Not seeing is still believing: how visually impaired women understand and experience media representation of the feminine ideal

It’s known that Western societies are appearance obsessed. Being conventionally attractive, polished and put-together symbolizes good health and demonstrates control and competence. This has real social advantages for men and women alike. It can mean getting the job you want, the partner you want; the lifestyle you want. Women, we know, are inundated with an ideal of femininity that has, in many ways, become an indicator of self worth. Although the topic of appearance and the feminine ideal has been thoroughly researched, how visually impaired women manage our appearance obsessed culture has been left less examined (but see Gili Hammer’s piece in Gender & Society here). Yes, the feminine ideal does generally come to us in visual form. However, the cultural ubiquity of this is so overwhelming and the social influence palpable that I felt there must be more to it.

Drawing on in-depth interviews and personal diaries with seven Irish women, ages 20-45 all with very little to no sight I explore how visually impaired women experience mainstream representations of the feminine ideal, and to what extent they affect their body and self-image. When asked to describe the media’s version of the feminine ideal the women used words that would be familiar to anyone with sight: fit, lean, thin, good skin, blond, young, nice breasts, and long legs. They agreed that maintaining presentable appearances demonstrated self-respect, command of oneself and, above all, ability. At the same time, their awareness of being judged based on these same criteria manifested as pressure to be thinner, prettier, younger and more fashionable. They offset these pressures by engaging in a variety of conventional rituals, such as dieting, exercising, undergoing regular beauty treatments, using cosmetics, and wearing fashionable clothing so as to manage body dissatisfaction and maintain confidence.

Concurrently, they used adapted sensory strategies to carry out some of these rituals. For example, some relied on voice activated software to help organize clothing and accessories accordingly and create matching outfits (which was very important). Texture was explained to me as a critical way that blind and visually impaired persons have more say in developing and expressing a personal style. The participants used touch and feel to determine aesthetic taste in all things appearance-related from clothing to cosmetics. The most important strategy was the use of sighted assistance. One participant said: “there are things that I don’t do because if I did I would feel out of control…I think that [looking put-together] is quite important so I wait.” All of the women worked closely with a trusted friend or family member whose advice was sought on clothing and accessory purchases. Sighted assistance, in another participant’s words, is a way to create a “unique style” but in a “second-hand manner.”

Self-assessing, visually comparing, gauging surroundings and perceiving body language were described as part of looking and feeling confident. Participants emphasized the importance of appearance, but not knowing one’s own appearance and being seen by others, while not being able to visually reciprocate, were sources of anxiety that often left them feeling vulnerable and insecure. According to one participant, “the eyes are used as weapons” to visually scrutinize others; and being blind, according to another participant, “creates an imbalance” in social settings. Such instances were known to test confidence and trigger negative thoughts and feelings. When asked about this, one participant said, “sometimes I feel disappointed in myself, and think, why can’t I do this? Why can’t I know? I feel like I’m kind of the problem.” In sum, investing in the body and appearance afforded the participants a sense of power as women and freedom from their disability. Maintaining attractiveness helped to manage a positive self-image and became a way to minimize “difference” and maximize “sameness” among female peers and sighted others.

 By Tara Fannon, PhD candidate in the school of political science and sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Click here to view a collection of art work from blind and visually impaired artists.

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