Tiaras! Make-up! Gowns! Sashes! Speeches! (And some drama). These are all part of the glitz of beauty pageants in Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America, which follows contestants through the Ms. Wheechair America 2010 competition. By opening with Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2009 Amber Marcy skydiving, director Alexis Ostrander lets us know these women are not victims, but participants, if not contenders, in life.
Ms. Wheelchair America is open to women ages 21 to 60, who are confined full time to a wheelchair. This
unique beauty pageant is a competition based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities.
For the 2010 pageant, twenty-seven representatives who had won in their state’s annual competition compete for the crown. Ms. Wheelchair America 2009 Michelle Colvard explains that the the event
celebrate[s] the accomplishment of women who just happen to use wheelchairs.
While these women may be in wheelchairs, their wheelchairs are not what define them. They surf, race cars, raise their kids, date and enjoy sex, as well as give their time for advocacy and assisting others in similar situations. During an outing, contestant Alyson Roth tags a wall–redefining not only perceptions of the wheelchair bound, but of a “good” Christian woman!
The contestants openly discuss the circumstances that put them in wheelchairs and frankly explain bodily functions, giving strong reasons why we should leave the disabled stalls free in public restrooms.
The film takes us not only through the pageant but also into their background and everyday lives. We watch as they cope with their lives, from dealing with their own recalcitrant children to counseling young people who have recently been confined to wheelchairs. One of tonight’s guests, Ana Calvo, whose mother was given thalidomide when pregnant with her. Now chair for the City of Houston’s Commission for People with Disabilities, Ana adapts to modern technology using her tongue to text, and jokes, when asked by pageant organizers if she wants heels or sneakers, that she’s into purses.
North Carolina’s Erika Bogen stresses her background as a domestic abuse survivor–the reason for her injuries–and as a single mother of three children; but we learn the truth, a different version of her story, and one which the organization does as well, formally requesting that she no longer represent herself as having sole custody of her children.
Miss Wheelchair 2009 New Jersey, Santina Muha, didn’t want to be a disability advocate. Instead of trying out for wheelchair basketball in high school, she made the cheerleading squad–as the only cheerleader in a wheelchair. And she competed in the mainstream Miss New Jersey contest–talent, bathing suit and evening gown–again the only contestant in a wheelchair. Sensing Santina is a strong competitor, Alyson spreads a rumor that Santina has made inappropriate videotapes for “devotees,” men with a fetish for women in wheelchairs, which are available on the Internet.
In spite of that , these women articulate a beauty of the spirit and soul as they redefine their lives and the notion of beauty. Jannette Saxton Ms. Wheelchair 2009 Washington, put it well when she says:
I didn’t do this for the win. It wasn’t to put on the bling. It was to make an difference and to get to know all these amazing women. That’s a gift.
As is this film.