Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America

Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America, narrated by Katey Sagal, and directed by Alexis Ostrander, is a feature length documentary that reveals the behind-the-scenes aspects of a perhaps little-known beauty pageant which provides a unique experience for women in wheelchairs by following the stories of five of the contestants in the 2010 Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant.

The women given extended air time in the documentary (there are many more, including pageant organizers and family members, who are given sound bites) make it a point to show the audience that while they must utilize wheelchairs, their status as wheelchair users doesn’t define them, though they are well aware that many able-bodied people look at them and “just see the chair”. One is seen skydiving during the early part of the movie. Another described herself as “a single mother of three kids” (only one of which lives with her full-time, the pageant organizers later sent her a letter asking her to cease publicly describing herself in a way that implies she has full-time custody of all of them), which she says “is not typical for someone in my …position”. Later in the movie, a third who speaks of having consciously rejected “advocacy” for the disabled says she unconsciously ended up engaging in a form of it when she became her high school’s first wheelchair-using cheerleader, and later entered the mainstream Miss New Jersey pageant.

By sharing their personal stories, though many have horrific stories of spinal cord injuries acquired in car crashes, they hope to show the general population an image of wheelchair users beyond the simplistic portrayal of victims or heroes that is often promoted in the popular media. (One soon-to-be-former Ms. Wheelchair America “tags” a wall when out on a sight-seeing excursion for the contestants when she comes upon a street muralist who lends her a can of spray paint to enable her to do this. The citizenry and the law in the area of Texas where the pageant is held seem to take a live-and-let-live attitude during these outings of pageant contestants.)

One aspect of the documentary which is educational for those who are not well-acquainted with the lives of individuals who have physical disabilities, is when some of the contestants discuss on camera matters that individuals with less poise and savvy in dealing with the public might be embarrassed to discuss. Quadriplegics who don’t have physical sensation may occasionally get surprised by errant bladder and bowl action. Those who use catheters risk infection in portable toilet booths. There are those who have physical conditions which mean when they have to “go”, they have to go now. Mention is made of such things, perhaps because if the general public were aware of such matters, they would be more sensitive about keeping the wheelchair stall in the restroom free, and giving the disabled priority in restrooms.

Not everyone in a wheelchair who participates in this pageant has the same degree of ability to do things personally. Some footage of caregivers transferring people from wheelchair to bed, checking their clothing, etc. is seen. A woman who has “flippers” for hands, and stumps for legs, her mother having taken thalidomide when she was pregnant, is able to use the tips of her arms much the way an elephant uses his trunk, and puts on her eyeliner herself by propping the pencil eyeliner against the edge of the dressing table.

The Ms. Wheelchair America pageant draws upon a more diverse pool of applicants than many other pageants, being open to women between the ages of 21 and 60, who rely upon a wheelchair full-time. Judges are “encouraged to place less emphasis on physical attractiveness and more on ‘general pleasant appearance'”, capacity for “advocacy” is emphasized, and while there isn’t the same presumption of purity required of Miss America contestants, some drama ensues when a rumor concerning one of the contestants making porn for “devotees” (men who are “into” women with disabilities with the disability as their primary “turn-on”) circulates among the other contestants.

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