How do you say the word “disability”? Does it feel shameful or derogatory, or does it roll off of your tongue, matter-of-factly? Writer and disability activist Keah Brown wishes we were all less precious when talking about disability,
because while it may be a fact of her life, it’s far from the whole of it, as she reveals in her new but already acclaimed book of autobiographical essays, The Pretty One, which has garnered praise from luminaries like Deepak Chopra and Roxane Gay, who wrote:
“What does it mean to live at the intersections of blackness, womanhood, and disability? In her admirable debut, The Pretty One, Keah Brown answers this question with heart, charm, and humor. Across 12 finely-crafted essays, Brown explores the matter of representation in popular culture, the vulnerability of facing self-loathing and learning to love herself, the challenge of repairing fractured relationships with family, the yearning for romantic love. Through her words we see that Brown is not just the pretty one; she is the magnificently human one.”
For those of us whose knowledge of cerebral palsy extends about as far as remembering “Cousin Geri” on The Facts of Life, it’s worth noting that the title of Keah Brown’s debut book is a story, in and of itself. Aside from being born with cerebral palsy, she was also born a twin, just ahead of able-bodied sister Leah—who was often dubbed (you guessed it) “the pretty one” by classmates and potential suitors. Keah’s reclaiming of the phrase came after reckoning with years of physical and emotional pain, insecurities, jealousy, reconciliation and ultimately, accepting her ridiculously talented, #DisabledAndCute existence, the hashtag that garnered the writer her first book deal (and earned her a spot on 2018’s The Root 100). Speaking with The Glow Up, Brown explains how she found her pretty—and why she neither desires nor will accept anyone’s pity.
The Glow Up: You have cerebral palsy, which you describe as a disability both visible and invisible. You also talk about having a part of your body “working for and against you at the same time.” For those of us unfamiliar, can you explain how that manifests for you?
Keah Brown: Well, CP [cerebral palsy] is different for everyone who has it. For me, I have a mild form of hemiplegia that impacts the right side of my body. This means my reaction times are slower, I have delayed motor function and the right side of my brain sends its signals to the right side of my body at a slower time as well. I also walk with a limp and tire quicker than your average non-disabled person. My body is working twice as hard to function. So, it’s working for me to live, which I love, but because of my disability, it’s also twice as much work so on the bad days it feels like it’s working against me.
TGU: Your story would be revelatory enough without the added dynamic of having an identical, yet able-bodied twin, often called “the pretty one.” How did you come to reclaim that title for yourself, and why was it important to make it the title of your book?
KB: My former editor, Jhanteigh Kupihea, actually came up with the title and it felt right immediately. We—being my agent Alex, Jhanteigh and I—really just felt it clicked. It was sort of like, “Ah! That’s the one.” The reclamation didn’t happen for me until we titled the book. I was always too afraid to say I was pretty because pretty felt too far from my reality, but after naming the book, I was sort of like, “Oh, wait. I am actually the Pretty One too, cool!” It was important for this to be the title of the book because I wanted to challenge others ideas of what pretty can be and let them know that I can be and I am pretty, too! Definitely worthy enough to be on my own cover!
TGU: You live at a very specific but less acknowledged point of intersectionality: You are black, a woman, and disabled. Can you elaborate on why you feel “the conversation around beauty and fashion cannot happen without the discussion of race”—and ideally, ability, as well?
KB: I feel these conversations can’t happen without race and ability because without them it’s not a complete conversation. We buy into and help keep these fashion and beauty industries going and a lot of us—including I—really love them, so to exclude us is a loss of opportunity for these industries to grow and expand for the better. We deserve a voice in the conversations of the industries we are financially taking part in, too. Even though these industries are built on exclusion, inclusion is what keeps them thriving.
TGU: People are often fond of saying that “fatphobia” is the last acceptable bias. I’d argue ableism is the most insidious because those of us who are able-bodied generally take it for granted. What do you wish people knew about ableism?
KB: I wish people knew how much harm ableism actually does. Ableism is the root of physical violence against disabled people, harmful policies that impact our livelihoods, and everyday experiences. To put it simply, ableism kills and is not just fodder for jokes and memes on the internet. Disabled people and the ableism we experience have real consequences and non-disabled people need to truly work to correct the ways in which they can be ableist, as well. Try to take the words “retard,” “stupid,” “lame,” etc., out of your vocabularies because words mean things and impact the way we view the people most impacted by them. Ableism doesn’t have to happen. We can eradicate it.
TGU: In the book, you reference the lack of disabled people in beauty campaigns, which is very true. How do you feel about the fashion industry’s recent, though as yet, very small expansion into adaptive clothing?
KB: I am excited about it! I hope it influences other fashion brands to follow suit. I’d look great in designer clothes adapted for me and people like me. I’m just saying…I always said I had the face for a red carpet! Ha!
TGU: I agree with you that like race, “disability” is not a dirty word. Why do you think so many of us are uncomfortable saying it? Is it fear, pity, political correctness? And how do you feel our reticence contributes to ableism?
KB: I think it’s definitely a mix of pity and fear; I find that people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they infantilize us and cease to see us as human beings at all, in favor of people that they must coddle. We don’t need to be coddled. We deserve respect and for people to listen. For me, disabled is the word I prefer and I welcome people to use it with me. What helps with the discomfort some non-disabled people may feel is to remember that our comfort should be more important, in this instance.
TGU: Outside of the discussion of disability, music is another strong theme in your book (and life), and at times, it almost feels like a confessional; like a claiming of blackness that sits outside of the presumed margins. Why was it important for you to include that conversation in The Pretty One?
KB: It was important for me to include the conversation because music means so much to me and I never get the chance to write about it. I thought this was the perfect opportunity. It was in many ways a confessional; I felt I needed to admit that I loved this music because it felt like a secret I was keeping as though I was ashamed and in talking about it. I wanted to show that I wasn’t ashamed—I was proud. I also wanted the space to discuss things outside of disability because I do have interests outside of it, and I wanted people to see I can write about other things, as well. Disability is the lens through which I see the world, even though not always the subject of my world.
TGU: What do you hope your presence and platform bring to our understanding of disability?
KB: I hope it helps shift the cultural view of disability from pity to respect and gives us the rights we deserve and the ability to be seen and heard in mainstream media and culture in a positive light. I want to be a part of that change and to see it in my lifetime.
The Pretty One is available in stores today.