I wandered out of my bedroom last week, dressed casually for a walk to Starbucks, only to have my husband point out that I’d colour-coordinated my socks and my hair elastic. Both were pink, not that I’d noticed, and the observation was sitting funny with me. When was the last time I’d intentionally colour-coordinated anything? How long had it been since I’d bothered to choose an outfit, rather than slipping into what was most functional? I couldn’t remember, but it had been several months at least, maybe longer.
After my workplace sent me home in March of last year, I made a noble but short-lived commitment to dress professionally, groom to business-casual standards, and pretend I was going into the office every day. I soon lapsed into sweats and tank tops like almost everyone else, assuming things would be back to normal in a few weeks and treating myself to a little well-deserved sloppiness after a lifetime of self-consciousness. What would be the harm?
A year later finds me as casual as I was then, largely unaware of what I’m wearing and which coloured elastics are holding my haphazard ponytails together. I’ve allowed my hair to grow to my hips and beyond. My jewelry collection is literally gathering dust. My work wardrobe is wrinkled after a year of sitting unworn on hangers that have been pushed to the back of my closet. I think my fancier boots and heels are in a box somewhere; I moved recently, and have not yet unpacked the relics of what feels like a former life – a life in which I left the house regularly and cared what people thought of me.
This new carelessness would have been unthinkable before COVID-19 shuffled my priorities. As a blind woman, I have been conditioned from the cradle to obsess about how I appear to others, by well-intentioned people who wanted the very best for me. Atop the default pressures of feminine presentation—look young, pretty, unblemished, controlled—every trusted sighted person in my life reminded me to remain vigilant about my looks, and to defer to other people’s aesthetic preferences.
My clothes were selected for me, and I was not encouraged to develop my own tastes or sense of style. How could a blind person be qualified to construct such a thing? I straightened my hair for years because it was fashionable, even though it ate an hour of my life every single day and I didn’t enjoy the dry, staticky outcome. I submitted to makeup before musical performances and special events, but it irritated my skin and I didn’t feel I needed it. I worried constantly about things I couldn’t visually verify for myself, consumed by the fear that if I didn’t embody a narrow put-togetherness, people would never see past my disability.
From a shockingly early age, I was warned that a sighted world would expect me to be disheveled and clueless. I must not play into those stereotypes, for my own good and the good of blind peers. To seem as sighted as possible was to be respectable. Didn’t I want to be respectable?
As an adult, I gained more autonomy. I started choosing my own clothes and paying a friend to design jewelry according to my personal tastes. No anxious presence was hanging over my shoulder, insisting I look unhealthy without makeup. I haven’t straightened my hair in years, and hairdressers are always exclaiming over how healthy it is. (Refusing to scorch, dye, or saturate it with product will do that.) I followed dress codes where appropriate, and I genuinely enjoyed formal dress, but overall I embraced the intoxicating adult privilege of deciding for myself what I would and wouldn’t do to look a certain way to others. I got to decide that unless makeup and fashion and messing with my hair brought me joy, unless they were part of my authentic self-expression, I wouldn’t force myself to do it. Sure, I wore dramatic makeup on my wedding day, and I loved an excuse to pretty up, but I was no longer spending hours getting ready just to go get the mail.
Before the pandemic, I’d have told you I was being my best self. But my husband’s throwaway comment about my spontaneous colour coordination made me realize that my best, pre-pandemic self, while slightly more emancipated, was still a little exhausting. A lot exhausting, if I’m honest.
She worked very hard to be acceptable to the world, she worried about the opinions of people who had no power over her—who may not even have noticed her, in fact—and she expended her already-scarce energy coordinating her hair elastics with her necklaces with her shoes and so on.
She shied away from bright colours because what if, God forbid, she picked two things that clash a little? She dreaded the wealth of makeup tutorials for blind people, fearing the new baseline standards for blind womanhood would soon include excellent makeup skills, on top of all the other stuff she hadn’t yet mastered. She placed her body mass index above her health and fitness, because being visibly disabled was only bearable if the rest of her was without flaw, and because internalized fatphobia was a demon she hadn’t conquered yet.
So she was more autonomous, yes, and bold in her choice to rarely wear makeup and let her eyebrows go a little rogue. But was she free?
Oh no, dear friends, I see it now. She exchanged one type of restrictive lifestyle for another, told herself she was in charge, and called it good enough. It took a very different type of restriction to nudge her to the back, letting me step forward and realize that my best self never existed, and that chasing her was only going to make me tired.
Staying inside a lot and living in sweats has not been my idea of a good time, and I do look forward to wearing dresses and skirts and blazers again. However, I’ve been confronted with the reality that the things that most need my attention are not, and have never been, my outer packaging. I should be more focused than ever on becoming a better cook, traveller, artist, friend and community member. Resilience and confidence will take me so much further than obsessive colour coordination anxiety. No one liked or admired me for my fashion sense, though I don’t do too badly on that front when I try. They liked me as a writer, musician, and loving human being, traits that will survive anything, even a pandemic.
In moments when the world feels like it’s ending, you want the confident, resilient people by your side. You aren’t going to care whether their hair accessories match their socks. You’re going to care about their ability to keep you safe and move things forward. More than a year into this, I feel like I’ve shed so much, and discovered even more. I can keep myself and others safe. I can move things forward. Everything else is just fear and marketing.
Who I am, in this difficult moment, is the only self with whom I ought to be concerned. She’s the only one who actually exists, and I like her for her increased interest in a more just world where a pandemic wouldn’t mean preventable death on a grand scale.
The thing is, when she’s not obsessive and fearful, when she’s working hard on things that bring real value, I quite like this new self. I like her renewed relationship with art for art’s own sake. I like her ability to do well at her job, no matter what she’s wearing while she does it. I like her practical acknowledgement that while we all fit ourselves into boxes to maintain a functioning society, she gets to choose whether to lose sleep over how well she is fitting inside hers. I like that, for the first time in decades, she is neither exhausted nor exhausting. While crises often bring out the worst in people, she has stumbled, quite by accident, upon her best.
Eventually, I will go back to my former life, the one where what I wear and look like does matter, regardless of what I might wish. I will start paying more attention to my appearance again. I will begin slotting myself back into mandatory boxes, just as before. It’s inevitable. Some form of confinement, in my line of work and way of life, is inevitable.
But obsessing, fretting, self-diminishing are optional. They always were, and I don’t think they will be useful for whatever is coming next. Faithful as they’ve been, familiar as they are, I think I’m ready to get to know myself without them.