On Blindness and the Body

I’ve been wanting to write a thing about blindness and the body for years and years, but I couldn’t pin down the core of it. Every time I would try to start, it just sort of wandered away from me and went into territory I wasn’t trying to cover. But I think I’ve finally figured it out, and who knows if I’ll ever turn it into a full polished piece, so I’m just going to say it here, now, like this, before I lose it again.

When you’re a totally blind person, your only idea of your appearance comes from other people. I mean, within reason, obviously. I know I have a crooked tooth that kind of sticks out, for example, without needing to be told that, and I know roughly how my height compares to others’ and what my general body shape is and that I have very dry and sensitive skin that requires a lot of managing and etc etc. But as a blind person, you don’t know if you’re attractive to other people unless they tell you, and you don’t know why you’re attractive unless they tell you, and you don’t know if your appearance differs in any major, noticeable way from other people’s unless they tell you. And then, all you have to go on is still what one person tells you, and maybe another person will tell you a completely different thing, and so your idea of your appearance and attractiveness fluctuates and is never completely stable.

And when you’re a blind woman, in particular, you have to contend with all these uncertainties while still being expected to perform the culturally appropriate standards of womanhood, and, arguably, to perform them to a degree not everyone is expected to because you’re disabled and need to compensate for that. So you live your life trying to do this thing that’s kind of … fundamentally impossible? Or at least, impossible without the input of others, which, again, is biased and one-dimensional (that’s not the right term, but I’ll figure out the right one later). You know that you’re constantly being observed and judged in a way you can’t control and in a way you can’t ever fully measure up to, and when you try, you don’t know if you’ve gotten it right or if it will be obvious that you really have no idea what you’re doing and everyone can tell and just won’t say anything.

There are so many articles and blog posts and audio series’ that are geared toward helping blind women learn to put on makeup, and so many threads on Facebook and Twitter about how to figure out which colors match and which don’t so you know what to wear, and how to dress professionally for job interviews so your potential employer will take you more seriously. And I understand why all of this exists and feels necessary (to a degree), but it makes me so, so anxious and always has. I do have a double anxiety disorder (generalized and social), which contributes, but I feel so scrutinized in public and, in different ways, in private, and I do it to myself, too, when no one else is around doing it for me. And I think this is largely why.

I’ll never be able to say with certainty that this is what I look like, and this is what I judge my own attractiveness level to be regardless of what other people tell me it is, and I’ll never be able to feel entirely confident going out in public without first Facetiming my mom to make sure my outfits coordinate and my hair isn’t doing anything weird and my jewelry works. And I’ll always feel like I have to do that, even when I don’t want to, because the world is watching and forming judgments and yes, this is the case for everyone, but when you can look in a mirror and see yourself, generally you have an idea of what you look like. You know whether or not you’ve achieved the aesthetic you were going for, and whether or not you have something on your face and whether or not you need to swap that headband for this one, and you know that when you go out, people are going to see what you want them to see, what you’ve created for them to see. I want that power, and I’ll never have it, and all I can ever do is mimic it to the best of my abilities.

This is also why, I think, I don’t take compliments well. I’ve been told this often throughout my life, in varying ways, and I know it’s a problem. But how do I know how to assimilate that compliment into my perception of myself, or if I even should? How do I know if it’s true? I guess you could argue that if it’s genuine and feels true to the person giving it, that should be enough, but … it’s not. That sounds terrible, but it’s the way I feel. I don’t want to do this, to pick apart everything someone says to or about me with regard to my physical appearance trying to figure out where it fits or if it fits at all, but I don’t know how else to form a picture of myself.

I deeply, deeply admire blind people and especially blind women who have managed to reach a place where they don’t care about these things, or who feel confident that they’ve mastered them sufficiently to exist in the world in an anxiety-free way, but I am neither. I get so frustrated so often when I think I’ve gotten it and then my mom tells me I need a tank top under this shirt, or can’t wear those pants because the pattern on them doesn’t go with the shirt, or my hair is too curly and I need to wet it down and then get it to the right amount of curly, or whatever other minuscule thing I’ve managed to miss, and she says that it’s not just blindness, that even sighted people have a hard time with it sometimes. And this is why, but I’ve never been able to articulate it properly until now. I know that sighted people have problems with this stuff and that it’s not fair to them either, that society has gotten to this point where it’s such a huge source of anxiety for so many people to look perfect at all times. But it’s never going to be the same, because ultimately sighted people can always look in that mirror and see their reflection, and the only form of reflection I have is words from other people. Words that aren’t consistent from person to person, and so a reflection that’s never consistent, either.

“Am I pretty?” is not a socially acceptable question to ask, and if you ask someone who’s already close to and cares about you, their answer is always going to come from that place and so, again, have a bias. I wish that there were some way of asking it to an entirely neutral third party who could also be objective, but there isn’t. And, more to the point, I really wish I didn’t want to ask it to anyone and could just be comfortable in my skin, a la Beyonce, but I do and I can’t. I don’t know how to reconcile any of this and I’m not trying to make any sweeping point here or anything, this is just something that has nagged at and caused anxiety for me for years and I’ve never pinpointed exactly what it is or where it’s coming from until now, so, as always, here’s a weird messy feelings thing with no destination. The end.

5 thoughts on “On Blindness and the Body

  1. I don’t know how to respond to this piece of writing because it raises so many things that I have often thought about but rarely expressed. I want to re-read what has been written and ponder each over a lengthy period of time. The thing that springs to my mind, though, is that my response to the challenge of understanding my own appearance and dealing with the expectation of others is that over time I have tried to teach myself not to care. However, this is ingenuous and I am frequently frustrated at my lack of knowledge of style, colour, accessorising… And the list is endless it’s so often easier not to try then to put in a whole lot of mental and emotional energy into something that is so subjective and illusive.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Hi that’s such an interesting post – it reminds me of a a female contestant on Mastermind in UK TV she was blind and although she looked good I felt she could look even better. I would like to tell you you have gorgeous hair and you should grow it long – it looks wavy and a lovely colour, you have nice skin tone and good cheekbones, and a pleasant attractive face – you have nice eyebrows, your lips are a good shape, you look like you don’t wear any make up but you would suit a subtle shade of lipgloss or lipstick – if you buy some just put it on the inside of the bottom lip only – after pursing your lips together it should look perfect and you could use a nice moisturier with foundation ( BBcream – ask for advice on a good shade) on your skin daily as a beauty pampering ritual. Your bust is like mine – quite curvy – I always minimise mine with loose tops that don’t show my contours – I think you would suit colourful smocklike hippy, folk tops with jeans and a nice cool pair of sunglasses – your style looks casual which is nice and relaxed just add more colour
    your face looks warm and friendly and attractive, you just need to get a reliable beauty regime so that you feel gorgeous

  3. I really enjoyed reading your article as it emphasised and outlined some of my own issues around attractiveness and being blind. I totally agree about the subjectiveness of the comments from people around you and feel anxious at times, particularly when going to social events or work. I wish the world didn’t require us to look perfect and I too know that sighted people struggle with this, but agree, we do not have the choice of looking in a mirror to observe what affect we have.

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