Redefining American concepts of beauty

Local writer Tiffiny Carlson on looks, love and dating Tiffiny Carlson represents an old Minnesota stereotype: blond, tall, and athletic. […]

Local writer Tiffiny Carlson on looks, love and dating

Tiffiny Carlson represents an old Minnesota stereotype: blond, tall, and athletic. She has all the beauty components to attract interest from modeling agencies and TV producers, except one: she uses a wheelchair. Because of that, she represents another stereotype: woman with a disability.

But Carlson is out to change stereotypes about Minnesotans, standards of beauty, and people with disabilities. She has emerged as a fresh voice for a new generation of Americans who are determined to confront mainstream society’s outmoded images of persons with disabilities and assert a more nuanced and complex view.

I met Carlson at a Minneapolis coffee shop on a cold, sunny afternoon in early February. My first impression was a blur of yellow—a bright sweater and shining hair moving fast to the ramp entrance of the coffee shop. Up close she radiated energy and passion, with the energy of a prolific writer who told me she had, “hundreds of ideas for things to write about,” and the passion of a woman out to change the world. “People with disabilities are the last minority; we have a long way to go to being treated equally.”

Carlson, 28, is a successful freelance writer living in Minneapolis, known around the world for her writing on a variety of topics, including articles for children, a blog on beauty tips, a column about dating, essays about consumer products and travel accessibility, and profiles of individuals living with spinal cord injuries.

Carlson herself lives with spinal cord injury (SCI), the result of a diving accident in 1993. She graduated from White Bear Lake High School in 1997 and went on to major in communication studies at Augsburg College. There she started writing online about her disability, and her work attracted attention from Halftheplanet.com, which asked her to write for their Web site. Before she graduated from Augsburg in 2001, her career as a freelance writer had already begun. Since then she has supported herself with her writing, contributing articles and columns to New Mobility and Kids on Wheels magazines, for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and to many internet sites, including Lovebyrd.com, AccessLife.com, Ican.com, Disabled.gr and Disaboom.com.

BeautyAbility.com is Carlson’s own blog on beauty, fashion, sex, music, dating and consumer products. She describes the blog as her favorite writing project because, “I can say what I want to; I don’t filter.” Readers obviously enjoy reading her blogs too. A visit to the message board reveals correspondents from around the world. Carlson says her readers are mostly young men and women living with SCI, Spina Bifida or Multiple Sclerosis. Readers to the Web site also can order her self-published e-book Wheelchair Fashion 101.

In all her writing, Carlson is straightforward in her objective to shake up old stereotypes about people with disabilities. As she wrote recently on her blog, “you might even be thinking my injury should have taught me beauty-related materialistic things don’t matter in the big picture, but I’m no dummy. Looking good matters. When we like how we look, we feel better about everything in life. It’s a proven fact.”

Carlson’s fame is growing in large part due to her writing about the dating and singles scene for people with disabilities. Besides the dating forum and message board on her blog, she writes the “Tiff’s Corner” column on lovebyrd.com, dispensing advice and stories from her own dating adventures and those of her wide array of friends, acquaintances and fans. She commented about her work last year: “Over the years as a dating columnist, I’ve pretty much figured out one solid thing: The problems people with disabilities face versus the dating problems people without disabilities face are not that different. We all experience loss, jealousy and betrayal no matter how good-looking we are.”

Carlson has also taken on sex, a taboo subject for many in our society when it concerns a person with a disability. As Carlson wrote on her blog, “I don’t care how ‘blue’ your city or state is, most people—no matter how liberal—are never fully-aware of the disabled individual’s ‘Yes it’s existent!’ sexuality.” Several of her articles on this topic have generated attention for their explicit and honest depiction of the joys, struggles and possibilities for sexually active adults with disabilities. Her deeply personal essay on Nerve.com entitled “Getting Around: How I Discovered My Wheelchair wasn’t a Chastity Belt” generated discussion around the internet on sex and the single person with a disability. An article on sexual issues for men living with SCI in ThisAbled. com presented sensitive issues in a clear and straightforward manner, mixing practical advice with commentary from men around the country.

Generating discussion and encouraging readers to confront their unspoken biases about themselves and others is Carlson’s object. Through her writing she promotes a vision to the larger society of persons with disabilities having the same complicated fears, problems and desires as everyone else. She also wants readers with disabilities to break out of the labels put on them by mainstream society. And she does not shy away from critiquing her own community, writing recently that “one of the most ridiculous things I’ve come across is the way some paras and quads polarize their para or quadness, and form little…gangs where they exalt the characteristics of their injuries….So let’s stop the gimp-on-gimp hate, OK?”

In the future Carlson aspires to write “harder news stories” while continuing to push the mainstream media—including magazines like Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly—to publish more and better stories for and about Americans with disabilities. But she knows she has a long way to go to break these stereotypes, writing with characteristic humor that “just when you think society as a whole is beginning to see the person and not the disability, your hopes get shot down like a fake rabbit in a carnival shooting range.” Yet with writers like Carlson continuing the cause, the promise of progress looks even more assured.

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