Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The "disabled vet transforms himself" video

Note:  This is a blog post that's been in my unfinished queue for a while, partially because I do a lot of my blogging at work during our down time (I can't watch things with sound there) and partially because I wanted to make sure I was in a good head space to see this and critique it.  Since the AMS Vans blog recently reminded me about this post, I figured that it was time to actually finish it.

There's this video that I've seen bopping around Facebook recently about a disabled veteran that "transforms" himself, goes from not being able to walk due to various impairments to being able to run at the end of the video, through the combined magic of yoga and weight loss.  I've been torn about either wanting to ignore this video as "inspiration porn" to wanting to really look at his journey from various sociocultural lenses.  So, for those of you who haven't seen the video, here it is:

Before I really critique this video however, I want to give a few caveats.  First of all, I'm not trying to belittle his journey.  It's his life, his body, and his experience, and no one can take that from him.  I'm glad he found something that he found engaging (perhaps even enjoyable) enough to keep doing.  I will also, in the name of reflexivity and feminist research techniques, state that this kind of narrative can be pretty damn annoying.  We would never have heard of this guy if his yoga journey hadn't gotten him running or have made him thin (hell, would we be seeing this story if yoga had gotten him running without the weight loss??).  Stories about disabled folks usually only pop up when we're being inspiring and "overcoming disability," doing things "in spite of" disability, or just being a supercrip. 

Anyhow, my thoughts after watching the video (as I wrote the first part of this post before watching it, just to really analyze my feelings and assumptions about what this video would be about).

The video starts out with music that is usually associated with these kinds of videos...kind of cheesy, all fanfare.  The text talks about how this fellow was unable to walk without assistive aids, had gained weight, and had been turned down by yoga teachers...except for "Diamond" Dallas Page.  He shows clips from starting his journey, showing him wobble and fall out of various yoga poses, using a chair and props to help keep him from falling.  The video progresses, showing him able to do more intense yoga poses, getting visibly smaller, eventually walking unaided and at the end running in a park.

The video's text essentially states that if he can do it, anyone can do it with enough motivation and willpower.  He lost a significant amount of weight in less than a year.  He states that he is no longer disabled by his back and knee injuries.

First of all, I want to direct you good folks to a recent post from Ragen Chastain at Dances With Fat entitled  The Tricky Dangers of Experience.  She says that "[o]ne thing that frustrates me about a lot of the discourse on the internet is many people’s assertion that their experience is (or should be, or will be) everyone’s experience, and that others should feel obligated to make major health decisions based on their experience/opinions."  She's hit it right on the head.  Just because this fellow found body transformation (both in size and ability) from yoga, doesn't mean that it would work for everyone if they just put their mind to it. I had the good fortune of finding a local yoga studio that isn't afraid to take me as a student, but my yoga practice isn't making my nerve damage reverse itself nor will it magically repair my fractured vertebra.

If it really was a matter of motivation and willpower, I would be abled.  I would be belly dancing, doing mixed martial arts and CrossFit again.  I would be running, riding my road bike, and competing in triathlons as an abled person.  I wouldn't be whining on my blog about how I can't afford adaptive sports equipment like a recumbent trike, handcycle, or a racing wheelchair (although I would still be vocal about the disparities in access to sport and physical activity for folks with disabilities).  I would be doing Olympic-style weightlifting like Sarah Robles at Pretty Strong (probably not as good as her though!  She's headed to the London 2012 Olympics!).

Finally, this whole narrative makes fat be equated with disability, and thin equated with ability.  This narrative sucks (Revolting Fatty talks about this in a recent post entitled "Me and the Model- the Social Model").  The more the OMG obesipanic continues, the more that fat bodies will be considered ill and therefore disabled, even when they aren't.  This narrative makes it seem as if all of us fat crips would magically become abled if we just got off our fat asses and lost weight.  My weight had nothing to do with breaking my L5 vertebra.  I broke it because I had spondylolisthesis, didn't know it, and kept doing awesome feats of spine flexibility while being a semi-professional belly dancer.  I was certifiably fat before the injury, and after.  I was a fit fattie

Congrats to this fellow on his journey, but I'm bothered when someone who has had an amazing transformation of some variety makes it seem like this is attainable for every person.  Sometimes there isn't a magic cure.


  1. I saw this story before, in a video shot and edited by Arthur's son. http://youtu.be/suTPns5cy_Q
    I prefer the older video, because it really shows the struggle of the work Arthur did, and while it does highlight the weight loss, it's as much about the internal transformation than the external one. Changing from hopeless to hopeful is kind of huge, and that's what I really connected to in the video.
    It's hard to create an inspirational video that says "Yes, you CAN do this...except when you can't." Even though that's real life. We all have different abilities, even before sickness or damaged bodies come into play. And I'm also tired of fat being the lens through which all achievements, abilities, and disabilities are viewed.
    There's a really horrible ad on the talk radio station that makes me want to stab someone. Talking about overweight women and achievement...the ad says that women who are overweight achieve "at a lower level". The fix to that? Rather than going out to *do* something, the solution is to enroll in their weight loss program. Gah!