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Bloom Blog

Beauty can be slow to reveal itself

By Louise Kinross

Easy Beauty is a memoir that sparkles with ideas about art, human value, disability and motherhood. It's written by Chloé Cooper Jones, a philosophy professor and journalist who lives in New York City. Chloe was born without a sacrum, the bone that connects the spine to the pelvis. She's short, with legs from the knees down that are disproportionate to her body, walks with a side-to-side gait, and experiences chronic pain. Easy Beauty is an exploration of how we recognize beauty—in art, nature and people.

BLOOM: Why did you call the book Easy Beauty?

Chloé Cooper Jones: The title comes from a philosopher, Bernard Bosanquet, who I talk about in the book. He had this distinction between easy and difficulty beauty, but he wasn't putting a value judgment on one over the other.

Easy beauty is the kind of beauty we recognize in the world often very quickly. It can come to us when we're looking at a flower or a sunset or listening to a simple spatial rhythm. It's the kind that our senses arise at and recognize easily and seamlessly, and I think a lot of our greatest joys come from easy beauty.

But there's also difficult beauty. It's the kind that might be a little harder to recognize, and that requires a little additional education or patience or willingness to sit through the complexity. Maybe you're listening to a difficult piece of music and not knowing what you're hearing at first, but give it time, patience, or learn about it, and it reveals itself in bits and pieces as being complex and exciting and beautiful. The book is engaging in both of these kinds of beauty.

BLOOM: How does difficult beauty relate to disability?

Chloé Cooper Jones: I feel an affinity with difficult beauty because with a disability your worth, your value in the world is not so easily seen by other people. The problem is that because I so heavily identified with difficult beauty, I didn't put value on easy beauty, and therefore I couldn't appreciate simple beauty in my life. The book begins with me looking at Bernini sculptures in Rome, and ends with a walk home on a particularly beautiful day in Brooklyn, and being at home and listening to my husband make coffee. I wanted to open myself up to multiple kinds of beauty in the world.

BLOOM: Okay, I thought easy beauty was more about conventional ideas about beauty.

Chloé Cooper Jones: I don't think the book is interested in conventions like a beauty we might get from a magazine or marketers. It's deeply engaging in the kind of beauty we experience in art, or by looking at a lake in Italy, or the beauty we might find in poetry. Each chapter takes an art object as a primary focus with a different city and seeking a different experience of art. So there are the Bernini sculptures, an opera, a Beyoncé concert, and the aesthetic beauty of watching Roger Federer play tennis and looking at the different ways in which we can engage in that kind of beauty. Beauty can be a great source of power if we allow it to expand our consciousness.

Easy beauty is a beauty that arrives quickly to our senses, and you're talking about a subset of that. If we're told over and over that certain types of bodies are beautiful, and then we internalize that messaging, we're going to have a faster recognition of that type of beauty.

From being in the world, I learned that my value and whatever beauty I was capable of possessing would never be easily recognized by anybody, so in order to convince people of my value I had to get them to engage in this process of what can be called difficult beauty. We can recognize something as beautiful that doesn't immediately appear to be by being patient, thoughtful, educating ourselves, and embracing complexity and tension. If you ask someone to learn those skills and apply them to bodies, then more bodies become beautiful to them.

BLOOM: You talk about the Greek idea that a beautiful body is symmetrical, and your body doesn't fit into that. Yet as you were born with your disability, your body and how you move felt normal. 

Chloé Cooper Jones: There's nothing inherent in my body that makes it lesser than. You have to be taught that. I move differently than other people and I look different than the average person. I'm shorter than the average adult and I walk with a side-to-side gait vs. straight. There's nothing in any of those details that automatically or factually or empirically equals bad or incomplete or lesser than. However, that is the way the world see me and it puts that lesson on me pretty constantly.

The feeling of moving through the world as if I have less to work with than others is purely a lesson that disabled people are taught and taught often. Often it's by really well-intentioned people, strangers who aren't trying to hurt you but are operating under the belief that you're less capable or that you have less agency or less intelligence or are less able to make your own decisions. They feel they have the duty to take things over for you, to control you or limit your options or opportunities and they think they're doing that from a place of care. That can be tricky for people with disabilities to parse.

BLOOM: At the beginning of your book you talk about disturbing experiences in how you're treated in public. Drunken men block your path and try to take a picture of you; people ask what's wrong with you; or a man makes a nasty comment after you walk up the stairs. Decades after the last incident you say you avoid being seen walking up stairs. You'll pretend to make a phone call or bend down to tie your shoe until the coast is clear. Did that desire to hide your difference change after your son Wolfgang was born?

Chloé Cooper Jones:  Well yes, it provided a mirror on my behaviour. It's a child's biological imperative to closely observe their caretakers and mimic their behaviour in order to understand what's acceptable in the world and how to survive it. 

With Wolfgang, I started to see my desire to hide or inherent shame or embarrassment in public mirrored back. I also saw him mirroring back my own distrust of other people and my desire to go into situations with an assumption that people would be cruel, rather than assuming people are worthy of being seen as whole and not prejudged.

Maybe a person can understand why I felt that way, but it's really not a good way to move around in the world. The last thing I want for my son is to interact with people with baseline assumptions that those people will be cruel or unhelpful or unkind. That leads to an isolated life. It was okay for me to make those decisions for myself, but it wasn't not what I wanted for Wolfgang.

BLOOM: It made me think of how my son with disabilities changed me. Prior to his birth I was the kind of person who didn't rock the boat. I wanted to smooth things over and not express strong opinions. But I could no longer be that way if I wanted to get him the services he needed, and really, my worldview and values had to be shaken up and rebuilt. I guess I wish that it didn't take the birth of our kids to prompt that kind of change.

Chloé Cooper Jones: That's such a good point. I certainly look back at myself when I was younger, before I had Wolfgang, and I see so many missed opportunities or so many moments where I could have grown or connected more deeply with myself or other people. But they were things I was too afraid or ashamed to do. I think about how much Wolfgang has forced me, because of my love for him and a profound desire to model the kind of life I want him to live, to make real changes in myself. 

I don't know how old you were when your son was born, but I was 27 and I want to be really kind to that person who was just figuring things out, and made a ton of mistakes and grew.

This desire of yours to never rock the boat seems like a good idea, but it may be in part self-erasure. We need something to happen to help with that self-reflection. For some people it's therapy or growing older or trauma or loss. I got the best-case scenario that the things that forced my self-awareness were this beautiful child and my best friend in the world. 

BLOOM: For parents of children with disabilities, do you have advice on how to guide their child to handle painful comments?

Chloé Cooper Jones: In some ways it's such a hard and case-by-case thing. I can only say what my mother did for me, which is specific to me. Everyone is so different. She really encouraged me to think about the strength and the possibilities for strength of my inner life and my own self-esteem and self-belief.

I have a specific memory of being in Grade 6 or 7 and these girls were really cruel to me. I came home and I sobbed to my mother and I wanted her to say 'Let's go get those evil girls!' But instead, she said: 'You can make a choice about whether or not you let other people's cruelty in all the way.'

At the time, it hurt to hear that. It felt like she was saying it was my fault if I was upset, or I interpreted it that I was weak. But as I grew older I realized how valuable it was that she told me that so young, and over and over again. What she was really saying was people's cruelty is almost never about you. It's never about anything they're recognizing in you. It's about what they're recognizing in themselves. You do have a choice whether or not you take that hurt on, and make it your burden.

Wolfgang doesn't have a disability but is a child and people are sometimes cruel to him. I say to him 'Sometimes when people are saying unkind things, if you let them keep talking, eventually they'll reveal what they're actually upset about. They'll say "actually I'm anxious about this thing" and they tell on themselves.'

Sometimes we can tell children things they don't quite understand, but it instils in them the idea that cruelty is not about them. My mother always made me feel I had agency and I was capable and I was strong. That's a special thing to hear for any child, but especially young girls need to hear that and disabled people need to hear that.

The world loves to tell disabled people that they have no agency or ability. So to have a mother who would risk hurting my feelings in the moment in order to reaffirm at every turn that you have power, you have the ability to not let other people's cruelty affect you, that left an indelible mark.

BLOOM: As a philosophy professor you were part of a tradition that saw disabled lives as less valuable than non-disabled lives. There are several times in the book where philosophy students discuss whether your life is worth living in your presence. You write that you didn't have the language to explain why your life was just as rich a anyone else's. Was that part of the motivation to write the book?

Chloé Cooper Jones: Yes, absolutely, I think 100 per cent it goes back to agency. Language is agency. Knowledge is power. My stance of self-denial and self-erasure meant that I didn't study the history of disability. I didn't talk to other disability scholars. I didn't read other people's experiences that are similar to mine. I wasn't trying to be a part of a community. I didn't understand the history of the ADA and of activists that fought for the rights that I now have. I cut myself off from all of that in a self-protective stance.

That seems like a choice I was able to make and it was okay for me to make in the moment. But when I think about the idea that disabled lives are inherently less valuable and worth living, okay, actually my silence and my inability to speak persuasively is a form of complicity with that belief. I have a moral imperative to not allow that to exist.

A huge purpose of the book was to spend a lot of time really thinking about how one person gains that kind of language. I did it through study and thinking and talking to people and trying to identify things about myself that I wanted to shift so when the book entered the world or I was speaking to people in my day-to- day life or doing interviews I no longer had any possibility of being complicit with that belief that my life, and lives like mine, are inherently less deserving.

BLOOM: You say you were driven to achieve intellectually, in part as a way for compensating for your physical disability. Intellectual disability seems to be the most marginalized disability. After my son was born I had to rethink what I thought about intelligence.

Chloé Cooper Jones: Extreme prejudice against people with intellectual disabilities is common in bioethics. It's the Peter Singer argument. One of the huge disservices we do in the realm of thinking about intelligence is profoundly limiting what counts as intelligence. We really limit ourselves to thinking that intelligence has to manifest itself in specific forms. If you can't talk or do math well or you have a bad memory or it takes you longer or you can't focus because you have ADHD, all those things get put in a negative light.

One of the best things we could do for all people is to constantly expand and deepen our thoughts around what counts as value, intelligence, and worth. I want to do more listening to anyone inside the disability community in terms of what their experiences are and how they're being perceived. I'm curious and excited to learn more about, and to embrace, all these shades of experience within disability.

BLOOM: When you were born doctors gave your parents a long list of things you wouldn't do, including get pregnant. An Australian woman has written a book on disabled parents, and how it's common to receive the message that you can't or shouldn't get pregnant. As a mother, how did you cope with that?

Chloé Cooper Jones: There's another researcher who does research into disability and bias. One of the things she wrote was called What Happened To You? It's about how common it is for people to say 'What happened to you?' to disabled women who get pregnant. People assume they were assaulted, or that it's some bizarre occurrence that's happened. That's what I heard from strangers on the street. It was both shocking and helpful to hear that my experience was one of many, and that it was very common. 

I don't think I dealt with it well at the time. I internalized a lot of the shame. 

But now, my visual field is so completely filled by my son, who is 11, that when I'm thinking about being a parent, I'm thinking about him and there isn't a lot of room for any other people's judgment. He is so bright and looms so largely in my life that I'm totally focused on him and trying to be the best possible mother of him. All the focus is on how do I shift and be better.

BLOOM: At one point in the book you say you don't share people's negative reactions to your disability with non-disabled people, even your husband, because they can't understand. As the parent of a disabled child, I've often felt like an alien in the mainstream parenting world. 

Chloé Cooper Jones: I'm glad you're contextualizing this from your own experience. Of course that resonates with me and it's really important to talk about.

I would read all these things about what it means to be a mother and I felt like none of these narratives included disabled mothers, because disabled mothers are looked at as potentially being unfit—I mean historically unfit to procreate. That's the whole history of eugenics and the belief that a disabled person should not exist and should not bring other people into the world.

You become a mother and you think I'm entering this grand narrative of human experience but you find this narrative doesn't really want to think about me. None of the parenting books make space for me. Motherhood even under the best circumstances can be quite isolating. And if you don't get to say yes, there's that TV show about me, or that parenting book that includes me, it just heightens that isolation. 

For disability, and as a parent of a child with a disability, you see there's almost nothing in the world that remembers us. Chairs aren't built for my body. Planes aren't built to accommodate wheelchairs. There are so many tangible, constant reminders that the world would prefer to not consider us or have the imagination for us. 

BLOOM: What was most challenging about writing the book?

Chloé Cooper Jones: I think just being vulnerable. I would sit down to look very deeply at painful things I'd rather not look at, and to do that day after day is a lot of emotional work. I was lucky in that I had the best editor and a very supportive family.

BLOOM: Did anything surprise you as you structured your experiences through the writing process? Did you begin to see anything differently?

Chloé Cooper Jones: I would write a scene and I would write about how it made me feel and I would give it to my editor and she would say: 'I don't think you are looking at this truthfully yet.' She meant not the facts of what happened, but the emotional truth. She'd say 'I don't now what's wrong, I don't know what's missing, but you haven't told the truth yet.' I would go back and look at the scene again and again and then through analyzing it and talking to my editor I would arrive at so many new emotional truths, some of which were quite painful to look at. That's the beauty of having a really perceptive, patient, brilliant editor. They will find those places where you're not being genuine enough and push you until you get there.

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