It’s a very strange western world we live in, where our highest paid models pose for magazines and their bodies are still photoshopped. These are people paid to look attractive for art or commerce, to lure the public’s eye and imagination into a scene, so that we can allow ourselves to wander from reality into fantasy or convince ourselves that fantasy can become reality, and still there’s an alteration of truth. So it becomes a brave act to allow the world to see you as the most curious identity: yourself.
In a beautifully compelling beach body series by Refinery 29, with the help of photographers Emily Berl and Gillian Laub, four differently abled women tell their stories and what it’s like to cruise to the beach in the summertime.
a 31-year-old comedian from Los Angeles, CA
How and when she became differently abled: “When I was 20, I was living in San Francisco, and I was hit by a Muni streetcar. As I was crossing the street, it tripped the light, hit me, and I flew and hit the ground; because it takes a while to brake, it still ran over me and the wheels stopped on top of my legs. I’m not paralyzed; the only thing really that happened was I lost my legs and my pelvis shattered. Now, I’m an amputee below the knee.”
How her beach experience has changed: “I used to love going to the beach. I’m Dominican, so when I was little, I’d go to the Dominican Republic a lot, and that’s the Caribbean — beautiful water, ocean, beach. I was like a fish; I was always in the water. Like, when you stand in the wet sand where the waves are crashing in and you can feel it on your feet, like the water going over them and then pulling back into the ocean. I miss standing and doing that, because when you’re like on your knees in the beach, it becomes a lot more difficult. It knocks you down a lot easier. Now, the beach is a huge pain in the butt. Because I use a wheelchair, there’s really like no graceful way for me to get through the sand, unless I have two big guys carrying my wheelchair. It’s just a struggle and it’s hot and it’s gross. I live a very independent life and I have no problem getting around, but the beach is obviously one of those few places that I really dread going to, because I’m gonna have to ask people to help me. I know that people are nice and my friends would never make me feel bad about helping me, but I like being independent and I like being able to do things on my own.”
a 31-year-old public relations executive from New York, NY
How and when she became differently abled: “I was in a head-on car collision at the age of 5. It was two days after Christmas and I was paralyzed from the waist down.”
How her beach experience has changed: “As a kid, I would go to Myrtle Beach [in South Carolina] every summer, and I very distinctly remember boogie boarding and all of that there. But now, you pretty much lose your independence the second that sand becomes part of the equation. You have to rely on the people around you, because in your regular chair, it’s really hard to get through the sand. It’s near impossible. A lot of beaches have these beach wheelchairs that you can rent, but they’re so ugly and you can’t push them yourself, so somebody else has to push you. So, you go from already standing out to, like, really standing out. And it’s just such an embarrassing thing. I try and avoid those at all costs. I’ll generally either have my friends just suck it up and push me through the sand, or I’ve had boyfriends just pick me up and carry me — I would rather look adorable and be carried by a cute guy than be pushed in a big, bulky beach chair. I also hate sitting — like I won’t sit in my chair on the beach. Who wants to sit in a chair when you can be laying on the sand on a blanket reading? So, I think, in that way, my experience is kind of normal, because I’ll do that just the way my friends will. But then, if I want to go in the water, I’m gonna need help to get there. But once I’m in the water, I’m fine.”
a 26-year-old professional long jumper for the U.S. Paralympics from Phoenix, AZ
How and when she became differently abled: “I had cancer when I was 9. It was called synovial sarcoma. I was put on a bunch of experimental chemotherapy treatment type of things and nothing was working, so in 1999, I had my amputation and I’ve been in remission ever since. I come from an athletic family. My dad went to Olympic trials for pole vault and was a two-time decathlete national champ, so I didn’t really stand a chance, honestly. I have a brother who is a year older than me, so I grew up playing around with him. I don’t know if my family was really awesome or really mean, but they were like, ‘You’ve got to keep up with your friends and your brother. You’ll figure out a way.'”
How her beach experience has changed: “I didn’t go to the beach a lot, since I grew up in Colorado. And prosthetic legs don’t really go in the water, so it was always just kind of an alienating feeling being like, Well, you know I have to take my leg off now. I think the more I became self-aware, the more it was really hard to be able to take my leg off, especially around boys. Being an amputee at the beach in general is just a struggle. Like, sand is harder because you don’t have any ankle movement — you’re kicking sand and trying to walk through it. I used to be really prideful and didn’t want any sort of help, but I’ve gotten much better about asking my friends for help. If somebody offers an arm or wants to carry me, I’ll take it now. I’m not too proud, because I don’t feel like crawling in the sand and getting sand up my ass.”
a 26-year-old fellowship/program manager at the office of the mayor of New York City from Brooklyn, NY, though originally from Haiti
How and when she became differently abled: “In 2005, I was diagnosed with a severe form of bone cancer. And due to that, I ended up getting my right leg amputated.”
How her beach experience has changed: “In general, it’s harder to walk on sand. I also walk with two crutches and they tend to get buried in the sand; then I have to use my upper body strength to get through that. But when that part is over and I find a spot on the beach, I just have to take off my prosthetic to enjoy myself. I have an entire leg prosthetic, since I’m missing part of my hipbone. I guess it’s always weird and embarrassing to take off a prosthetic and just lie it next to my towel on the beach. One of the things that gets to me is the people staring. I enjoy the water, because that’s when I feel the most free and I don’t have any sort of ability restrictions. I’m just as fast as anybody else swimming next to me.”
Read more of the interviews with Danielle, Kristen, Lacey, and Caxmee at Refinery 29.