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Claiming the Stare: Jes Sachse and the Transformative Potential of Seeing

chelseam's picture

                                 Claiming the Stare: Jes Sachse and the Transformative Potential of Seeing

                                       American Able - Holly Norris                     "Crooked" Tattoo


  We all love to look. While staring is most commonly thought of as an act to be avoided or ashamed of, Disability and Women’s Studies Scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that the stare at its best actually has the potential to create new meanings and more open societies.  The stare as Thomson defines it, has the potential to help us redefine the language we use to describe each other and ourselves, create space for the often-excluded in communities, and craft our own identities. The stare is most dynamic and productive when the subject of the stare, the staree, is able to wield some control over the interaction and in doing so present their story to the starer.

            Jes Sachse is a 25-year-old Canadian artist with a genetic disorder called Freeman-Sheldon syndrome. This paper will draw on two projects featuring photographs of Sachse in order to illustrate how “staring” can reshape our perceptions of social categories when individuals with visible differences are allowed to present their stories. This type of story telling has the potential to create more fluid social discourse and categories. Thomson’s notion of the stare provides a means to achieve the type of social dialogue Wilchins and Clare have declared is key to establishing inclusive concepts of gender, sexuality and identity in general. 

            The photograph on the upper left is taken from American Able, a series in the style of American Apparel advertisements by photographer Holly Norris featuring Sachse. Norris uses this spoof to illustrate the way in which “women with disabilities are made invisible in advertising and mass media” (Norris). She writes that “in a society where sexuality is created and performed…within popular culture, the invisibility of women with disabilities…denies their sexuality”(Norris). The series uses the American Apparel model to sexualize Sachse, asserting her as a woman and sexual being. The photograph in the upper right is taken from Sachse’s contribution to Envisioning New Meanings, a project in which women with disabilities or physical differences were asked to use multimedia to tell their own stories. This project features self-portraits by Sachse and hits on Clare’s notion of the body as home.

            In both of these projects Jes Sachse offers herself up as the subject and invites us to stare. That is – to stare well. In Staring: How We Look, Thomson argues that the stare is “a response to someone’s distinctiveness and a staring exchange can thus beget mutual recognition” (Thomson, 196).  She suggests that Good Staring involves the active participation of both the starer and the staree. The starer must allow the interaction to be transformative and be open to being changed by the event. The staree is responsible for framing their story in a way that enables both parties to recognize each other’s’ “full humanity” and creates room for both (Thomson, 203). A Good Stare can lead to the redefinition of terms and a loosening of the boundaries around them.

         Here is Sachse’s piece Body Image, which she contributed to the Envisioning New Meanings Project. Note the way that she demands active audience engagement.


In this piece Sachse not only invites the stare, but also wields it as a tool with which to share her experience and help others understand. She directly addresses and instructs the audience, asking “Are you scared?” and saying “I want you to look at these photos and see you” (Sachse, Body Language).

In Body Language, Sachse begins to engage in the sort of attack on social categories Wilchins calls for in Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Wilchins writes that people who don’t fit the gender binary are  made “objects of discourse, not participants in it” (Wilchins, 61).Yet, here Sachse creates a space were she is not only a participant, but a facilitator of discourse. She makes space for herself in the categories of human, woman, and sexual being. Sachse exposes her humanity by making herself vulnerable, “I was scared that day,” and choosing images that depict her friendships and art as well as her body. She gives us the story of a life, not a disability and so that is what we see. Sachse asserts her femininity by including photographs that highlight her grace and sexuality.     


Here Sachse is lit warmly which gives the scene a feeling of soft almost angelic femininity. The angles and curves of her body appear fluid and soft, reading as a sort of effortless femininity. She looks toward the window, but her body faces forward. While perhaps not overtly sexual, Sachse stance and the way she presents her body to the viewer, sexualize her.

Yet Sachse appears not as the passive recipient of the gaze, but as a woman at ease and in control. She faces the camera, inviting the looks of the audience, but maintaining a sense of control over the situation. She appears casual and in control. It is as if we have caught her in the middle of a conversation. The audience is invited to interact with Sachse in a dynamic way. The image invites the type of good stare Thomson praises.



            Body Language is also about claiming the body as home.  Eli Clare writes that “home starts here in my body” (Clare, 12). Being home then, means embracing the bodies we have. Sachse invites us into her “home-making” and echoes the sentiment of Clare saying, “You need to know that this is everything” (Sachse, Body Language). Jes shows us a series of black and white images of her alone with her body. The image above shows Sachse facing away from the camera, almost bending into herself. She seems focused, unaware that there is anything else – in this moment her body is “everything.” The shape her body makes in this photograph is reminiscent of a drawing of a home – with her torso creating the walls and her shoulders and arms the roof above them. She appears here contained, introverted, focused on finding home and almost curled up inside of it.

            Wilchins’ discussion of language is incredibly relevant to our ability to claim our bodies as home. Language is intimately tied with our ability to describe ourselves and build identities. As Clare writes, “language too lives under the skin. I think of the words crip, queer, freak, redneck….They mark the jagged edge between self hatred and pride” (Clare, 12). The way we define identity labels affects the communities and roles we feel at home in. Part of finding home then,  is finding ways to expand the boundaries of identity labels –woman, queer, disabled – to give ourselves room to belong.


            This boundary expansion is achieved in part by the American Able series. Photographer Holly Norris’ explicit goal was to highlight the extent to which disabled women are left out of our concept of “regular women” and are consequently frequently desexualized (Norris). The series achieves this by nature of its format, poking fun at the overtly sexual American Apparel advertisements. However, I think the most powerful part of both this series and Body Language is the way in which they build stories around Jes. The series opens with the above image. Sachse stands unabashedly before the camera, wearing funky sunglasses and a grin. She appears confident and leans in a way that commands ownership of the frame and asserts her presence. She seems to stake her claim to womanhood, but perhaps more importantly to being seen.


            The series sexualizes Sachse, clearly asserting her sexuality and femininity by showing her in bed with a woman and wearing lingerie. Some have argued that the extent to which Sachse has been sexualized “misses the point” (Jean). I would argue that the focus of the project was not to comment on the way women are objectified in American Apparel ads, but to show that these ads only make room for a specific type of woman. Photographs such as the “Tops and Bottoms” image above force the viewers to make room for these models in our definitions of women and sexual beings. Clare writes that disabled individuals are most often objectified in a medical sense, “turning our bodies into exhibits” (Clare, 121). He points out that this results the notion that disabled people are asexual because “sexual objectification is totally intertwined with sexuality…[and] creat[ing] ourselves as sexual beings” (Clare, 129). American Able de-medicalizes and de-problematizes Jes Sachse’s disability. Its objectification of Sachse can be seen as enabling to a degree, turning her into a sexual woman. The focus is placed in stead on her sexual presence; we are presented with a sexual image, not a medical one.

            Through these projects, Jes Sachse and Holly Norris were able to expand our notions of who is sexual or feminine and perhaps degrade some of the boundaries between categories. Jes Sachse is presented as a friend, lover, woman, artist. She is disabled and also sexual, feminine and also strong. The projects create stories of a multifaceted life and “enables [the viewers] to recognize her full humanity” (Thomson, 203). The American Able series reclaims sexuality for women with disabilities. It questions traditional restrictions on who is permitted or to be seen as or be sexual. It changes discourse. Body Language places the power in the hands of the staree. In the words of Thomson, Sachse shows us “how to look at her” (Thomson, 200). She walks us through her identity and captures portraits that highlight the beauty and completeness of her body. Sachse actively involves her audience in the way Thomson calls for. Together, these projects have the potential to break down barriers and create more flexible social categories. They also restore power to people who are “othered” in society, showing that individuals have the power to declare their presence and begin changing the way society thinks about identity.



Further Reading:

American Able Project and Holly Norris Photography:



Envisioning New Meanings Project:

Jes Sachse Blog:

                                                                                Works Cited


Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2009. Print.

Envisioning New Meanings of Disability and Difference. Web. 26 Sept. 2011. <>.

"Holly Norris | American Able." Holly Norris. Web. 26 Sept. 2011. <>.

Jean, Abby. "American Apparel, Meet American Able." Web log post. Forward: Feminists With                                    Disabilities. Disabled Feminists, 10 May 2010. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.                         <>.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Staring How We Look. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Wilchins, Riki Anne. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: an Instant Primer. Los Angeles, [Calif.: Alyson, 2004. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

Good Staring


Wow! I wasn't familiar w/ either of the projects you examine here, so my first reaction is one of gratitude for your finding and sharing both the American Able and the Envisioning New Meanings projects: so much new material for me to see and learn from!

My second reaction is to say I wish you'd handled the two projects in reverse order; though I agree that American Able is a powerful series, one that demonstrates how much apparel "ads only make room for a specific type of woman," I also find the series problematic, for precisely the reasons you name: it sexualizes by objectifying. Less problematic for me is Envisioning New Meanings, with Jes's voice- over explaining her fear and inviting our own (you call this once "Body Image," elsewhere "Body Language"--and the slip is telling!). This project is more interactive, and seems more (because it is more?) self-authored (for other, interesting, similar-yet-different takes on disabled/enabling self-representation, see's look @ Shakespeare's Richard III and Gavi's Voicing Rhetorics of Beauty ).

Garland-Thomson's "good stare" gives you a good take-off point for this project (though I think we need better language here than "starer and staree"-yuck!). I appreciate, too, the way you are able to weave in here Eli Clare's thinking, both about being home ("embracing the bodies we have"), and about being made the objects of display ("“turning our bodies into exhibits”). I also think there's more to do, here, with Riki Wilchins's ideas about altering language--expanding "the boundaries of identity labels…to give ourselves room to belong."

As you know, I have a particular interest in a related project: expanding the conventions of academic discourse to enable more different sorts of folks to belong. You point out how Sachse invites audience interaction: by making herself vulnerable, she invites us to acknowledge our own vulnerability. So my last comment has, of course, to do w/ how you handle the interaction of "starer" and "staree" in your own text: What does your reader know about its author? How clearly do you locate yourself? What information do you reveal about your own investment/involvement in the projects you are studying? What signals/gestures/context/presumptions does your text make about your relationship to your audience? (You avatar is inviting…that bridge!)