When I first discovered Frida Kahlo many years ago, something about her work called to me. During her lifetime her politics were decidedly leftist and revolutionary. She engaged in affairs with both men and women and her paintings centered on women, or more specifically herself. What’s not to like about this incredible woman? But there was something more to my love of her work that I could not articulate–that is until, like her, my body betrayed me.
Frida had health problems most of her life. She was a polio survivor and a tragic bus accident would leave her with chronic pain for the rest of her life. Her 1944 self-portrait “The Broken Column” was completed during a time when her health had taken a turn for the worst, and she had to wear a metal corset for five months. She called this contraption “punishment” because she hated it so much.
Only years later, now disabled myself, can I even begin to speak to what Frida Kahlo means to me. Frida is unwavering honesty. I have turned to this painting many times when I am angry and hurt– when the physical pain seems beyond endurance and no one really understands. I know that Frida understood. I know that she felt my rage and the betrayal of a backstabbing body
When you are TAB (Temporarily Able-Bodied) it is easy to take for granted the ability to move at will. Fitness seems right and proper; never does it occur to you that, in an instant, all that you know can change. The sheer strength of will that it takes to get through a day, is something the TAB are able to dedicate to other things.
We are told that we are courageous simply for existing, and this is supposedly a compliment. We are never to express our sorrow or how deeply the pain hurts. There is a desire to run from our broken bodies, as if somehow mere contact with our reality, our hurt, our pain, will make our condition transferable. It is our reality and therefore we can never run. We must face this and in many cases we must do so alone.
Frida forces you to look at her body, to look at its imperfections and see the pain. It is not just some minor inconvenience that can be shifted to another day. The pain must be experienced in the here and now, and everything must stop at its command. The pain has a life of its own; it is an entity that feeds off of our bodies and our strength for nutrients. We must live with it, and so the least you can do is bare witness to its awesome strength and debilitating structure.
Our pain terrifies you and this is why you refuse to look. This is why you refuse to see it for what it is and demand that we play super crip and smile pleasantries when you ask us how we are. This is why you tell us how good we look, as though the shadow of what we live with has not scarred us irrevocably. The pain is a constant companion and it has no master. Look at it and see it for what it is. Acknowledge how it makes you feel. I promise you that your fear is nothing compared to the awesomeness of our companion. It’s the fear of loss that scares you, the mourning and the sadness. When you see it and acknowledge it, you will know not only your own mortality but exactly how fragile and insignificant you are–but then Frida knew that, and that is why she painted it in the first place.
Image of Frida Kahlo from Flickr user oliveralex, under Creative Commons 3.0