No, I Don’t See With My Heart

I’ve come across a persistent myth concerning blind people and their near-angelic status. The sighted world is so shallow. The sighted world is so intolerant of diversity. The sighted world is so afraid of difference; so obsessed with outward appearance; so incapable of appreciating the “inside”. Blind people, on the other hand, “see” with our hearts. We possess heightened compassion and tolerance. Further, because we don’t have access to vision, we could not possibly criticize others for being shallow. After all, what do we know? We have never seen. How can we condemn what we don’t understand?

This perspective is so persuasive that at least one study has been conducted to find out whether blind people are capable of being, say, racist, reasoning that our inability to see colour must make us immune to racial prejudice. Yes, of course we are capable of prejudice. This is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Think about it: race is so much more than pigmentation. It’s a socially constructed system in which we choose to group people into racial categories, then attach specific traits to those groups. This is how society decides that “Mexicans are lazy” and “black people are thugs” and “white people are respectable”. These labels transcend colour. People are not offended by or prejudicial towards a black person because they don’t like their skin. Racism is so embedded in our culture that nobody, not even a blind person, could escape it. I suppose you could argue that we may not judge as readily if we don’t yet know a stranger’s race, but all I have to do is hear a particular accent to commence judging immediately. I try not to, of course, but even I know it’s a mistake to pretend I don’t.

It is also somewhat unreasonable to assume there are few, if any, blind people who are shallower than cookie sheets. So much of society is busy branding the underweight as skeletal; the overweight as lazy; the attractive, desirable; the unattractive, undesirable. Blind people must be incapable of and therefore unable to appreciate or reject someone for their outward appearance, right? Nuh uh.

The thing is, fat (or lack of it) is not a purely visual concept. All it takes is a hug for me to know a fair bit about what you look like. I could take a guess at your weight, and judge the clothing you are wearing (to a certain extent anyway) and assess the attractiveness or unattractiveness of your general shape. Don’t be fooled into thinking blind people don’t fat shame. We understand what fat is, and we are almost as susceptible to instinctive judgements as anyone else. I recall reading a story about Tommy Sullivan, a blind pianist, who pretended to drop something so he could scrabble around on the floor for it. He very conveniently managed to grab the nearest woman’s leg in the process. I believe it was Ray Charles who, upon gripping a woman’s arm, allegedly grimaced with disgust when he realized how plump she was. Anecdotes like these, whether true or false, suggest that blind people can be just as shallow as the average sighted person. If a blind person tries to claim they are above reproach and incapable of shallow discrimination, please do set them straight.

Consider voices: no two voices are identical (mostly because accents and various linguistic quirks make them more distinct) and while most of them are neutral to me, I find some very attractive and some…well, not. Try as I might, I can’t escape the tendency to judge based on vocal qualities. A grating voice might put me off. If a person uses an excess of vocal fry, says “like” a little too often, or has an otherwise unusual or irritating voice, I’m going to have a harder time interacting with them until I get to know them a bit better. It’s equally easy to be drawn to a lovely voice, as well. Some people become distracted when they see a gorgeous person. If you have a gorgeous voice, I’m going to get distracted, too. (If I ever meet Morgan Freeman, I’ll be in trouble.) It’s a perfectly natural aspect of human life and, while sighted people focus less on this because their vision is more demanding, blind people are especially vulnerable to this bias.

Scent and touch matter, too: perfume and cashmere aren’t marketed exclusively to blind people, after all. I think sighted people frequently underestimate qualities outside of visual beauty. There are probably a lot of traits you find attractive in others, but you’re not conscious of them because you’re busy appreciating what they look like. If you concentrate, you might discover a few new attributes.

Then, we come to the idea of automatic compassion: it’s true that, in my personal case, blindness has allowed me to step outside myself and consider the difficulties of others. This sensitivity may just be a component of my personality, and not a direct result of my blindness, though. I certainly think it helps–empathy goes a long way–but after years of interacting with the rest of the community, I know just how intolerant, bigoted, and “shortsighted” we can be. I’ve scrolled through numerous discussion forums, watching scores of blind people displaying alarming amounts of homophobia, racism, sexism, and even ableism towards other disabilities. Hell, I’ve even seen them turn on each other, accusing people of handling their blindness badly, or giving us a bad name, or simply doing life wrong. Where is all this inherent compassion we’re supposed to be born with? Where is this innate avoidance of judgment? I’ve witnessed just as much judgment and intolerance in the blind community as anywhere else, maybe more.

Sure, there are many of us who try to see past the surface, understand multiple perspectives, and acknowledge that since we have never known sight, there may be a lot of things we’re missing altogether. But to tell me I don’t “get it” because I’ve never seen someone? To tell me I will never understand fat shaming or racism or ableism because I can’t see? To tell me I can’t criticize it because I don’t know what it’s like? That’s a very dangerous (and condescending) viewpoint. This assumes that being unable to see makes me into an angel of compassion. I’m nice enough (I hope), but not angelic. So please: don’t deceive yourself by imagining that we are too busy seeing with our charitable little hearts to find fault. Our humanity is neither diminished nor enhanced by disability, remember that.

The Inside Doesn’t Count Unless the Outside is Beautiful

You would have to be quite reclusive (or, perhaps, very lucky) not to have heard of body image as it relates to self-esteem. We’ve all heard the endless platitudes: looks don’t matter, it’s what’s inside that counts, etc. Books, television shows, and even the odd pop song routinely remind us that “inner beauty” is infinitely more meaningful than anything on the outside. And yet…

Pretending that looks don’t matter at all is akin to burying your head in the sand; it’s as unrealistic as the relentless beauty standards thrust upon us by popular media. Women are targeted more often, but more and more, men are falling prey to the same rhetoric: while women are coached to be thin, sexy, and perfect at all times from all angles, men are expected to bulk up and maintain an image of hypermasculinity. As we all should know by now, this standard can only be upheld by a very few people, raising the bar impossibly high for the rest of us.

Even if you’re not pressured to be stick thin, you’ve probably been pressured to look “put together” at all times. Not a hair out of place, perfectly applied makeup, (what do you mean you don’t wear makeup?), and of course the ideal outfit. Looking your best is more than being presentable, clean, and well-groomed; it’s about looking perfect while making it seem effortless. It’s not effortless, of course…and that’s the point.

If you’re feeling edgy, you can branch out; just make sure it’s not too edgy, am I right? You don’t want to stand out for being weird, do you? Being different is only good if it inspires others to adopt your ways. Otherwise, you’re just weird. And not in a fun, cool way.

So, let’s entertain for a moment the blissful fairy tale we’ve been fed: looks don’t matter. As long as you’re smart, funny, and kind, the world will open up for you, promise! Work hard, be yourself, and everything will work itself out. Then…then you enter the real world, and what do you find? You find that a whole host of people have been kidding themselves. You find clothing stores that will only hire employees with a certain look. Abercrombie & Fitch, in particular, was criticized for hiring muscular men and paying them extra to pose shirtless with besotted young women. Other stores have been caught requiring their employees to wear a prescribed amount of makeup and “good” clothes (whatever that even means); God forbid they dare to put on a little weight. A restaurant in Toronto got into trouble because the hiring manager was given strict instructions to only hire thin, busty women with pretty faces; after all, a pretty face sells anything, right? And just in case you think these are all aberrations, there is a website out there with a job recruitment section dedicated solely to “beautiful” candidates.

While it is true that good-looking people are actually discriminated against in fields such as engineering and construction, it is only the women, and only then because good-looking women are presumed to be a bit on the dull side. Most of the time, however, employers will put their attractive workers on display where customers can appreciate their gorgeousness while they shop for jeans or eat their fish and chips. Even though science does not consistently back the claim that attractiveness lures consumers in, employers continue to live by this golden rule. Yes, the practice is illegal, and yes, it is problematic on so many levels, and yes, people still do it. Perhaps you’ve heard of the oft-quoted formula of advertising? It goes thus: “youth = beauty = popularity = happiness”. This ideology has crept into everyday life to the point where we now live in a world where “the ugly need not apply”. Young adolescents have been found to engage in risky and harmful behaviour on the quest to be attractive.

I have personally witnessed sighted people make sweeping judgments about those they’ve never even spoken to—judgments I’d have to know the person to be able to make with any accuracy. “Fat” people, for example, are often assumed to be lazy and lacking in self-control and/or self-respect. I’d have to watch someone in action for quite a while before being able to make such a judgment. This is not to say that blind people are incapable of fat shaming, but my personal experience has shown me that most blind people are far more accepting of them than are sighted people. How on earth does being overweight automatically and irrevocably brand a person in that way? Where is the logic in that? How about the girl not wearing makeup? Is she really clueless, or could it be that she thinks she looks okay without it? Could it be that she dislikes the way makeup feels on her skin? Could it be that she is allergic to most cosmetics? Could it possibly be that it’s none of anyone’s damn business but hers?

Even if you’re lucky enough to be powerful and well-respected, you are always a bad plastic surgery away from scorn and shame. Just look at what people have done to poor Renée Zellweger. She had a choice: either allow herself to age naturally, (a big nono in Hollywood) or “age gracefully”, a euphemism for getting work done. So, she got work done. And the backlash was terrifying, to say the least. Even influential celebrities aren’t immune. Being physically unappealing can ruin your career, get you ousted from your peer group, and even prevent you from being hired. Still think the outside doesn’t count?

You may be thinking that you’ve heard all this before and wondering why I’m blogging about this on a platform dealing with blindness issues. I’ll help you: imagine, for a moment, that you have never seen your own reflection. You have no idea what you “look like”, exactly. You know your weight, and body shape, and how your skin feels etc. … but you have no idea how you might appear to the eye. Maybe people have described you, but that doesn’t really cut it. Now imagine that you have never seen anyone else, and have only your other senses to tell you whether someone is physically attractive or not. Sure, you can find people attractive based on physical attributes, but your understanding of physical beauty is limited. Next, imagine that you have no concept of colour coordination; You don’t know which colours go together on more than an intellectual level (and you only know what you do because someone told you), and you certainly don’t know how they could ever clash. It all seems very arbitrary to you, and all you can do is hope you can keep the facts straight. Finally, imagine that the “facts” change constantly; one day, you’re allowed to zip a sweater all the way to your chin, and the next you’re not, because that looks dorky. One day, you wear a skirt low on your hips, the next you’re told you have to wear it high on your waist. One day, the dress you love looks fantastic; the next, it’s way, way out of style and can’t possibly be worn out in public ever ever again. And by the way? Those hundred-dollar shoes? Yeah, they only go with that pair of leggings, which only goes with that skirt, which only goes with that tank top and that sweater and that scarf. Still with me?

What is more, you may only have your sighted friends or family, ridiculously condescending books written by sighted people, and maybe a few fashion blogs to guide your way, so unless you’re one of the lucky ones who manages to pick out tasteful clothing without even trying, you’re in a sticky situation. Because guess what? You could show the same outfit to five different people, and they could all disagree on whether it looks okay or not. Beyond how something feels, you can’t accurately judge whether you like the “look” of something, so your only choices are to either give into the whimsical world of fashion, or wear whatever the hell you want and hope to get by that way. No matter what you do, it’s tricky.

The blind are already chronically unemployed, severely marginalized both socially and politically, and disadvantaged in just about every arena of life. Sure, we make it work, and there are groups a lot worse off than we are, but living in a visual world that places such stock in physical appearance is daunting even when you can see and understand it. Imagine my frustration, then, when I am forced to conform to the seemingly illogical whims of a population I can’t understand, using standards I can neither perceive nor appreciate. Despite the constant assertions that I don’t have to be pretty, or that I’m fine the way I am, the world keeps negating this over, and over, and over. What if I go to a job interview with an “inappropriate” outfit and don’t even know it? What if someone rejects me socially because they haven’t stopped staring at my cane long enough to look at my face? What if I’m immediately dismissed romantically because I’m not wearing loads of makeup and dressed to kill? What if…what if I lived in a world where people cared more about my intelligence than my breast size? What if I lived in a world where people put more stock in my credibility than in my fashion sense? What if—call me a dreamer if you like—I lived in a world where the laws governing attractiveness were fluid enough that I could actually (gasp!) be myself? And, while I’m dreaming, what if I lived in a world where being a good person was higher on the priority list than being pretty? What if? …

In the end, though, I don’t live in that world; none of us do. What, then, is to be done?

I promised before sitting down to write this that I would not end it on a bleak, nihilistic note. If I offer up a problem, I will also provide solutions, at least as best I can. Make no mistake: I respect the fact that being clean and presentable is important. There’s a difference between agonizing over fashion and striving to be respectable-looking. A blind person who goes to a job interview in soiled, ripped jeans and an old t-shirt (inside out, perhaps?) deserves to be treated as someone who doesn’t respect the venue enough to at least try to dress properly. A blind woman who goes to work in a conservative office wearing a skirt so short and tight she can hardly walk is also showing flagrant disrespect for her work environment. But can’t there be a middle ground? Why, for example, are black jeans so much more acceptable than blue ones? Why is one skirt okay, and another not? Is it absolutely necessary that I wear three layered tops in order to pass this test we all take each day? Do I have to be sexy to get attention? Do I have to be beautiful to earn respect? Do I have to be “put together” on the outside for people to think I’m put together on the inside? Is the outside really as reflective as we like to claim? I’m thinking … maybe not.

So how do I deal with all this? Well, I worry a lot. Ask Gregg, and he’ll tell you of my ongoing struggle with body image. I worry about that extra pound I might have gained because my jeans are a bit tighter than usual today. I get stressed because I worry that I won’t be taken as seriously because being blind is bad enough, but being blind and only average-looking? Fiasco! Despite this, I do my best. I go shopping with people I trust to pick out practical yet reasonably fashionable clothing I can easily figure out how to coordinate. I occasionally pick something for myself if I really, really fall in love with it. I focus, for the most part, on being clean, well-groomed, and respectable; the rest, I hope, takes care of itself. In short, I make it work, just like every other person out there, blind or sighted. All I can say is, I hope that one day, people will admit that the inside doesn’t count. Once we accept that, we can start making it count.