The Brace/Borg

While I'm proud to be disabled, being in this kind of pain is not a lot of fun, so in November 1996 I obtained a referral to the aptly named Henry V. Crock, Consultant Spinal Surgeon at the Cromwell Hospital's Spinal Disorders Unit. He suggested that, since mobilising my spine through exercise only tended to aggravate the pain, immobilising it might allow the inflammation to calm down and perhaps even to heal permanently. He therefore referred me to Kelvin Smith, an orthotist based at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, who made a plaster cast of my body in order to mould me a custom-made spinal brace. As well as immobilising my spine, the brace would encourage me to stand naturally, if crookedly; twenty years of trying to force my body into having a "normal" silhouette - after being accused repeatedly by doctors of having "bad" posture - had not helped my pain.

The brace, which was made of plastic, covered the full length of my spine and was fastened tightly with a number of nylon straps. While I was delighted at the prospect of being in less pain, trying the brace on for the first time was a frightening experience. The feeling of being confined made me panic and hyperventilate, and the brace's appearance filled me with horror. Its white nylon straps were made of the same material as the fastenings on my racing dinghy. Its surgical pink surface took no account of ethnic difference: if you were "white", you were pink. Its shape exaggerated my waist and hips, while my breasts were the only part of my torso left exposed, creating a feminised, almost Edwardian silhouette. And the hospital had taken great care to ascertain my marital status, labelling it by my "lack" of a husband as belonging to "Miss" Gosling (a title which I never used) in a manner which suggested (rightly, but for the wrong reasons) that it would always be that way.

At this point I was only barely aware of the artist Frida Kahlo and had never seen her famous self-portrait in her brace, so I was unable to draw the inspiration from her which, thanks to the History of Modern Art and Design research students at Falmouth - who made the connection as soon as they met me - I later gained. Added to the fact that almost none of my clothes would fit either under or over the brace, I felt my identity dissolve; the brace had claimed me, borg-like, to wear it. I fitted into the brace, but the brace did not fit me. My androgynous image had vanished; instead the brace/borg exaggerated my femininity and impairment whilst conflating the two.

This increased my sense of confinement, a negative image of disability which I had always fought against. Like a wheelchair, the brace was meant to liberate me, by allowing me to do more than I could otherwise; like a wheelchair (despite most people's misconceptions), I could leave it when I wanted. But now my personality was trapped within the borg/brace. The only answer was to reassert my ownership, to assimilate the brace within myself rather than continuing to be assimilated by it.

Next: From Borg to Cyborg
Return to My Not-So-Secret Life as a Cyborg

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Dr Ju Gosling aka ju90's ABNORMAL: How Britain became body dysphoric and the key to a cure is available now for just 3.09 for the Kindle or in a limited-edition hardback with full-colour art plates for 20 inc UK postage and packing. Book cover