A few weeks ago, after a relaxing weekend in the country, I was rushing down the subway stairs when I slipped out of my TOMS and fell on the side of my foot. "Ow, my foot!" I said to my boyfriend Jacob. "Is she OK?" the woman on the stairs next to us asked. "Yeah, I'm fine," I said curtly. Adrenaline and embarrassment surging, I quickly stood up. I felt almost irrationally annoyed at this kind woman, in that way you can only get when you slip and feel embarrassed. Couldn't she just be a good New Yorker and pretend it hadn't happened?
It wasn't until I realized I couldn't walk the one avenue from the subway stop to my apartment and that my foot was starting to swell that I got worried. By the next day, it looked and felt even worse, and the doctor confirmed that I had fractured a bone in my foot. I'd need four weeks in a boot while it healed, and have to avoid exercise on my feet for at least two months.
I'm now on Week 3 of the boot, and along the way, I've learned a few interesting lessons — interesting even if you're not personally invested in the fate of my foot.
1. Being Fit Is The Source Of Too Much Of My Sense Of Self-Worth As A Woman
I have to be honest here and admit that for as body positive as I try to be, one of my first and only worries about my broken foot was that I would be laying around for months and get out of shape. Part of this reaction is understandable; I use a treadmill desk at work to keep myself sane because offices make me feel trapped and restless, and walking is my main form of both exercise and mental health upkeep. To not be able to walk around freely for a month is a huge change to the way I move through the world, both emotionally and physically.
But unfortunately, my concern was not just about feeling crappy laying around — it was also accompanied by a near-immediate fear that a month of inactivity would leave my body "out of shape," and therefore my value as a person somehow diminished. I noticed this reaction and tried to check it; but it was a reminder that I still have much work to do when it comes to not viewing fitness as ultimately about maintaining my figure.
2. A Very Particular Kind Of Female Privilege Is Accentuated By Injury
It's very strange, but when I first walked with the boot on, one of my first thoughts was, "I'm glad I'm not a guy." I felt so hobbled and vulnerable, but I also felt comfortable in the knowledge that expressing that vulnerability didn't make me "less of a woman" or less attractive, per se. In fact, I could see immediately how it was actually viewed as kind of "cute" by the people around me. Here I was, this tiny woman with a pirate leg; adorably, temporarily (and that is key to accessing this privilege) handicapped.
Had I been a man, I wondered, would anyone think it was cute that I was hobbling along? I suspected they would simply see me as emasculated, and I could imagine worrying that I'd be seen as less attractive as a man by my partner and the world at large. I had no such worries.
In fact, having been a small woman assumed to be vulnerable all my life, I've become a master at occasionally milking the privilege of seeming helpless at moments when I'm really just feeling lazy — Can you put this together for me? Reach this? Let me use you as a footrest? Breaking my foot emphasized this right to be vulnerable that only certain women seem allowed to express in our culture, and for once, I could see how being a man in this situation might actually be worse.
Of course, the catch about this "privilege" is that it is dependent on women being viewed as inherently less capable than men. So long as women fulfill their job of remaining attractive and not too emotional, we're OK with their physical vulnerability. And so long as men remain strong, we're OK with their lack of emotional vulnerability. The social norm shortchanges everyone involved, and breaking my foot was a good reminder that sometimes, being a little more capable — even when I can get away with being lazy — might be worth it.
3. A Certain Group Of Men Seem To Catcall Injured Women
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised; I am literally wounded prey. I also walk more slowly, and stick out more. (I remember a pregnant friend telling me she'd never been catcalled so much as when she was nine months pregnant.) What has been surprising is that it seems to be almost exclusively middle-aged men who catcall me now. It's usually a variation of them seeing me, making a sympathetic frowny face, and then saying something like, "I'll heal your foot, baby." Sometimes, it's just the frowny face and a comment like, "Don't worry, you'll get better, honey," leaving me unsure if I'm being hit on or just told to feel better.
Either way, while some of the comments on the street have simply been kind and not unwelcome, being injured seems to have opened me up to a whole new genre of paternalistic creepers — and mostly eliminated young guys from the street harassment mix. I wonder what it is — am I now "damaged goods" and so seen as a newly viable target for someone 30 years my senior? Or does my being injured literally bring out the paternalism of older men and make them want to take care of me? If they're not hitting on me, are they suddenly talking to me because I remind them of their daughters? I'm sure it's sometimes all of the above.
4. I'm Not Used To Being Stared At For Reasons Other Than Objectification
While I've definitely been getting more catcalls since I broke my foot, I've also been encountering something entirely different: nonsexual stares. It's a natural reaction; nearly every person I pass on the street sees me limping, looks down at my boot, and seems to compute within seconds, "broken foot, not disabled." It's a very peculiar way to be noticed — foot first, then body, then my face, sometimes with a look of pity, but usually with a look of newfound apathy. When I'm being objectified sexually, I'm used to my body "passing the test," and the complicated mix of feelings that entails — fear, achievement, anger, and guilty satisfaction all at once. But being stared at for having a limp? I think it's the first time I've felt both so visible and invisible at once. I draw attention immediately, and just as quickly, notice of me is often discarded as soon as my oddity is "categorized".
It's not a big deal, but it's definitely made me think about the stares I must have subconsciously given disabled people, or anyone outside the norm, for that matter. How tiring it must be to always have strangers see your disability rather than your whole being; to receive their sympathetic smiles when you haven't asked for their pity. Of course, most women are already familiar with a different version of this feeling — we're used to being viewed as sexual objects, a collection of parts to be assessed, rather than a complete person. What disabled women must experience, I can only imagine, is much more difficult.
5. It's Often Easier To Have An External Injury Than An Invisible One
I'd never broken a bone before, and I was surprised at how not-upset I was by it. In a way, it was nice to have confirmation that I wasn't being a wimp; it offered a sense of satisfaction like when I was a kid feeling sick and the thermometer revealed that there was, indeed, a fever. Wobbling around, I had several privileges in the way people perceived me: first, that my injury was clearly temporary; second, that my temporary handicap was visible.
I was reminded of piece by JR Thorpe I once edited about the difficulties of having an invisible disability. "We're prepared to categorize people without limbs or with severe, obvious difficulty in mobility as disabled, but when it comes to something like an insulin pump or severe depression, we balk. If they can walk to the store, surely they must be fine, right? Wrong," Thorpe wrote. People with debilitating endometriosis don't have a brace to point to when they need a seat on the subway (something a friend who suffers from the condition says is an issue for her when she's in pain), nor do people who are chronically depressed usually receive flowers from their job telling them to feel better, the way I did after I broke my foot.
While having a visible disability certainly comes with many of its own challenges I can't speak to — I am by no means trying to suggest I have insight beyond what it's like to have a temporary injury — I was interested to find that having a visible injury was much easier for me than, say, going through a period of extreme anxiety, when I felt I had to pretend I was fine, and no one offered me their sympathies or the ability to work from home. At least people care about you when you break your foot — much more than anyone has ever worried about me when I was experiencing far worse inner pain.
6. Strangers' Kindness Seemed To Wear Off When I Stopped Exuding Vulnerability
The first day I had the boot, I got multiple wishes on the street from people to "feel better" and people immediately gave up their seat to me on the train. I realize, now, how much of that probably had to do with my walking around with a pitiful expression on my face. I was feeling vulnerable, and I allowed it to come to the surface. It was encouraging to me at first, how kindly New Yorkers reacted.
But as I became more used to the boot and commuting, I found the sympathy for me seemed to vanish with my expression of timidity. I've had to painfully dodge out of the way of aggressive New York drivers more than once, who don't even seem to cool it even when you're limping. Once, both I and a very pregnant woman were standing for several stops before people finally got off the train and we got seats. When we sat down next to each other, I said, "It's messed up no one got up for us," but she seemed resigned and used to it. "It's fine," she said with an accommodating smile. Is it though?
7. I'm Only Comfortable With Inconveniencing White Men, Apparently
I broke my foot shortly after two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police within 24 hours of each other, sparking both peaceful protests and police assassinations. Perhaps for this reason, I felt particularly awkward about asking black people — who are the majority of the people on the train at my stop — to stand up so I could sit, even if they were in the disabled seating and appeared young and able-bodied. It just felt weird, and honestly, the historical implications of asking a black person to give up their seat for you on public transportation made me uncomfortable. Even if the shootings hadn't been that week, as a white gentrifier with a lot of guilt about living in a neighborhood where people of color are getting priced out of their buildings, I doubt I would have felt comfortable anyway.
I've taken instead to asking young, "strong-looking" white men to stand up for me. And, yes, I've usually had to ask. I'll stand awkwardly over young men and see if they'll offer me a seat; often they don't, and more than a few times I've just asked them straight-up if I can sit, pointing to my foot. They genuinely look surprised, and I've realized they usually just haven't noticed my boot — or me, for that matter. Older women, on the other hand, often seem to notice me and offer a seat, as if those made most invisible by society have the best vision. That's the thing about privilege I guess; it's often about what you fail to see.
Some names/images in this story have been amended to protect the privacy of those mentioned.