Instagram and TikTok star: ‘We’re not used to seeing disabled people as sexy’

SophieBy Charlie JonesBBC News, East

Sophie Butler had just received her university results in July 2017 when she decided to squeeze in a workout before a night of celebrations.

She was using a squat machine at a gym in Basildon, Essex when she slipped and the heavy weight fell on her spine.

Aged 21, Sophie was told she was paralysed from the waist down.

As she learned to use a wheelchair, Sophie started sharing her story and gained thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok, where she posts about everything from disability awareness to self love, fashion and fitness.

Here in her own words, she talks about her new life in the capital, where she recently modelled during London Fashion Week.

'I thought my dream of living in London was over'

Sophie graduating

After my accident, I was in hospital on complete bedrest for months. But I was determined to make my graduation ceremony. I crammed double the amount of physiotherapy into a very short time to build up my strength. My graduation was one of the first times I had left the hospital.

It was like I had been hidden away from the world after a life-changing, traumatic event and then I was suddenly on a stage.

After that, everything felt like it had been put on hold. I just had to focus on getting through each day after waking up.

Growing up, I had a dream that I would live in London one day. I used to walk to school with my walkman on listening to Madonna, imagining myself living in the city.

But I accepted it was something I wasn't going to be able to do. For a lot of disabled people, London is not a welcoming environment, due to inaccessibility and unaffordability.

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A post shared by sophie butler (@sophjbutler)

I started to believe again because, as I started to post more content, brands started wanting to work with me, and I was coming in to London for work.

The first time I got the train in on my own, it gave me so much confidence and eventually I decided to move here and I love it.

I still get nervous using the Tube but you have to deal with things when they happen. I won't let the fear of things going wrong stop me from doing things.

'I've fallen back in love with fitness'

Sophie in Paris

I've always been very into fitness but I fell out of love with it for a while. I've experienced trolling when posting fitness content, and people have said awful things like 'why would you bother to post fitness content when you look the way you do?' and calling me fat.

I began to feel like my body didn't belong to me in a fitness context, it was the object of someone's criticism. So I didn't post about fitness for a long time.

But when I moved to London, I realised there was a private gym in my apartment block so I gave myself the space to explore that again. I was very lucky to have that space as it gave me the ability to work on my relationship with fitness.

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I think it says a lot about the online social media fitness industry. Influencers are posting workouts and people are following them hoping to look like that. I don't want people to follow my workouts thinking they will look like me.

It really diminishes the role that fitness can play in our lives, for our mental health and emotions. It gives me structure and it has always been a big part of my life. I'm really happy about my relationship with fitness now.

'Disabled women are often infantilised'

Sophie

People are still not used to seeing disabled people as sexy. The way disabled men and women experience it can be very different.

As a disabled woman you can be hyper sexualised as well as infantilised at the same time. You have some people who infantilise you and don't see you in a sexual way. But others sexualise your disability against your consent.

Disabled men experience a lot of desexualisation. Both are problems. As a woman it is terrifying because you have no autonomy. People don't see us as able to give consent when it comes to sex. I think it's important to start conversations about that and try to change things.

'Fashion is about how it makes you feel'

Sophie

Looking back, I didn't realise before my injury how important fashion was for me. I used to put together an outfit for a night out at university and love planning it for weeks before.

After my injury I lost a lot of my identity. I had to pay attention to the things that made me feel good. Fashion is a thing of expression for me. Even if I wasn't leaving the house, it was my way of expressing myself.

I noticed when I came out of rehab — when I was still housebound, waiting for adaptions to be done and sleeping in my Dad's conservatory — that I felt so much better on the days I was still making an effort to explore with make up and get dressed up.

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A post shared by sophie butler (@sophjbutler)

Fashion has always been fun for me and it's about how it makes me feel. People sometimes find it intimidating but you can't worry about people judging you.

I was really nervous for London Fashion Week because I was so passionate about it. You don't often see wheelchair users on a runway. I had the logistical worry of what it would be like but I also knew it would mean a lot to people who would see it.

It was real genuine fear which I don't often feel. It was over so quickly. My Dad and my Step-Mum were both there and I could see them out of the corner of my eye, which was so great.

It was only afterwards, looking back, that I realised how much of a big deal it was.

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A post shared by sophie butler (@sophjbutler)

Since my accident, I sometimes find it hard to look to the future. I nearly died that day and it was really hard to imagine where I would be in six months, let alone further in the future.

I spent the first few years trying to get my life back on track, physically, mentally and financially. This last year, especially since moving to London, has felt like the first time I have actually been able to enjoy my life again.

There are so many things I want to achieve. I would love to write more. For me, it has always been a natural comfort zone and I would love to get more involved in fashion because it makes me feel so good and it just really excites me.

I want to have a good balance of making the strides I want to in my career but also enjoying my life, and I feel like I'm on my way to achieving that now.

As told to Charlie Jones

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  • sophie butler (@sophjbutler) • Instagram photos and videos

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