Reviews | Halloween costumes told the story of my disabled body
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Then, in my thirties, I hit a wall. When friends asked, “How are you dressed this year?” I replied: “I am a costume from the future!” My job is to perfect the details of being me. It was a joke, but also a response to a lifetime of being watched, for my curved spine, my orthopedic boots, my arrhythmic lameness, my short stature – in short, all the things that made me unacceptable. I felt that no matter what I was wearing, viewers were just removing the costume from my body. What was the point of putting a monster on a monster?
Why do I say “monster?” Because that’s how I was treated.
But now I have claimed “monster” for myself. I wrote a book, “Golem Girl”, which came out last year. In it, I trace the history of the Golem legend and how the concept of an artificially constructed creature was woven into Western culture. This is how I see myself: like a raw body made of clay, a being as much built as born.
Halloween is monster time, of course. Creatures with damaged bodies, scarred faces, heavy gaits, missing limbs; bullies who drool, emit miasma, bleed, flee, manifest psychiatric disorders which put them beyond acceptable society. Frankenstein (a Golem); his Bride (a Golem); the Borg (a Golem, just like Mr. Data); Dracula (infectious); the Wolfman (infectious); Darth Vader, Captain Hook (amputees); Freddy Krueger (facial disfigurement and mental illness)… I stop there. If I listed all the bad guys with disabilities, I would be here until I was not a Golem but a ghost.
One actual disabled person who shows up in costumes – on Halloween and all year round, for that matter – is Frida Kahlo. But you would never know she was disabled, injured by a cart crash in her youth, and later from surgeries, gangrene, and chronic pain. A search for “Frida Kahlo costume” images reveals hundreds of Fridas in her Tehuana dresses, Frida holding cigarettes and monkeys, Frida’s eyebrows, Frida’s flower crowns, even Beyoncé in Frida – but not a single one. back splint, cast, cane or prosthetic leg among them.
I first encountered Frida Kahlo’s work 40 years ago, when I was a young painter looking for a visual language that would allow me to explore my own experience. Her work has shown me that you can represent disability with beauty and honesty. I know Frida asserted her allegiance to her Mexican heritage in Oaxacan dresses, but I think she found poetry in her body losses as well. The more she suffered, it seems to me, the more she adorned herself, as if she were sending prayers of pleasure. Her costumes let her see her as she wanted – and as desirable.
She knew, as I know, that it’s so hard to leave the house if you don’t want to be seen. Open my closet. You won’t see any ruffles sweeping the floor, but there is a lot of quirky clothing. Dramatic black coats. Bright printed jackets. Beaded and sequined evening dresses, including a bright red evening dress with a cape on the shoulders. Three velvet cocktail dresses (including one studded with pearls). Clothes that are the opposite of hiding.
Most revealing are my boots – knee-deep black leather with chunky rocker soles. The left is several inches higher than the right, because of my considerable difference in leg length. When I was a kid, I tried to hide those legs, to deny that I was wearing huge braces. But a Golem is only powerful when it roams the world, not when it’s hiding in the dark. So now I’m decorating my boots with a whole wardrobe of laces, from the Pride-Flag rainbow to gold and silver sequins.
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