Rachelle Friedman — known as the "paralyzed bride" after an accident at her bachelorette party left her using a wheelchair for mobility — just released a stunning series of boudoir photos under the hashtag #WhatMakesMeSexy. Friedman wants to reclaim her sexuality and practice a little self-love while talking about the thing that dare not speak its name: Disability and sexuality. As her photos illustrate, disabled people are just as capable of being sexual as everyone else, and paralysis doesn't interfere with a woman's ability to be sexy as hell.
The project is in some ways similar to Holly Norris' collaboration with model Jes Sachse to produce "American Able," which showed a disabled woman in a parody of American Apparel's sexualized photo shoots. Jes wanted to challenge the desexualization of disabled women, just like Friedman is doing, by unabashedly showing her body in an extremely vulnerable way. It takes guts to pose semi-nude for the Internet, and even more guts to do so when disabled. Both women are proving a point: Disability is sexy, too.
Friedman is an author, public speaker, and advocate who struggles with her body. In her own words, from her Facebook page: "I want to get one thing straight about how I feel about my disability. I hate it and it affects my life in a very negative way along with millions of others living with paralysis. I hope pray and do my best to fight and advocate for a cure ... I think it's possible to feel beautiful and proud, while still hating every part of your disability."
Her images explore that tension, showing the body of a powerfully sexy woman in poses that might seem like any lingerie shoot, until the viewer looks more closely and sees slightly atrophied legs and a prominent catheter, which she says was one of the most difficult parts of doing the shoot. Friedman speaks to a loss of independence as a result of her disability, and she's fighting back with a powerful set of images to reclaim it.
Her campaign is partially about her own self-image and desire to put herself out there — she wasn't willing to wear a bikini until recently, for example, and she felt extremely self-conscious about her catheter. Even as a highly active woman who plays wheelchair sports and is clearly extremely attractive — as well as clearly fully engaged with the world — Friedman's sexuality is erased. But her project is also about what it's like for disabled women, who are assumed to be nonsexual even when evidence to the contrary is presented, and who are labeled as ugly and "undateable" just because they're disabled.
These are straight up smokin' images, showing a really beautiful woman who glows with self-confidence in smoldering shots as she gazes at the camera. There's nothing shy or nervous about her, illustrating how her relationship with her body and her disability has shifted. They're the kind of affirmational images that disabled people don't have an opportunity to see very often, and her #WhatMakesMeSexy hashtag is designed to expand the scope of that conversation by showcasing different people and different bodies, including people who aren't necessarily conventionally attractive and might feel even more uncomfortable showing themselves this way. She's also inviting people to speak up about traits other than their appearance, stressing the fact that being sexy isn't just about your body.
Her commentary on disability and sexuality speaks to the fact that disabled sexuality is very much a taboo topic. "When my story hit the media people were so impressed that my fiancé would stay with me 'like this,'" she told The Huffington Post. "Sure, it affected my self esteem but most of all it made me sad for my fellow wheelchair users who are still looking for love. We are smart, courageous, funny, beautiful and yes... sexy."
On Twitter, #WhatMakesMeSexy is turning out amazing tweets from people of all walks of life celebrating their sexuality and thanking Friedman for her work. The hashtag is also starting to grow on Instagram, where people are sharing images of their sexy, beautiful bodies and talking about how disability affects them. While not everyone shares her relationship to disability — some are members of the disability pride movement, for example — all of them share the experience of being desexualized by a culture that fears and hates disability.
Friedman's real talk on disability and sexuality, backed by her own body, will hopefully be the start of a much-needed bigger conversation. Women aren't sexy "despite" their disabilities; they're just plain sexy, and they can celebrate that in all kinds of ways. Disabled women like Friedman are repeatedly told it's impossible for them to be attractive, so it's radical for them to show their bodies in ways we associate with sensuality — and it shouldn't be.
Images: Rachelle Friedman