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Easy Beauty
Wheelers of Aristophane (triptych), 2021 Pen, fibre tipped markers, acrylic paint, and gouache on paper 17.25 x 13.25 inches (x3)Jess Johnson

This book explores what it’s like to navigate beauty in a disabled body

TextEllen Atlanta

Chloé Cooper Jones discusses her debut book Easy Beauty – an eye-opening exploration of beauty from someone who exists on the periphery of our cultural beauty ideals

“I am in a bar in Brooklyn, listening to two men, my friends, discuss whether my life is worth living.”

So begins Easy Beauty, the debut book and genre-bending memoir from philosophy professor and Pulitzer Prize-finalist writer Chloé Cooper Jones. It’s not the first time her body – its autonomy and inherent value – has been discussed in front of her. Not the first time it’s been discussed as though separate from her, the person sat right there, listening as friends, colleagues or strangers evaluate her existence, dismissing her perspective in the name of “objectivity”. It also won’t be the last.

Weaving together aesthetic philosophy, art history, travel writing and personal narrative, Easy Beauty is a confronting and eye-opening exploration of beauty from someone who exists on the periphery of our cultural beauty ideals. Born with a rare spinal condition called sacral agenesis, Cooper Jones has lived her life having to contend with not only her own physical limitations and chronic pain, but with the restrictions and definitions placed onto her body by others.

In an attempt to carve out a space in a conversation that has previously excluded her, Easy Beauty sees Cooper Jones embark on a quest to re-negotiate her perception of beauty – both the concept itself and the way she’s forgotten in it. Ahead of the book’s release tomorrow (April 5), we discuss easy versus difficult beauty, reclaiming space, and navigating beauty culture in a body that looks different to most.

Did you set out with the intention of challenging our perception of beauty – how we see and are seen – or was that something that happened organically?

Chloé Cooper Jones: It was something that happened pretty organically. Throughout the book, I go and seek out beauty wherever I am, and I’m thinking about how my own body fits into a discussion of beauty. The answer is that it just hasn’t been anywhere in the narrative. The idea of the disabled body being beautiful, there’s no narrative for that and there’s no history of that. In fact, the disabled body is always, stereotypically, seen as a lack or a deficit, something to pity or something that’s inherently inferior.

We’re in this moment where people are really expanding their conceptions of beauty more and more... but I think disability is still really far behind. Not totally absent, but still far behind.

I read Easy Beauty as a reappraisal of what beauty means, an attempt to remove that limited definition we hold around beauty in relation to our bodies.

Chloé Cooper Jones: That was very intentional, each chapter takes us to a different site of what could be termed ‘beauty’ [from art galleries in Rome to a Beyoncé concert]. It’s such an interesting word because what can often happen when we apply it to so many things, is that it just starts to lose its meaning altogether. Then people say things like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, which I hate. Like, why do we deflate this really important and weighty concept?

But at the same time, the other side of that spectrum was really hard to find too - to pinpoint beauty as an objective state. I think that’s great because it means that beauty is just a mysterious, shifting and complex idea. My hope is that throughout every chapter and throughout the movement of the book, a person’s relationship to that thorny idea of what we consider beauty to be, or what we recognise as beauty, is constantly shifting.

“No amount of exercise, no amount of product, is ever going to make me not a disabled woman. Conceptualising my own beauty in that way just felt impossible” – Chloé Cooper Jones

I love what you just said, that we can think of beauty as a shifting state, something that comes and goes. Instead of a goal or a singular point that we aim for, beauty can be moments that come to us throughout life in various guises, and it’s something we should just embrace when it appears. There’s a notion that no one is ever safe within our culture’s rigid and yet fluctuating beauty trends. They’re constantly cycling at an ever-faster rate – but surely there comes a point when we need to just stop partaking in this culture?

Chloé Cooper Jones: If you’re chasing those trends they’re going to constantly make you feel inadequate, but if you just let those things swirl around you, you have an opportunity to stand in the centre and think about them critically. You get to form your own core, rather than getting caught up in ephemeral things.

As I get older, I’m really thinking about what it means for me to think of myself as beautiful. And that’s not really a concept I had for a long time, because, especially when I was very young and reading magazines, all you do is look at these women and see a deficit. No amount of exercise, no amount of product, is ever going to make me not a disabled woman. Conceptualising my own beauty in that way just felt impossible. But then these women just kept changing, and it’s like, wait a minute, it’s actually not me that’s the deficit, the standard is just constantly shifting. No matter what I do, I would always be a little bit out of step or out of time, or doing something and then reversing it.

In Easy Beauty, you very much think of yourself (at least initially) as not a part of the conversation on beauty. The book feels to me like a reclamation of that space and of that word. Was it an empowering process? 

Chloé Cooper Jones: One of the core experiences of being disabled is being aware that there’s no space made for you or your body. People have very little imagination for what the disabled body is, how it takes up space or what it needs. The inaccessibility of the world is just everywhere. And so to talk about the disabled body moving in space is a very explicit, political and intentional thing to do. I love this idea of it being a reclamation, and I think it very much is, on a lot of different levels. 

It wasn’t a process in which everything got fixed, but a process in which my awareness increased, and that always feels like power. The forces of capitalism, misogyny, racism, ableism, have a lot of power because for the most part, they can operate quite invisibly. They’re working on us in such profound and subtle ways. We’re not going to get rid of these things overnight, but we can just lessen their ability to impact us subconsciously by increasing our awareness.

“The goal of this book is to shift your perspective so that you’ll see beauty differently” – Chloé Cooper Jones

How did you land on Easy Beauty as the title? What does it mean to you?

Chloé Cooper Jones: The idea comes from the philosopher Bernard Bosanquet, who talks about how there’s easy beauty in the world that hits you right away – like a rose. Then there’s difficult beauty, which requires an ability to sit with complexity and intention. Bosanquet says that you can identify difficult beauty if you’re more thoughtful, if you spend more time with something. I decided that I only deal with difficult beauty, that, as a disabled woman, I am difficult beauty. 

Bosanquet says that to be really good at recognising beauty, sometimes you have to allow the dissolution of your conventional world. You have to be able to reimagine your own ideas, and you have to allow yourself to be very wrong. I think a lot of the journey of the book is me thinking I’m doing that, but I’m not at all, instead I’m actually keeping myself at a very safe distance to keep that protection in place.

You speak throughout the book about beauty as a form of currency, but also you talk about utilising your disability as a form of currency. It’s something you consciously took advantage of at one point?

Chloé Cooper Jones: It can be a source of power to manipulate somebody’s stereotypes of you, especially when it feels oppressive, cruel or reductive. But the flip side of that is, by doing that I am – in some ways – reinforcing that stereotype. I do this in the Beyoncé chapter where I play on my disability to get into the VIP area, and I get what I want. But then I say to myself, my son can never see me do this. I’m never going to do this again. I’m never going to bolster that negative association, or play on people’s infantilising tendencies towards disabled people. It’s a cruel thing to do. And then in the next chapter, I do it again. Those things are ingrained in us so deeply, it’s so easy to revert to that behaviour.

I’d love to know what your main hope for the book is? 

Chloé Cooper Jones: The goal of this book is to shift your perspective so that you’ll see beauty differently. My biggest hope is that people feel like this book is about them and for them. I want people to feel like I’m engaging with them on an equal footing, there’s no judging or prescribing. This is a genuine invitation to a conversation that is not just about disability but is... as relevant to your life as it does to mine.

Easy Beauty: A Memoir by Chloé Cooper Jones is out on April 5 and is available to pre-order now.

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