Through the Looking Glass
New research describes self-presentations of people with disabilities.
Posted Jan 12, 2019
Yesterday at school, my student K arrived at the single bathroom in our building at the same time as me. “It’s okay, you go first. I’m just gonna take some pictures of me in the mirror," she said. I was flabbergasted. This is a fun way for her to spend time? In contrast, I rarely take photos of myself and am terrible at doing so. I only take a selfie if I want to show my friend or daughter a new or potential purchase, such as new glasses or an outfit that I’m trying on to buy. My chin is up, or my chin is down, or sometimes my chin even duplicates itself. I am in awe, however, at how frequently my students snap photos of themselves. Some of these pictures I see on Facebook, often, if the poser is female, with the lips pursed together, head tilted to the side.
Are my students’ selfies actual, literal illustrations of the sociological looking-glass self? The concept of the looking-glass self originated in the work of Charles Horton Cooley (1964). According to this theory, our view of ourselves comes from our contemplation of personal qualities and impressions of how others perceive us. Positive definitions by others will be reflected in favorable self-views, and negative definitions will have the opposite effect. So, meh, K’s behavior may be not actually be a strong example of the looking glass self although it promises to makes for an excellent question to throw out to my class next week on adolescent self-concept.
For some individuals their disability is the most salient component of their self-concept. According to the theory of the looking-glass self, society’s stigmatization of a trait or condition would be expected to result in negative self-definitions. However, not all individuals (or, perhaps, not even most) with disabilities view themselves negatively. As I was researching recently a book chapter about emerging adults with disabilities dating online, I found a just-published journal 2019 article by a folklorist, a Ph.D. student in English. The author, Teresa Milbrodt, compares presentations of the disabled self on online dating profiles between the two sites Dating4Disabled and Match.com. She finds several similarities and major differences in the way potential daters (ages not specified) present their disability identities. One of her conclusions is that people posting on dating websites assume that different audiences will perceive disability differently. For example, unlike posters on Dating4Disabled, a forum that by definition should have a rather accepting attitude toward disability, Milbrodt noticed that on Match.com, posters with disabilities typically downplay their disabilities and even often state that they could pass as “normal.” She concludes that this decision may be the result of internalized ableist attitudes, or not wanting to possess a stigmatized identity. My own research suggests, too, that this decision stems from wanting to interest as many prospective matches as possible, with the hope that “once they get to know me," the disability will no longer matter.
Either way, these results suggest that at least some people with disabilities remain concerned about fitting in on social media. I noticed those internalized ableist attitudes many years ago when a past student, a young man with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair, explained why he had jumped on Twitter for his social media use as opposed to Facebook, which at the time (about 2010) was popular with his undergraduate peers: “No photos required."
So what determines why some people with disabilities accept and even applaud their physical differences and dissimilar abilities while others do not? Perhaps Cooley was right: The dating results suggest that at least to some extent, and at least for some people with disabilities, it is the looking-glass self, the reactions of others in the environment, that shape self-perceptions.
Cooley, C.H. (1902). Human Nature and the Social Order. NY: Scribner's.
Milbrodt, T. (2019). Dating websites and disability identity: Presentations of the disabled self in online dating profiles. Western Folklore, 78, 66-100.