The Complex Disability Representation We Need: Rebekah Taussig’s Sitting Pretty

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I often go into reading work by fellow disabled writers with hesitancy and high expectations, probably in part because of how few disability narratives I had access to growing up, and thus how much is riding on them. This is despite, of course, the fact that disabled individuals are humans who are allowed to show variety and make mistakes. Indeed, disability narratives have historically only shown incredibly limited perspectives of disability: disabled individuals are often either portrayed as the Super Crip who can overcome their disability, or the disabled character that acts as an object of pity. But disability is not a monolith, despite what many mainstream disability representations would have us believe—our lived experiences are so much richer and more diverse.

Reading Rebekah Taussig’s new book, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, did not necessarily teach me to let down my guard when first encountering a new piece written by a disabled author, because I’m not sure this is something that can be accomplished with a single text. The book certainly exceeded all of my expectations––Taussig demonstrates an awareness of her privilege as a white, cis-het woman, and complicates many of her ideas by pushing them one step beyond the obvious conclusion. What reading this book did teach me, however, is to rethink my own understanding of what this means––what expectations do we have of disabled writers and their work, even if we are a part of that community ourselves? The beauty of Sitting Pretty lies in its nuance, its messiness, its open transparency as the author makes sense of various life experiences as seen through the perspective of her disability, and the ways in which she navigates a world steeped in ableism.

Taussig, who uses her Instagram (@sitting_pretty) as a platform to craft “mini memoirs,” writes in a tone that is both eloquent and casual, illustrating her own lived experiences interwoven with ideas from Disability Studies (and other fields of theory). “During my time in graduate school, it struck me that a lot of revelatory content rethinking disability is also profoundly inaccessible to people outside the high walls of academia,” Taussig told me in an interview. “I really wanted the ideas that had changed everything for me to connect with readers with any kind of educational background.” Taussig accomplishes this as she writes about the moment she begins to realize her body is “undesirable” within mainstream ideals, an old marriage to a childhood sweetheart she rushed into because she felt she needed someone to take care of her, and her arduous search to find an accessible house within her financial reach.

Sitting Pretty opens with an essay that stems from a question Taussig’s brother asks her: “What is your writing about? What do you hope it will bring to the world?” It’s a question that causes Taussig to prepare for “benevolent misunderstanding” from her brother—a thread that runs through the vast majority of her interactions with able-bodied individuals. At first, she reaches for the word shame to describe that which she explores through her writing: “This is the shame that attaches so easily to a body that doesn’t fit, the shame that buds, blossoms, and consumes when you believe that your existence is a burden, a blemish on the well-oiled machine of Society.” During my own journey towards understanding and making sense of my disabled body, I’ve grown accustomed to using the term internalized ableism to describe the ways in which I have unconsciously adopted society’s ableism as a lens through which to view myself. But this term, as nifty as it can be for explaining how a system of oppression works internally, does not illustrate the depths of which this internalized oppression can reach. Shame, on the other hand? Shame lets us inhabit the seed from which internalized ableism grows.

Taussig finally tells her brother, “When you grow up in a world that doesn’t see you or welcome you or represent you, you believe the world isn’t for you. It’s for all the other people.” Her essay collection, then, both illustrates the insidiousness of growing up in a world like this one, while offering a new set of authentic, beautifully wrought stories that tell other disabled individuals we are welcome.

One reason these stories are so compelling is that Taussig’s explorations of the ways her own ordinary, resilient, disabled body interacts with a largely able-bodied world are complex, evading neatly tied conclusions and categories. In one of my favorite essays, “Feminist Pool Party,” Taussig grapples with the conflicting emotions surrounding a memory of being catcalled: as a woman, she is horrified; but as a disabled woman who is a part of a community historically thought of as childlike and asexual, she finds herself reveling in the moment. This is certainly no less impacted by her moving through adolescence as someone who believed she was undesirable, a process, along with the constant onslaught of society’s ableism, that caused her to become disconnected from herself and her body. In this essay, we can see Taussig struggling with the messiness of this truth and being transparent about this messiness. It is this sort of transparency that allows for the complexity and nuance so needed in disability narratives.

“Feminist Pool Party” goes on to explore the ways in which disability has been largely left out from discussions of feminism, and how so many feminist discussions (on the wage gap, on reproductive rights, on the problem with seeing “women” as a homogenous group) are not anywhere near complete without discussing the intersection of disability. Of course, this is not a new conversation—disability being overlooked in feminist discussions and spaces—nor is it an issue solely facing disabled individuals: mainstream feminism is often called “white feminism” for a reason. Near the end of the essay, Taussig recalls a panel she attended featuring young women who were notably successful in their fields. When someone in the audience asks the panel about managing work-life balance, each panelist answers in a way that promotes powering through and eschewing rest for more work, more upward climb. “Really? Is that it?” Taussig writes, ­“Let’s just giggle about the impossibility of having both a career and a body with limits?”

We learn, in other essays, that working full-time as a high school teacher has caused immeasurable strain on her body and wellbeing, and that as a young girl she watched her father follow an impossibly rigid work schedule, one that she had trouble integrating into ideas of her future. Like the ­­­­discussion of white feminism’s exclusiveness, the notion of work under capitalism being unsustainable and detrimental to people’s bodies, minds, and spirits is not new. Disability theorists, queer theorists, and critical race theorists have been kicking this idea around for decades. What Taussig does, then, is ground these ideas in reality through her own lived experiences.

There’s a moment near the end of Sitting Pretty in which Taussig is struck by a vision of disabled kids growing up in our world, a world without directions, a world in which they have no “road map” to follow. Sitting Pretty is not a road map—it does not spell out signposts to follow, instructions on how to do this or be that. At the same time, however, this book is a road map, in that it shows moments of resonance, moments where I, a fellow disabled writer, could see myself reflected in the words on the page. Taussig has created her own road map, while being aware that her road map shows only one of many diverging and converging paths. For this, and for the many roads being carved out ahead of us by other disabled writers like Keah Brown and Alice Wong, I am incredibly thankful.

Hannah Soyer is a queer disabled writer interested in exploring representations of othered bodies. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Entropy, Mikrokosmos Journal, Brain Mill Press, Disability Visibility Project, and Rooted in Rights, among other places. She is the founder of This Body Is Worthy, a project aimed at celebrating bodies outside of mainstream societal ideals, and Words of Reclamation, a space for disabled writers. Hannah also happens to be a cat and chocolate enthusiast. More from this author →