Real Simple is a magazine aimed at primarily white, almost exclusively able-bodied women, all of whom are beautiful and have perfectly clean homes. The Real Simple woman regards a single $110 Babaton Thurlow sweater as a budget-friendly purchase and probably saved the money to buy it by turning ice cube trays into jewelry organizers and using pine cones harvested from her own lawn as place card holders at her famously well-hostessed dinner parties. Even with her stressful but fulfilling office job and catching up with her personal trainer at the gym, the Real Simple woman finds the time to make a dinner of open-faced roasted veggie sandwiches for her husband and kids. She does all this confidently and independently, of course, but her long-time subscription to Real Simple magazine certainly helps her iron out all the tricky little details of living such a perfect life.
I am in love with the Real Simple woman, though our affair is undoubtedly one-sided. I break up with her when she tries to convince me to take a sabbatical from work even though I’m a part-time food service worker or when my gifted subscription runs out and I’m too broke to renew. Even when we’re not on speaking terms I’ll pull out the big binder of all the Real Simple clippings I’ve saved she’s sent me and think of the life she wanted to share with me as I look over a page recommending the best colors to paint a guest room and sigh. The Real Simple woman doesn’t understand, but she does send me a short relaxation tip to paste in my journal every month anyway.
“I am in love with the Real Simple woman, though our affair is undoubtedly one-sided.”
That’s the problem, though. Real Simple consistently delivers the kindest, most comforting versions of the standard “Have you tried yoga?” response to physical or psychiatric disability because it fails to envision an audience with those disabilities. It recommends “budget” $80 jeans because it cannot reconcile being fashionable with being poor. There is at least a token effort to keep the voices and faces featured on its pages diverse, but you can’t shake the feeling that it’s only skin deep. It is capable of engaging with the realities of class, sexuality, ability, or race for an article but cannot sustain such complexity from cover to cover. It’s a necessary delusion; in order to sell the modern American Dream to women, it must appeal to as wide an audience as possible by refusing to recognize the ways in which that dream is not open to everyone. Everything must be real simple, or it all falls apart.
To live a disabled life is to become intimate with limits. When you acquire or realize your disability in early adulthood, the transition to independence is complicated by having to reinvent the wheel to get anything done. Self-awareness is hard won, and self-advocacy – setting boundaries, requesting accommodations, and speaking up for yourself – is a hard skill to practice. It’s just hard carving out space in a world that’s not built for us.
For a full year now, every Sunday my roommate and I host a ragtag group of friends for a big home-cooked dinner. Almost all of us are queer or disabled, or both. Food and family are simple for few, but for a few precious hours every week, we make some of both together. With food cooking, smoke in the air, and noise levels high, it can be challenging for people with sensory issues. (Hosts included.) Spoons are hard to come by when you’re disabled, both in the figurative and literal sense when accounting for the energy required to clean up after everyone’s gone, so we’ve mostly switched to disposable cutlery. It’s complicated and messy, and every week we get a little better at it. These complications are not a burden because basic accommodations are never a burden. There are some barriers we can’t break. We can’t make our small rented apartment wheelchair accessible, but we can foster an environment where people feel able to advocate for their own needs, and supported when they do.
Real Simple has gotten me through a lot of these with its new recipe inspirations and enough pictures of well-decorated homes to style our apartment after. I’m genuinely grateful for the advice and information always at my fingertips in clippings or the slowly growing shelf of back issues I keep in the dining room cabinet. I have never thrown away an issue, even the ones from which I meticulously extracted every personally relevant or interesting clipping. After all, I have literally bought into the Real Simple dream; I, too, have to labor under the illusion that one day, I’ll get to live it.
I have wanted to be a real simple woman for a very long time, but the truth of it is, I never will. Some days, even calling myself a woman is too much. I will be an autistic, mentally ill lesbian with hypermobility syndrome for the rest of my life, and that life will never be simple. The profound mix of alienation and longing I experience every time I flip through a new Real Simple issue only fuels my conviction that queer disabled people deserve to dream too. The Real Simple woman and I can’t make a life together as we are, but I can cut up, remix, and rebuild her vision of the ideal future into something that is complicated but accessible, something that is more real for it. •
All photos courtesy of Emma Johnson
Emma Johnson is a volunteer archival librarian from Louisville, Kentucky. In her spare time she tries to chronicle the Louisville arts renaissance, reads hockey scores like horoscopes, and chronically stress-bakes. You can find her on twitter, or her arts renaissance project on tumblr.