I would never describe myself as stylish and I’m definitely not cool, but I do care about how I look. It’s not vanity as much as self respect and a bit of enjoyment. As a busy mum of two young girls, there’s a limit to the time and energy I spend on my appearance, but my goal is looking presentable rather than trendy or immaculate, which is infinitely more realistic and achievable in the few minutes I have between tending to the family’s needs in the morning. I prefer classic clothes and natural hair and make up (or no make up at all), I like feminine details like soft floral prints and broderie anglaise, and my ultimate goal is looking nice while being immensely practical and appropriate. Some days that’s a nice dress and some days it’s jeans and a top, but I’ll always try to make sure what I choose is clean and neat and it will be in a style and colour I have chosen. There’s nothing unique in this. Women the world over may have different tastes but their goals for their appearance are probably not that different to mine. Why then, are people surprised that blind women care about how they look?
Many women take some pleasure in the process of looking after of their appearance, deciding what to wear and how to do their hair and make up. Blind women are no different. Many of us who can’t see so well, or at all, also care about how we present ourselves to the world. More than once, I’ve been asked why we care. Each time I’ve been so surprised by such a question, that in that moment, I failed to articulate a satisfactory answer. I guess the answer could simply be ‘for the same reasons as everyone else’. To me, the answer is kind of obvious, but the question is a mystery. Why do people believe we feel any different to other women, just because we can’t see?
At risk of over-caveating (as always), just as it is amongst sighted women, there are those who are interested in fashion and beauty and those who are not, amongst blind women too. It’s a personal choice which is no different regardless of visual acuity.
Appreance matters, even when you can’t see it
‘Look good, feel great’ is a cheesy saying we’ve all heard. But there is some truth in it. If I put on make up, although I can’t see the fruits of my labour in the mirror, I know I am wearing it. It makes me feel like I have put in effort so the result will be I look a bit more polished and a bit more together. I don’t wear make up everyday but when I do, it’s to make me feel a certain way as much as to it is for the people who look at me. When I choose an outfit, it is as much to make me feel good, relevant and like myself, as it is for those I meet. Feeling like I look acceptable and appropriate for the activity or setting I find myself in, does bring a dose of confidence, or at least is one less thing to be concerned with. Aside from confidence, getting dressed also makes me feel motivated and ready for the day ahead. So you see, looking presentable is about more than what can be seen on the outside. It makes you feel different on the inside too.
‘You don’t look blind’
When I was younger it would upset me when people said ‘you don’t look blind’. I felt like so many of my insecurities rose to the surface on hearing that one short sentence. Did people think I was faking my blindness because I tried to look nice? Did people think I was trying to appear sighted by doing my hair a certain way? Did people think I was a fraud or in denial because I didn’t fall into the stereotype they had of a blind person? Nowadays, I’ve heard it so many times and I’m older and maybe even a bit wiser, it doesn’t affect me as much, but it’s still sad. Just because I don’t always wear dark glasses and I don’t have a guide dog, it doesn’t mean I’m a fraud. Just because I might wear a pretty dress for no reason and curl my hair sometimes, it doesn’t mean I’m in denial about my visual impairment. I don’t fit the stereotype of a blind person some people have in their minds, and in a way, I’m glad. Maybe they’ll re-evaluate their beliefs on the subject, or at least question them a little.
‘Stylish for a blind person’
A woman on the London Underground once complimented my coat, then told me ‘you’re actually quite stylish, y’know… for a blind person’ after she spotted my cane. It was meant kindly and was a genuine compliment as far she was concerned, but it saddened me. That people can believe that a person should not ‘be stylish’ simply because they have a disability is so disappointing. I’m not sure that I did look ‘stylish’ that day, but it’s nice she thought I did. At the same time it was infuriating that she was shocked that the person wearing the blush pink mac she admired, was visually impaired. This kind of prejudice can affect how young visually impaired women perceive themelves and what they are allowed to want, or aspire to, not just in terms of their appearance, but in a wider context too. I am passionate that all young people should be empowered to believe they can and should have high standards, achieve their goals and live their dreams. Blind young people should believe they can have the same opportunities as everyone else. Even if this isn’t always true, having belief is the first step in making it so. From the big things like education and careers, to the seemingly superficial like appearance, it’s all important. When you believe you have the same options as your peers and society expects the same high standards from you despite your visual impairment, it reinforces the notion that you belong, you matter and can choose. For those of us with a visual impairment, the playing field is not level, not by a long way, but we should at least be expected to participate. In reality, I have found that a visual impairment means you have to work harder and achieve more to even be considered an equal sometimes. When I went to university, got a job or became a mother, my achievements were often met with poorly concealed surprise. And sometimes, people expressed their surprise in a way not unlike the woman who admired my pink mac. Being told you look nice without any follow up, is lovely. Blind women should be allowed these compliments too, and feel like it’s ok, not unusual, for us to take care of our appearance. Our appearance is a small part of who we are, but it’s all part of the bigger picture and we should be allowed to choose how we want each part of our own picture to look.
Respect and looking presentable
As a visually impaired person, I can also understand that appearance has an effect on people around us. If I look neat and put together, even maybe a little pretty sometimes, it sends a message. I would hope that message is that I consider myself, my husband and my children to be worth the effort it takes to get ready in the morning. It sets an example to my children, teaching them to grow up with respect for themselves and in the future, their memories of Mummy will be of someone who at least looked like she had it together (even if she didn’t!). If I’m going to an event, being appropriately dressed communicates respect for the host and other guests. Looking presentable also sets a certain tone around others. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to treat someone who is well dressed and put together differently, to someone who appears not to have made any effort. I’ve already talked about how some people have an expectation about how a blind person should look, and although this annoys and saddens me in equal measures, not conforming to those beliefs is not about dispelling myths or disproving stereotypes. It’s about feeling like myself and presenting myself to the world in a way I choose. It’s about being me.
So it’s time to revisit my answer to the question ‘why do blind people care how they look?’ For me it’s because I enjoy the process, I have the ability to make choices regarding my appearance and my high standards and self respect demand I care for myself. I look forward to a time when more people understand this, more brands consider visually impaired customers in their designs and marketing and when words like enjoyment, choice, ability, high standards and self respect are associated with visually impaired women everywhere.
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