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Tim Rushby-Smith

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Tim studied at Chelsea School of Art before working variously as a painter and decorator, printer, barman, telephone engineer, landscape gardener and tree surgeon, while continuing to practice as an artist and writer. His first book, a memoir entitled Looking Up, was published in April 2008. He lives with his wife and daughter in Hackney, east London, and is mostly happy. Keep up with Tim via his blog.

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Show us yer legs

A couple of months ago I was browsing a wheelchair tennis magazine and was surprised to note I was finding the pictures unsettling. It took a while to realise it was because the disabled players were all wearing shorts.
Tim in his wheelchair with his legs pixellated
A couple of months ago I was browsing a wheelchair tennis magazine and was surprised to note I was finding the pictures unsettling. It took a while to realise it was because the disabled players were all wearing shorts.
This is, in part, because I have a large burn on my left knee from an accident with a hot shower ... but, if I'm honest, the reluctance is there mainly because I'm not very attached to my legs anymore.

I don't like the look of them. I used to. They're long and they had the recommended number and shape of muscles for someone 6 feet 2 and active. Although my legs are still long, and I am still 6 feet 2, I now spend most of my time folded up. The muscles have now all retired from active service, and have instead taken to enthusiastically obeying the forces of gravity. It's almost as if they are hiding from me, blancmanging down to the lowest point.

All this serves to highlight that I have some issues with my body image and I'm sure that I can't be alone in this. The media-driven pressures placed upon everyone to gain a toned, muscular or size zero body are felt particularly acutely when you're disabled, as we are even more likely to be a different shape with those traditionally beautiful shapes less achievable.

Ironically, if you look at most of the clothing ranges out there specifically made for wheelchair-users, you might conclude that the designers don't expect you to want to look good or desirable anyway. No one is looking. All bets are off. So perhaps I shouldn't spend so much time worrying about what I look like.

I know that the majority of wheelies are, well, older, but that doesn't mean we all want to be attired in elasticated, Velcro-fastened, beige, wipe-clean comfywear. And incidentally I hate the word 'wheelie' - it makes us sound like something you get free in a box of breakfast cereal.

During rehabilitation, following my spinal cord injury, I remember rolling onto my side and being horrified at the sight of my legs - especially my hips. I was reminded of haunting images of mass graves in the World At War documentary series. The completely flaccid muscles and protruding shape of my bones made me feel as if I were looking down on the 'dead' half of my body.

While I was trying to come to terms with this sudden and shocking change in my appearance, I was also regularly getting flattering comments from visitors about how my shoulders and my arms were already starting to look more powerful as a result of all the work in the physio gym and pushing a wheelchair every day.

My arms are my legs now, and I am a stubborn sod, so when it comes to hills or kerbs or steps, I rarely accept the help that is offered. This results in ridiculous scenes of me huffing and puffing while friends and family look uncomfortably on. But it also means that I am a bit more bulky up top these days.

Having the use of my trunk muscles, I didn't want to sink into the upholstery of the chair, preferring to look upright and straight. I began to cast around for a role model, a wheelchair user who had the image I wanted to achieve. My wife came across Jason, a fella she spotted in the foyer of the spinal injury unit. he had a higher level of injury than me but had the 'straightness' she knew I was looking for. I got good advice on posture from him, and I've managed to maintain this upright position with constant tweaking of the backrest and squirming in the chair. It feels important to me that I look compact and balanced, as if to compensate for my legs, which I hide in bulky combat trousers.

But then this summer something changed ...

We went on holiday and met up with my brother and his family in the south of France. Much of the week was spent splashing in, and sitting around the pool at their villa. I found myself in shorts, and even (gasp!) sandals - allowing my cadaverously white feet to see the sun for the first time in three years.

After a couple of days, my legs began to change colour. In the right light, you'd swear there was a hint of a tan. Now they don't look quite so dead and I'm beginning to feel a little more attached to them again.

So while I'm still self-conscious at times, I'm beginning to feel more comfortable with how I am now. And who knows? On a hot summer day back here at home in Britain, I might even put some shorts on. There's progress for you.

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