Prosthetic Power

Aimee Mullins redefines beauty and the body

| July-August 2009

This is part of a series of stories on design and disability from the July-August 2009 Utne Reader. For more read “ Form and Fashion ,” “ Building a Better Arm ,”  The Future of Prosthetics ,” and “ The Hype and Hope of Prosthetics .”

Aimee Mullins has become the fashionable face of disability and a spokeswoman for the promise of high-tech prosthetics. Her appearance in magazines, on television shows, and on speaking stages with her carbon fiber running legs or her other state-of-the-art prosthetics has been part of what she describes as “a new conversation” about disability.

Mullins was born without fibular bones; both of her legs were amputated below the knee when she was an infant. She learned to walk on prosthetics, then to run, competing as a champion sprinter in college. She is a model and actress, having appeared as a catlike creature in the art film Cremaster 3. This is an excerpt from “How My Legs Give Me Superpowers,” a speech she gave at the 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. —The Editors

  I was speaking to a group of kids at a children’s museum, and I brought with me a bag full of legs and had them laid out on a table. Kids are naturally curious about what they don’t know, or don’t understand, or what is foreign to them. They only learn to be frightened of those differences when an adult influences them to behave that way and censors that natural curiosity. I pictured a first-grade teacher out in the lobby saying, “Now, whatever you do, don’t stare at her legs.”

But, of course, that’s the point. That’s why I was there—I wanted to invite them to look and explore. So I made a deal with the adults that the kids could come in, without any adults, for two minutes. The doors open; the kids descend on this table of legs, and they are poking and prodding, and they’re wiggling toes, and they’re trying to put their full weight on the sprinting leg to see what happens. And I said, “I woke up this morning and I decided I wanted to be able to jump over a house. If you could think of any animal, any superhero, any cartoon character, anything you can dream up right now, what kind of legs would you build me?”

Immediately a voice shouted, “Kangaroo!” “Should be a frog!” “It should be Go Go Gadget!” “It should be the Incredibles.” And then one 8-year-old said, “Hey, why wouldn’t you want to fly too?” And the whole room, including me, was like, “Yeah.” Just like that, I went from being a woman these kids would have been trained to see as disabled to somebody who had potential that their bodies didn’t have yet. Somebody who might even be super-abled. Interesting.

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