Fred’s Head from APH, a Blindness Blog

Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Who’s the Barbiest of them all? Blindness and Body Image

by Sassy Outwater

A conversation I had with a stranger coupled with reading an article about the “perfect bikini body” in a magazine brought me to this week’s topic: Blindness and body image. More specifically, blindness and perception of body image.

This topic fascinated me. For one thing, when we lose our sight at an early age, how do we begin to form a comprehensive sense of image and style? What if we are born blind? Every woman has her own unique understanding of her body, but what factors contribute to bridging that gap between our minds and the mirror? I’m going to break this topic into two articles and share my experiences and thoughts with you first. Then I’m actually going to research the topic, dig up what I can find on the subject, mix it with your interview answers and write the next article. I’m going to ask that you go out on a limb and share your thoughts with me. Good or bad are both welcome. If you’re willing to be interviewed for the second article on blindness and body image, please Twitter me. Find that link below. If you do not have Twitter, simply leave a comment on the end of this article with your email, and I will contact you with a list of interview questions. Thank you. On to today’s column.

Most little girls of my generation (go 80’s babies!) began studying body image and fashion when we received our first Barbie. Sighted girls got to watch TV, see their mother or older sisters dressing, look at magazines and see the clothing in stores. But for me and my blind best friend, all our fashion lessons were learned courtesy of Matel’s famous blonde bombshell in all her myriad costumes.

We could explore Barbie clothes at leisure, see how they fit her. We were free to explore her body shape with our hands. She was touchable, a tangible guide of what a woman looks like: large, round breasts, a tiny waist, long slim legs, broad hips, a beautifully arched back…

Then Barbie changed. As I got older, I noticed I had two generations of Barbies in my toybox—Barbies that looked nothing alike. The older ones were curvy, busty and looked (My mom said), like Marilyn Monroe. The new generation of Barbie was slender, with defined muscles, small breasts, a big butt, and a wider, flatter waist-line. Somewhere along the line, the image of the ideal woman had changed.

This scared me. I was growing slowly into Barbie 1.0’s image, curvy, narrow-waisted, like Marilyn. I looked nothing like this new Barbie. One morning while we were getting ready for school, I complained about it to my best friend. I wanted a body like the new Barbie, I told her petulantly. And her mom overheard. The next thing I knew, she was in the room, ranting at us for thinking that Barbie was “something any woman could ever really look like.” Much chastened and confused, I endeavored fruitlessly for a while to make my body into New Barbie’s. Surely I could look like that. All women could, right? I mean, what did women look like if they didn’t look like that?

As I got older, of course I learned that women’s bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. A dorm parent at the school for the blind sat me down and gave me the apple-pear-carrot demonstration. But I wasn’t growing up to look like the new Barbie, and I wasn’t growing up to look like a fruit or vegetable either. I was growing up like the old Barbie, narrow-waisted, with big hips and a big bust… and a very conflicted opinion of my body.

Like any teenaged girl, I learned I could affect how I looked with diet and exercise, and by choosing what clothes I wore. I couldn’t see what most of the girls at my high school wore, and dressed mostly in outfits my parents selected for me, relying on their taste to make me look nice, and fit in with my peers. Clothes are a big part of the high school experience for most sighted girls. High school is when they start learning their own sense of style, discovering their bodies and expressing themselves with their fashion choices. I mostly skipped that phase, and only began it later in college, when I lived on my own and had to go clothes shopping with friends or on my own.

And suddenly, all those hours of dressing Barbies came back to me. Really, it was the main thing that dictated my knowledge of fashion and style. I’d missed all the other visual lessons.

So I made it my business to read articles in magazines about style. I spent hours at the mall, not buying, just touching rack after rack of clothing, trying pieces on, feeling how they draped the mannequin, discussing colors and patterns with friends. I think they all thought I was slightly nuts. But by the time I got out of college and stepped into the “real world,” I had a budding sense of style, and a body and look I felt were my own and expressed who I was.

As we age, our wardrobes change. As we age, our bodies change. To my mind’s eye, I’m still a toddler in pink ballet slippers pirouetting before the mirror in a too too and fairy wings with flaming red hair and freckles everywhere. That’s the last time I saw what I looked like. Then I went blind. I’ll never see what I grew up to be. I’m not Barbie, and I’m not the super-model on the cover of a magazine. Even though I can’t see how good or bad I look, I still struggle inside. I know what I love and hate about my own body. And they’re not necessarily the things fashion or society says I should love or hate about myself. Their just my own ideals and self-perceptions, shaped by hours of imagination, standing before a mirror reflecting a face and body I will never see. While I’m so grateful ads can’t bombard me with subliminal messages of how I don’t look right, I still change outfits three or four times before a date, and still wonder if that dress makes me look fat.

Lessons I learned from Barbie: If you are blind, don’t measure yourself against Barbie, a carrot, a pear, or what someone tells you J.Lo looks like. Once in a while, blindness brings incredible blesings. One of those blessings is that you have only your body to measure against. Measure your weight, your health, your style and your self-worth by what you feel--inside and out. And don’t worry about those sighted people’s ads and what they say makes you beautiful. Sometimes, sighted people just don’t know how to look right.

To ask questions about blindness, style, or to learn more about me, follow me on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/SassyOutwater.

Sassy Outwater is a musician, yoga instructor, writer, health and style junky, and blind chick.

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