On playing normal

by Gemma Varnom // 6 June 2014, 21:14

Tags: disability, passing, visibility

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I'm one of these women who won't even nip to the shop for a paper and a Freddo without a full face of make-up.

And of all the articles, blog posts and tweets I've read on the struggles faced by visually impaired women in modern Western society, not one has ever talked about how staggeringly difficult it is to execute a perfect 1950s eyeliner flick with your nose squashed up against a magnifying mirror.

Having a sight problem doesn't automatically raise me up to a higher level of enlightenment where I become immune to the pressures placed on women to achieve fantastical standards of bodily perfection. We all know our culture places a premium on physical beauty - on physical normality - and it takes enormous strength of character to choose to ignore it.

And I happen to like retro dresses and styled hair and bright red lipstick. I enjoy the sheer, frivolous fun of dressing up. I am, I'll admit, just a little bit vain. But it's only recently I've realised that it's as much about harmless self-expression as it is about destructive self-concealment.

You see, somewhere along the way I got it into my head I have to look as good as I possibly can at all times, precisely because the world expects the opposite. That I must challenge the expectation held by so many that, as a woman with a significant lack of vision, I'm likely to be found shuffling about in odd shoes with my jumper on back-to-front and bits of this morning's toast stuck in my hair.

Some days I manage to convince myself it's an act of stereotype-shattering empowerment; that I am a walking example of the fact it's possible to be blind and conventionally attractive. In reality it's part of a much more pernicious problem. I pay with cash rather than peer awkwardly at a chip-and-PIN. I let myself be bored on a long train journey rather than hold a book an inch away from my face to read. It's avoiding doing things I want or need to do because I'd have to ask strangers for help or draw attention to myself (and not in a good way, like when I wear MAC Lady Danger and an unreasonable amount of leopard print).

It's a sham, hiding away the part of myself that's likely to make people feel uncomfortable or alter their perception of me. 'Look,' I'm pleading, 'I'm like you. I'm not different. I'm not scary. I'm normal.'

Because, as long as I can keep the sham going, I can enjoy some of the privileges of a non-disabled woman. I am looked at and I am listened to. I'm not patronised or dismissed. Perhaps I'm even a little safer too, a little less of a target. Once in a blue moon I can even get a bit of flirting done.

I know that I am, in this way at least, privileged myself. Not every disabled woman can sham like I can, and sometimes I feel like I'm letting those women down. Passing for 'normal' shouldn't be viewed as shameful or dishonest, nor is it actively perpetuating disablism, but it's hardly striking out for empowerment either. Much as I'd like to tell myself otherwise, I'm not challenging stereotypes at all. I'm giving in and playing by the very rules I abhor; rules that dictate that, for a woman to be attractive, for a woman to be taken seriously, she must look 'right'. And the more I worry about how I look before I open my mouth, the less likely I am to speak up at all.

Online it's easier and, for many like me, extremely liberating. I've held meaningful , years-long online friendships where I never felt the urge to mention my impairment once. But while it's a relief to be able to have a good debate about genre TV without other people's perceptions of disability getting in the way, It's temporary, and not especially satisfying.

Constantly monitoring how I'm presenting myself and trying to predict how others will feel about it - both online and in real life - is tiresome and exhausting. It might save me a lot of hassle in the short term, but I've missed out on so many things for fear of what other people might think of me.

And although I can fool other people, at least for a while, none of this changes the way I perceive myself - which I've grown to realise is the very root of the problem.

Blogging for The F-Word about my impairment, under my real name, is a small step towards accepting that I shouldn't feel I ought to hide. Towards accepting myself as I am.

It's like going out without a scrap of make-up - exposing and scary. But could it actually be liberating too? Only time will tell...

Photo of a palette of eyeshadows by Iridiai, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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