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  • Reclaiming and Honoring:Sins Invalid's Cultivation of Crip Beauty
  • Shayda Kafai (bio)

Beauty can be expansive and rhythmic. Its standards can shift, stretching outward to include and honor all of our "bodyminds." I stress can here because beauty is still imbued with overwhelming power and privilege. Despite our current feminist landscape of plurality and intersectionality, for most of us, beauty is still a place of restricted access and pain. There are so many people, myself included, who struggle to actively rewrite the toxic hold beauty has own our own lives. At the same time, this struggle is supported by our communities who work in earnest to help us unlearn the connotations of heteropatriarchy and whiteness that rigidly define and discipline beauty's borders. The collective work of the body positivity and fat liberation movements, particularly in communities of color, has helped to expand the meanings of beauty beyond the normative image of thinness and whiteness.1

Feminism has continued this work by exploring the sexist, racist, colonized, and sizest aspects of beauty; however, more recently, disability studies has intersected with feminism and has offered an additional lens through which we can view beauty: ableism. As an intersecting system of oppressions, ableism reinforces the idea that the nondisabled bodymind is "natural" and "normal" and that any deviation from the standard of non-disability is "abnormal" and needs to be fixed or cured.

Ableism reinforces beauty in the most perversely subtle ways. The normatively beautiful body, we are taught, has two arms and two legs. It is proportioned, balanced, and, if anything, is hyper-nondisabled in its appearance and mannerisms. In fact, disabled models and mannequins have just recently begun to enter into our visual lexicon of what beauty can look [End Page 231] like and although they are most necessary, they too, at times, still replicate normative depictions of what our Western culture deems beautiful.2

Crip3 artists and activists, along with disability studies scholars, have dedicated themselves to rewriting what beauty means in disability culture. Within the last eleven years, the San Francisco Bay Area–based performance project Sins Invalid, in particular, has guided and transformed the conversations surrounding crip beauty. As a performance project that holds space for queer and gender nonconforming, crip folks of color to make art and activism since 2006, Sins Invalid has birthed a definition of beauty that embraces the rolling, drooling, stimming, signing, mad magic of all our bodyminds.

The most unique aspect of Sins Invalid's community, for me, is how they move us beyond the traditional, limiting rhetoric of beauty. They instead create crip beauty, an expression of the communal honoring of crip bodyminds.4 Crip beauty fractures the ableist assumption that beauty is reserved for the nondisabled bodymind. It urges that there is pleasure and eroticism in bearing witness to disability, in cultivating a space where bodyminds that are traditionally forced into invisibility can gather together. Sins Invalid's fostering of crip beauty challenges the long and painful history of the institutionalization of disabled folks. Their tagline, "An un-shamed claim to beauty in the face of invisibility," references this history, reinforcing the fact that disabled folks will no longer exist in isolation or in invisibility. The visibility and public nature of crip beauty reminds us that disability is something to celebrate and not something to hide.

Throughout their twelve years of disability justice activism,5 evenings of performance art, and community workshops, Sins Invalid has created a discursive bodymind that liberates beauty from the isolating and painful restrictions of ableism, heterosexism, patriarchy, and racism. In speaking about beauty, Sins Invalid cofounder Patty Berne shares that "part of [our work] is to liberate [the] idea of beauty from … a vision that's rooted in profit-driven motive[s]. Beauty is much more sacred than what it's been reduced to. … One of the catch phrases we [in Sins Invalid] have is that beauty always, always recognizes itself" (Allen 2013). In spaces of collectivity and activist art-making, Sins Invalid cultivates an environment where queer, crip folks of color can be made visible again in their beauty. Here, we can crip beauty, an action that empowers communities who previously were...


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pp. 231-236
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