While a person’s identity is important to their understanding of the world, it does not define who they are.
“Would you be interested in writing a personal story about dating and disfigurement?” An editor at a well-known women’s fashion magazine asked me in an email. “We’re interested in the ways dating with disfigurement makes you feel unattractive, and how you cope with the challenges of trying to find a partner.” I had emailed the woman to pitch a feel-good article about creative date night activities, and this was the response I received.
I have Crouzon syndrome — a rare craniofacial condition where the bones in the head fuse prematurely. My face is disfigured, yes, but I do not believe myself to be unattractive. Neither does my boyfriend — a man I’ve been in a loving, committed relationship with for nearly three years. I reread the woman’s email once more to be sure I hadn’t missed something — to be sure I hadn’t somehow provoked her comment. Then I stared blankly at the screen, too appalled to form a reply that wasn’t riddled with expletives. Had this woman really asked me to write an article about how it feels to be too “unattractive” to date? Perhaps this is naivety talking, but I believed a magazine targeting women and teenage girls would be aimed at building confidence and empowering women to be strong and comfortable in their own skin — to celebrate beauty in whatever form it came. Instead, the editor reinforced the harmful societal belief I’ve spent my whole life silencing: that I am my physical appearance.
As a writer, it is my job to write about my disfigurement, to break it down in small, manageable, bite-sized chunks of information for individuals without craniofacial differences to understand. I do this to eliminate the stigma of disfigurement. I also do it because the stories in which I talk about my physical differences are often times the only pitches editors accept. Whether I write an article with a news peg, or a separate reported piece about issues unrelated to my physical appearance, I am more often than not asked to change the angle to write about myself, or it won’t be accepted. Either that, or the angle is changed after I sign a contract, and without my prior knowledge or consent.
While it’s great that news outlets and publications are publishing more marginalized voices and telling diverse stories, to be pigeonholed into only writing about one thing is both frustrating and harmful. We are more than one aspect of our identity.
To be pigeonholed into only writing about one thing is both frustrating and harmful.
The lack of diverse perspectives in articles, news, and media is a disservice to the general population. While a person’s identity is important to their understanding of the world, it does not define who they are. To better understand the world, we need to hear unique voices and perspectives. Pigeonholing writers and pigeonholing people means we lose out on the perspectives of marginalized people on important issues and topics, because they’re only ever commissioned to write about their identity explicitly.
This phenomenon has been experienced by women and minorities alike. Alaina Leary, a queer, disabled editor and writer knows this firsthand. “Editors have no doubt asked me to spell out my disabilities even in pieces that are not supposed to be related to disability, most likely to seem woke,” Leary told me. But like many marginalized writers who are used to being defined by one element of who their identity, Leary, who often pitches a wide range of both disability and non-disability related topics, appreciates when she’s able to write about topics without her identity coming into play.
“One of the best examples comes from The Rumpus, which put out a call for disabled writers but did NOT require my story to have anything to do with disability. I loved that. They were clearly interested in having more disabled voices but not in boxing us into the ‘typical’ disability stories, or even to writing about disability at all. My piece had absolutely nothing to do with my disability and never even mentioned it; it was all about my dad. My editor never once asked me about my disability,” she said.
Still, too many publications fail to recognize the importance of celebrating diversity, and ultimately cross the line into being exploitative. “There’s been at least a couple instances where I was the only LGBTQ writer on staff at a publication and I would get assigned every single LGBTQ-related story, even those I didn’t feel I should be writing, and I was never assigned other topics because I was the only person they felt ‘could’ cover LGBTQ topics. It was nice that they didn’t want to assign these things to straight cis people, since that’s what many publications do, but I felt really pigeonholed,” Leary said.
The fact that writers are being pigeonholed can at least in part be attributed to the overall lack of diversity in publishing. A 2015 study on diversity in publishing by Lee & Low Books looked at data from eight review journals and 34 publishers in North America. Data revealed something that most in the industry wouldn’t find too surprising: The publishing industry isn’t that diverse. According to the study’s results, 79% of people in the industry are white; 78% are cis-women; 88% are heterosexual; and 92% are nondisabled. Data from editorial departments weren’t much better. Eighty-two percent of editorial staff is white; 84% are cis-women; 86% are heterosexual; and 92% are without any kind of disability.
Too many publications fail to recognize the importance of celebrating diversity, and ultimately cross the line into being exploitative.
This lack of diversity affects which stories get written and by whom. While it’s great that the internet and mainstream media have worked to amplify the voices of those who desperately need to be heard, they’ve also begun to stereotype many of us — limiting our identities as people and our work as writers to only one aspect of who we are. Diversity in newsrooms and in publishing houses (and even in universities) would normalize the presence and the perspectives of underrepresented identities. Increased diversity would help people to understand that pigeonholing limits both the knowledge and the cultural and identity perspective that could otherwise be shared.
On one hand, marginalized groups deal with inaccurate representation. On the other hand, when we do write about our own stories to highlight larger cultural and societal issues, we often become labeled and the scope of our work becomes limited.
To make matters worse, we’re often expected to work for almost no money. Many well-known publications — including several that work primarily with marginalized writers — pay just $50 for pieces over 1,000 words. “Freelance isn’t free, and it’s ridiculous that a media juggernaut like Condé Nast repeatedly accepts stories and then ghosts writers, never to publish their work or pay them for services rendered. And when these writers are paid, it is often pennies to the dollar when compared to non-marginalized writers,” Alexis Dent wrote in her article “Is Conde Nast Exploiting Marginalized Writers?” Dent’s article includes screenshots from numerous marginalized writers who were taken advantage by large publications who could’ve easily afforded to pay them.
“It’s offensive that marginalized writers are being treated so horribly. What’s the point of being #woke if you’re actually still contributing to an environment that puts POC, queer, and nonbinary people down?” Dent wrote.
Still, for many marginalized writers, financial need outweighs the frustration. In a report from the Center for Media Literacy, Carlos Cort wrote the following:
“In recent years minorities have achieved a long overdue media presence. But crucial issues of portrayal and participation remain to be resolved. And once inside the door, problems continue — personal isolation, difficulty in entering upper-level management, lack of influence, career hazards. Minority journalists often face the dilemma of balancing their social commitment to provide better coverage of minority communities against their fears of being ‘ghettoized’ to the ‘minority beat’ and thereby having their professional careers restricted. Minority actors find themselves caught between the need to find roles in which they can hone their craft and earn a living, and the recognition that many of these roles may contribute to public negative stereotyping.”
Freelancers often can’t afford to speak up, for fear of being blacklisted by other outlets. I am one of these writers. But though I write about my physical appearance, medical condition, and occasionally dating, I will never write about myself or anyone else as being too “unattractive” to find love. I don’t care what byline it costs me.
Though magazines and editors may try to tell some of us that we do not fit their mold, I will not conform to anyone’s small-minded definition of beauty. I will not limit my myself or my work. I will proudly take up space and write the stories I believe in, because my disfigurement does not, and will not, define me.