for each other's futures)