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  • Anja K. Herrman

Ugly Laws

Updated: Mar 26

Welcome in! "Can I help you find anything today?” A cheery sales associate asked me the minute my wheelchair wheels crossed the threshold into my local makeup store.

“No thanks, I’m just browsing,” I said, my eyes blurring together at an alarming rate as I rushed to take in the entirety of the store, shelves bursting with every eye shadow palette imaginable and samples of perfume fighting to the death for dominance in my nostrils. Wait, so what am I looking for again? Today is probably not the day to try mascara (it’s allergy season!), but lipstick could work! I thought, as a bright red lipstick caught my eye.

I rolled over to the shelf, using the tester to swatch the bold color on the back of my hand, the startling crimson sparkling against the contrast of my pale skin. I tossed the package into my basket and turned towards the checkout aisle, when I was greeted by a myriad of posters of impossibly beautiful models, one of whom was modeling the product I was currently on my way to purchase. I stared at the photo, trying to see myself represented in it. Yes, she had curly hair like I did, and we both shared the same color eyes, but that was where the similarities ended.

A young white woman sitting on a wooden chair with wavy brown hair and glasses. She is smiling

I looked around at all the other advertisements and was left with more questions than reassurances: If makeup is supposed to be for everyone, how come there are no openly disabled people like me in these ads? We also have a right to express ourselves with these products, don’t we? I asked myself. Imposter syndrome started to take root, positioning itself deep inside my stomach and snaking itself up through my brain, poisoning my thoughts and forcing my hand to place the lipstick back on the shelf and quietly exit the store, the jingle of the bell serving as the only sign I had left the establishment.

As I started my trek back home, a realization solidified itself with sobering finality: As a disabled person, the beauty industry doesn’t see me as a worthy consumer of their products.

The beauty industry’s adverse reaction to my very existence has roots in American history, and those roots aren’t beautiful. The Ugly Laws, or the “unsightly beggar ordinances'' as they were called before 1970, were a group of governmental ordinances that ran from 1867 all the way up through 1974 that existed to stop anyone law enforcement deemed “an unsightly or disgusting object” from being out in public. Mainly found in big cities, these laws targeted beggars and visibly disabled people since they were seen as “visual disturbances'' and aimed to shuttle them out of public view.

Thankfully, in 2022, there are no longer laws that call disabled people “visual disturbances.” Legislators finally decided to recognize disabled people as full members of society by removing those ordinances from city law books, with the last one being repealed nearly 50 years ago. But even though the Ugly Laws no longer exist, the beauty industry still has a long way to go in embracing everyone and broadening their definition of who’s “worthy” of using their products because the answer should be everyone!

At the end of the day, I am the one who decides what I want to put on my body, and that sentiment extends to makeup. It is not me who needs to catch up with the beauty industry, but the industry that needs to catch up with me and all of the other disabled people who also want to use makeup.

Anja K. Herrman is a sixteen-year-old disabled writer whose work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Input Magazine, and USA Today, among others. She's been recognized in the Ann Friedman Weekly, won the 2019 VSA Primary Division Playwriting Competition at the Kennedy Center, and was a Top 5 finalist for the 2021 Sarah’s Inn Youth Voice Award. You can connect with Anja Instagram at @iamakh2044 or on Twitter at @anjakherrman.


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