Content warning: internalised ableism, depression, suicide ideation
The Pretty One by Keah Brown is a memoir (in the form of a series of essays) on Keah’s experience of being a young disabled black woman. It also features a lot on pop culture – with mentions of films and music in most chapters, and fashion too. It’s a journey of a life of internalised ableism and shame to pride and self love – the latter has come about in Keah’s mid 20s.
Keah and I are similar in terms of being disabled women of colour with our strong love of fashion and deep fandom. I also related a lot to her feelings associated with physical pain. In listening to her memoir, I realised how many of the same themes are in my own memoir. I felt fandom was a big part of me finding my self worth, and this was very much the same for Keah. (I wonder if disabled people feel a kinship with fandom more deeply than non disabled people because while we fantastic we to an extent, we finally feel accepted and heard?)
Keah’s profile rose when she started the viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute in 2017 – asking disabled people to believe that they can be disabled and cute. She also writes for the media – Teen Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Lenny Letter and ESPNW. I am a big fan of Keah’s media work, so I was thrilled when she announced this book deal. The essays are quite long, and are mostly separate from each other, though some themes overlap.
With the vast number of body positivity and body image struggle literature being from thin, white, non disabled women, it’s refreshing to have Keah’s words. She writes about struggles with body image and move to body love from the perception of a black disabled woman with a scarred body. Her negative feelings about her body often stemmed from how the world portrays disabled people – from a lack of and poor media representation, to pop culture and dating sites. She often feels undesirable, even when she arrived at self love.
Keah relies on fantasy a lot – especially around what finding love and a relationship would feel like. She yearns to experience love, and a break up, simply so she can feel the power or belting out a break up song. She has endured a lot of unrequited love and is yet to find love. A lot of this content seems younger than a woman in her late 20s – but the reality is for Keah, and for many other disabled people, they haven’t experienced true love due to ableism and prejudice, and can only imagine what love feels like. She also writes about love from the intersection of being a black, disabled (and most recently) bisexual woman – and how love stories in pop culture are mostly positioned from a white perspective.
And although Keah has reached a point of self love, she s still perplexed at why she hasn’t found love with another. In the chapter An Ode to the Boys, she writes,
“What does it mean that in order to keep myself from despair, I sometimes live inside my head, inside a world where I am desired by men my age and by people who see my body as worthy of love and desire, people who see me as much of the same?”
“I was always told that when I learned to love myself, the right person would come along when I least expected it. Maybe he will, but for now I am a little let down by the results. I didn’t go into this journey because I thought it was going to solve all my problems. I did it because I was tired of living how I was. It’s a strange dichotomy, to love yourself while knowing that no one else does yet. Before I loved myself, I thought I knew why no one loved me, because of my physical disability. After love, I am all out of answers, because the things that I used to hate about myself I like now.”
While Keah puts a mirror to her life – exploring dark periods of self hatred, internalised ableism and suicide ideation, many of the reasons for these feelings are universal. Keah writes about the damage of inspiration porn and the belief that the other body is superior – not her black, disabled body.
The book is very introspective – I think that writing is the way Keah makes sense of the wold – writing is therapy for her. At times Keah shows a great level of self consciousness and also self deprecation in her writing – almost pleading that she’s worthy (Keah, you are so worthy!). She is also very vulnerable, detailing dark thoughts – envy of non disabled people, and not wanting to live anymore. But she somewhat balances this out with a strong celebration of self, though at times I’m not convinced.
“…I believe that marginalized people in particular are expected to do so much quietly and without acknowledging the work that has gone into the thing we are being complimented on. I am not doing that; I have worked too hard and spent too much time trying to dim my light so others could shine. My emotions and I are over that, and we will be loud and proud. Celebrating smaller and bigger wins is imperative in being unapologetic…”
While introspective, Keah constantly shouts out people in her life who have helped her – friends, writers, Disability activists and family – and credits are lot of her fandoms too. She is a great leader in our community, often giving back.
The Pretty One ends with a declaration of self love – and Keah also acknowledges how self love takes practice, every day.
I’ve been seeing Keah’s star rise for a few years now, and I’m so proud to call her a friend. Thank you for writing this Keah, you’ve written a book that is long needed. (And thanks for mentioning me too!) I can’t wait to see what you do next.
I listened to the audiobook of The Pretty One. Keah narrated it herself.
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