From the disability rights advocate and creator of the #DisabledAndCute viral campaign, a thoughtful, inspiring, and charming collection of essays exploring what it means to be black and disabled in a mostly able-bodied white America.
Keah Brown loves herself, but that hadn’t always been the case. Born with cerebral palsy, her greatest desire used to be normalcy and refuge from the steady stream of self-hate society strengthened inside her. But after years of introspection and reaching out to others in her community, she has reclaimed herself and changed her perspective.
In The Pretty One, Brown gives a contemporary and relatable voice to the disabled—so often portrayed as mute, weak, or isolated. With clear, fresh, and light-hearted prose, these essays explore everything from her relationship with her able-bodied identical twin (called “the pretty one” by friends) to navigating romance; her deep affinity for all things pop culture—and her disappointment with the media’s distorted view of disability; and her declaration of self-love with the viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute.
By “smashing stigmas, empowering her community, and celebrating herself” (Teen Vogue), Brown and The Pretty One aims to expand the conversation about disability and inspire self-love for people of all backgrounds.
The Pretty One INTRODUCTION Hey, friends! My name is Keah and I’m cute as hell. I love popular culture, music, cheesecake, cheeseburgers, and pizza. I dance in cars with my friends and again at their weddings. We sing songs down store aisles and play cards for hours. I live-tweet TV shows and laugh at my own jokes. I text my friend Danielle Sepulveres about Christmas movies and watch the Hallmark Channel for hours. When I am alone, I thoroughly enjoy playing The Sims. I am obsessed with lipsticks and I am trying and failing to learn the art of applying eye shadow. (I hope that you read all of that in the same vein as the intro to the Nickelodeon show The Wild Thornberrys, because that was my intent, though I don’t think it lines up quite as nicely as I would have liked it to.)
My point is that I do all these things in a disabled body, not because I am brave or bold, but because I like doing them and I would love doing them in any body. I adapt to the world because I have to do so in order to live. My disability is cerebral palsy, and it affects the right side of my body, effectively altering my motor skills and reaction time as well as the strength of my bones on that side. I don’t do things in spite of anything—except for maybe the people who told me I’d be nothing and no one. I don’t mind being an inspiration if it is for a valid reason, such as admiring how many slices of pizza I ate, an essay or an article I wrote, my clothing choices, or how quickly I can learn the lyrics to songs. As long as the inspiration doesn’t come with pity or self-congratulatory pats on the back, I am all for it. Let my love for cheesecake inspire you the way it will one day inspire a nation. At least you can say you were there first.
Before I hop on a soapbox, let me stop and share some fun but key facts about myself. Let’s start with music: Paramore and Demi Lovato are my favorite musicians, and music has been a huge part of my journey so far. I tell myself that my love for TV is balanced only by my love for books, so it’s fitting that I became a writer, in order to write about TV and fight for proper representation in media for people who look like me, and a journalist, in order to talk to musicians, writers, and actors. I love doing both, so don’t even bother asking me to choose. I like getting lost in other people’s worlds for a while—it takes the pressure off having to answer for my disabled body and sit in the contempt that some people have for it—and I like talking to people and figuring out how and why they became who they became. I hate winter even though I live in western New York, where it snows so much that it has felt like a personal attack on my life, for all my life.
Apart from the weather where I live, my life experience is far exceeding my expectations. I never thought anyone would want to hear what I had to say until I started telling stories and talking about the things and people that matter to me. The truth is this: I’ve always felt average, plain, and wrong, but there is nothing average, plain, or wrong about me, and it took me only half my life so far to figure that out. I wrote an entire book and you are gearing up to read it. How cool is that? So cool.
Sometimes, it is beautiful to prove yourself wrong.
A thing that happens when you’re tasked with writing a book is that you start to learn new things about yourself while you write to contend with your past. Who I am at present is a person who loudly and proudly gives a damn about herself, other people, and the world at large. Caring is fun, and I find that it has made me both happier and healthier, though I wish that I could care less about the opinions of naysayers. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that, so I’m guessing there is still time to change and reach my final form. When writing this book, I had to remind myself that who I had been in the past is important, too, and I try my hardest to remember that, instead of hiding her away out of embarrassment. In any case, I am unable to go back in time and tell her what I think she knows now. If I did that, though, who knows if any of this would still be possible? I won’t let wishful time travel get in the way of my experience.
There is still so much left to learn. One of the biggest things that I am discovering is that I should learn to sit in my joy longer and not immediately apologize for being proud and happy. My happiness and joy are still relatively new because I started embracing them only four years ago, and while they are still growing, changing, and taking form in new and exciting ways, where I am now and where I am going are possible only because of where I was.
What I can see now is that I was always cute. I look at old pictures and see a girl whose smile was wide and face was full but who didn’t see her beauty. I smiled widely for a girl who didn’t like waking up and seeing herself, because she didn’t want anyone else to know the truth, which she let out only when she was alone. It is my belief that sometimes we keep secrets and hide our deepest insecurities because we believe that if other people found them out they would agree and believe them to be true, too. At least, this was why I tried my hardest not to let on how depressed and angry I was. (But I’m certain now that I wasn’t as good at hiding my feelings as I thought I was.)
At the time, I didn’t recognize that I was feeding into the narrative of shame and disability that society had created: that Keah saw someone so broken that she could never be whole again. Yes, my insecurities were self-made, but they had been encouraged and influenced by a society that had taught me early on that I was not supposed to feel beautiful in a body like mine. I was supposed to hate it until the day I died. The minute I stopped listening to that kind of thinking was the minute I started living.
I am a twenty-six-year-old black woman with a physical disability who is much more than her disability. However, I understand that the erasure of disability in our society is just as harmful as the negative portrayals of disability throughout our society. For a really long time I believed that ignoring my disability and tucking it into the deepest parts of myself would make it go away. But that isn’t the way the world works, and that is no way to live. My disability is not a thing to see past but instead a thing to acknowledge and accept before able-bodied people and I continue existing at the same time in this world. I have both physical and invisible disabilities, and I refuse to be ashamed of them, because they are beautiful in their uniqueness and their familiarity. They are mine, but they also belong to a world of others, and that makes them worthy of my appreciation and acceptance.
When I sat down to write this collection, I decided that honesty would be the basis of the essays you will read. Honesty in the face of sadness, imperfection, anger, grief, and joy. Now that I have joy, I never want to let it go. I want to smother it like a middle-aged mother who is sending her son off to college or a father who lingers at the door after his child has left for her very first date—until his wife softly pats him on the arm before pulling him away. (I watch a lot of Hallmark movies, as I said, where these things happen, so just go with it.) I find that in order for me to be the best version of myself, these stories have to be told, because I need to forgive myself for who I was in order to become who I am becoming. The saying goes that no idea is original but that the people who share the idea and stories are—that has to count for something, right? Black disabled women aren’t the ones you see on store bookshelves; we aren’t the ones you catch at literary events and on bestseller lists. I want to change that, and the best way I know how is through the written word. I write to feel seen and heard. I write so that I cannot be ignored. My words are my announcement that I am here—and that I am not going anywhere.
These stories must live on in printed pages so that I can keep the people in them forever, so that when I am gone no one will be able to say that Keah Brown did not choose to live a life she was proud of. I am a black woman with cerebral palsy who loves herself now, and most days that feels like a revolutionary act. It took a lot of work to get to this place, a fountain of tears, grief, and loss, but I’m here, and it is beautiful.
I think in order to get where we are going I’ve got some bases to cover. When this book is first released into the world, I will be twenty-seven, and that’s a big deal to me. First, because I am terrible at math and my twin sister had to tell me that we would not be twenty-eight when these words are first read. (This was bittersweet news, because a thing to know about me is that even numbers are my jam. They’ve been so good to me. Some of the most monumental things that have happened to me involved even numbers. I went to San Diego Comic-Con in 2014 with my friends and saw Paramore and Fall Out Boy in concert, and in 2016 I learned to love my body and the person in it. A year later, when I was twenty-six, I went viral after creating #DisabledAndCute, a hashtag that began as a celebration of that newfound love, and then I landed an agent and a book deal in the same year. I’m flexing a little, but these are the best examples I have.) Who knows where I will be when both you and I read these words bound in book form? But wherever I am, know that I am grateful and excited to share these stories of my life and the world around me with you.
The real star here, though, is #DisabledAndCute, my firstborn child. I had her on February 12, 2017, at 12:48 p.m. She weighed . . . I won’t do that to you. You know how parents say they don’t have a favorite child and that they love all their children equally? I believe it, but I also believe that there’s special care and attention that comes with the first. My hashtag means the world to me and this book does, too, so I try hard to give them equal love and attention. I think it’s working. At least when it comes to the hashtag and the book. In my human family, I refer to myself as the second firstborn, and I believe I am my mother’s favorite—but that’s another story. We should get back to the hashtag before my brother and sister learn the truth.
I didn’t create my hashtag in the hopes that it would go viral and change my life, but that’s exactly what happened. A celebration of myself became a place of community in which people from all walks of life began celebrating themselves and each other. The hashtag has given me the opportunity to speak in places like Portland, Oregon, and Greencastle, Indiana, about ethics, representation, and my hopes for the future. The hashtag has given me a place to belong and a thing to hold on to during the rough days while also helping me build an audience to get my other work in front of willing eyes and ears.
I dream of a life in which someone loves me romantically and in which I can attend my ten-year high school reunion with enough success to make everyone who doubted me jealous. (This is an admittedly silly dream that would feel a bit like the reunion in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, except I wouldn’t be lying about the Post-its but would absolutely keep the ending dance number.) Yet remember what I said about honesty. I did also dream of writing this book, and I did it, so literally anything and everything else feels possible now. The lesson I am learning in this life is that people give a damn much more than we might think possible.
Right now, I live in a city famous only for its locks along the Erie Canal. I live here with my mother, Cheryl; my twin sister, Leah; and my brother, Eric; as well as my aunts, cousins, and uncles. I live here while I dream of living in Los Angeles and calling the sunny locale my home. Before I turn that dream into reality, I spend too much time in Walmart, TJ Maxx, and Rue 21 for anyone’s comfort. I attend sporadic game nights at my friend Demetrius’s house. And I buy clothes online when I am having a bad day and need a pick-me-up. I live in a place of comfort that is all I have ever known, but I am ready to leave it for new adventures, knowing that I’ll always have the people to come back to even when the home is no longer where it was.
My writing practices are routine. I write and interview people while sitting on my bed. I watch TV there, too, and I fall in love with fictional characters and make up scenarios to keep myself from feeling unlovable. I have a character or characters whom I love for every day of the week, depending on the show I’m watching that day. I love these characters—some romantically and some like you might love a puppy or a small child. In my real life, though, there is a bit of irony in knowing that I love myself even though someone else hasn’t yet chosen to. The kind of love that I want now is of the romantic variety. I have more love from my friends and family than I have deserved sometimes. We don’t have perfect relationships, of course; we still fight and yell and hurt each other the way you do as human beings, but the love is loud and unchanging. My friends and family loved me first, before any success I have had, before any partnerships with clothing companies or TV spots, and before I loved or liked myself. In many ways, this collection of essays is a love letter to them and how their love and support got me to this place.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the idea and practice of places. There are the inaccessible places with broken railings and elevators. There are the comfortable and beautiful places that feel like home and possibility. And there are the places that fall somewhere in between, that are neither good nor bad but exist just the same, like the Medium Place on NBC’s The Good Place. That is the magic of place: it can be anything and everything all at once. I said in a poem once that I often think of my body as a place and not a thing. But my body became a place, a home, only when I started loving it. Before love, my body was a thing, a cage holding me hostage and keeping me when I desperately wanted to be elsewhere. Before love, my body was a thing to pity and hate, a thing for other people to look at and feel grateful wasn’t theirs.
The world, in many ways, still sees me and my body this way. Disabled bodies are often used to make the able-bodied feel better about their own bodies; we are a reminder that “it could be worse.” I fight anyway for all people to live their best lives, except Nazis, racists, transphobes, homophobes, and the like. I don’t care how they feel. I hope they have the worst days and karma does what it has to do when the time comes.
I refuse to be a reminder of someone’s worst-case scenario again. If you need me to be a reminder, I will be your reminder that things will get better. I will be a reminder that people like me exist and thrive and that we aren’t going anywhere. Long gone are the days of silence and complacency. I will see and be seen, and I no longer care about the comfort of those who would rather I be quiet or wait my turn for proper and positive representation in our culture and mainstream media. Disabled people are at once invisible and a burden. In the rare event that Hollywood decides to depict us, we are seen only as white male wheelchair users who hate themselves. There is nothing inherently wrong about telling the stories of the white and male wheelchair users—their stories are important—but there are also other stories worth telling.
My hope is that this collection will help change the preconceived notion of what disability looks like. My hope is that these stories will encourage you to confront your own biases and ideals while reading about experiences outside of your own. My hope is that you will understand that this collection is a journey of joy and acceptance.
The Pretty One is a collection for the people who give a damn, for the girl who saw her differences as dangerous and ugly, who lived most of her life trying desperately to wish herself into another body, for the person who just wants to experience joy through a little sadness and laughter along the way. The Pretty One is for you, the person choosing to read it. I hope you have fun reading my words and laugh at all the appropriate and inappropriate parts that have made my life what it is so far. So turn the page, and let’s do this thing!
Keah Brown is a journalist, freelance writer, and activist. She has written about living with cerebral palsy in Teen Vogue, Essence, Catapult, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the State University of New York at Fredonia and she has a love for popular culture and cheesecake. She lives in New York with her family.
“Representation matters—and as a Black woman with a physical disability, Keah Brown offers a refreshing narrative from several intersecting communities whose stories have historically been overlooked. But the most important label she sports is writer—and her honest essays force those of us who are able-bodied and white and privileged in a host of different ways to confront our own biases and behaviors about disability, to walk in her shoes for a few hundred pages (resting when necessary!), and ultimately to celebrate her compelling voice. The Pretty One is a game-changer.” —Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Small Great Things and A Spark of Light
“This inspiring collection introduces a charming and meditative new voice. Keah Brown’s THE PRETTY ONE is a welcome addition to the conversation on self-love.”—Deepak Chopra
“Keah Brown doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her; she wants something far more complex, and far funnier. With her passion, humor and keen insight into the politics of living in a body often deemed ‘other’ or ‘less than,’ Keah shows us that despite the challenges she is dealt, she is true ‘goals.’ I stan.” —Lena Dunham
"Keah Brown is a force to be reckoned with, and The Pretty One is a soaring debut that marks her introduction to the literary world. Her writings about love, disability, chairs she has loved, and more uniquely declare the following: get ready to feel all the feelings, for here is an important new voice." —Esmé Weijun Wang, New York Times bestselling author of The Collected Schizophrenias and The Border of Paradise
“What does it mean to live at the intersections of blackness, womanhood, and disability? In her admirable debut, The Pretty One, Keah Brown answers this question with heart, charm, and humor. Across twelve finely-crafted essays, Brown explores the matter of representation in popular culture, the vulnerability of facing self-loathing and learning to love herself, the challenge of repairing fractured relationships with family, the yearning for romantic love. Through her words we see that Brown is not just the pretty one; she is the magnificently human one.” —Roxane Gay
“In her candid memoir, author Keah Brown comes across as an affable seatmate on a long flight. Her writing is comfortable, conversational, and woven with ribbons of hard-earned self-awareness. . . . There is humor and heart here, as one might correctly expect coming from the creator of the viral #disabledandcute hashtag.” —Bust
“By collaging pop cultural dictums alongside experiences of physical pain and encounters with the world's disregard for her disabled body, Brown presents herself for what she is—a radical amalgam of vulnerable girlishness and wizened strength….VERDICT Readers with lives like Brown's will find solace in this debut; others will be similarly moved by her honesty and carbonated wit.”—Library Journal
“The cultural narrative surrounding disability has long been overdue for a complete overhaul, and in her debut book, The Pretty One, Keah Brown offers her refreshing, joyful voice to this movement.” —The Millions
“Witty and insightful…This book would be a great choice for anyone interested in social justice, disability rights, or just interested in learning more about a fun, funny, beautiful woman.” —Booklist
“Brown delivers insights in a refreshing and entertaining way.” —Washington Post
“A hopeful, relatable memoir about a twenty-something just trying to figure out the world and her place in it.” —Bustle