It is January of 2010 and I am sitting in front of my ocular plastic surgeon wearing my painted scleral shell for the very first time. I have still not figured out how I feel about my newly minted matching eyeballed self, and suddenly he says: ‘
“You look amazing! With some botox to stop you from squinting, thinner lenses in your glasses and some contacts you’ll be all spic and span for law school!” and I sink. He tells me I look “grouchy” when I squint and that it isn’t attractive. He tells me my glasses are too clunky and that I’ll look so much better with thinner lenses! He wants to help me find a husband, too.
I don’t know what to say in this situation. How do I tell him I’m happy with my face the way it is, and why, when he tells me he’ll do the first shot of botox for free, do I not start screaming at him?
Without really asking, he sends me down to the office which provides clients with contacts (after being disappointed that I won’t let him stick a needle in my forehead) and the contacts lady repeats the same words that I have always known I would hear: Your eyes really can’t manage contacts for a full day. I thank her and I leave.
For Lillian Cohen Moore her story goes like this:
“So, to share my moment related to disability and bullshit beauty standards: when I was 14 and asking my family’s doctor about my persistent issues with mobility and pain, she told me that if I did not commit to daily multihour physical therapy for my ankles and knees “You’ll be in leg braces by the time you’re sixteen. Big, bulky braces that you have to screw around your legs and strap on. Do you really think boys are going to come near you? You can’t hide braces like that. Wearing a skirt isn’t going to help.”
Moral of the Story: At 14 I was being told I would be ugly and undesirable if I wore an apparatus designed to give me mobility. For bonus points she made a heteronormative assumption, but I sure as Hell wasn’t going to tell her I was bisexual after that.”
I’ve been told that wearing my shell will normalize me. I’ve been told that my normal shell will make my pretty appearance even better – but why does it matter? Why can’t my cataract be pretty? Why can’t someone with braces on her legs be attractive?
It is experiences like this that are the reason why the Dove campaign for beauty caused me frustration and rage. Because while Debenhams has set up a campaign of (granted, traditionally beautiful) women with disabilities and nontraditional body types, Dove is continuing to reinforce the idea that what is pretty is a white woman with a normal body. The fact that they don’t feel pretty doesn’t really matter to me. These women probably wouldn’t think I was pretty if they had to describe me, or another person with a disability. What if they’d had to describe a woman without an arm, would they have simply left it out as a matter of feeling uncomfortable?
Why are we told that nobody will want us if we are who we are? Why was Lily’s doctor using boys and attractiveness as a carrot for her health? Why was my doctor telling me I’d be better at my job if I didn’t squint?
When I first met my husband, we were walking past his office with my cane in my left hand (bad form, but I hear better out of my right ear) and his hand in my right. Later that day, he told me that one of his co-workers complimented him on his volunteering work with the blind. Because that couldn’t possibly be his girlfriend. No matter how pretty she is, it has to be for charity.
I have been told that I’m pretty despite my eye, I have been told that I am prettier with my painted shell in, I have been told that it is impossible for a person with a disability to be as pretty as I am. Like that’s a reason to not have a disability. I have been told by schoolmates that for prom I shouldn’t wear a strapless dress because my surgery scar was icky and then it would show.
Every time I think about that doctor, I am filled with rage, because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have a way to say to him “I’m actually quite happy with the way I look in the mirror” I am also filled with sadness, though because I cannot imagine what it would be like to interact with him if I didn’t know who I was and have comfort in that.
Because the truth is, when I look into the mirror and see two matching eyes staring back at me, I don’t know who that woman is. I know who the woman with the cataract is, and she’s a fighter. Maybe it took me longer to love the way I look, maybe my dreams for a matching eye were fulfilled. But they were met too late, they were met after I learned to grab my self esteem and clutch it to my chest.
Edit for Clarity: I do wear a scleral shell every day. It just happens to be clear instead of painted to match my other eye!
Absolutely agree. When I tried contacts for the first time, everyone was telling me, “Oh you looks SO pretty!” I started to think, “So… did you all think I looked terrible before?” (I’m back to glasses now.)
I had the same situation! I keep my contacts for emergencies, the beach, water parks, and trying on new glasses so I can see how they look…but I don’t like how I look without my glasses. Sure, they might be awkward sometimes, but they are a part of me and I don’t feel the same without them, no matter how I might look.
RIGHT? it’s like “Oh. You think I’m prettier when my eyes match? How jerky are you?”
Very interesting article, thank you for sharing it! I’ve always had a very different experience with the medical profession on the subject of looks. I’ve always been lead to believe that I’m not worth bothering with when it comes to the beauty industry.
I have a second partial set of adult teeth that making speaking difficult, distort my ‘real’ teeth and (then I was thinner) showed against my cheeks. I had two separate dentists refuse to do any surgery to correct them as it couldn’t make me attractive. The speech issues were completely ignored. My teeth are ugly, but so is the rest of me, correcting this won’t improve that.
I started wearing glasses/contacts to function whilst in high school. One of my ears is higher than the other so theres an obvious slant to my glasses when I wear them, that no amount of fiddling with the frames can correct. I was switched to contacts after a few years because “the slant makes you look weird, but its a shame because at least the glasses cover some of your face”. I was never sold frames based on what looked good or suited me, like the other women at the opticians, I was always sold them on size.
When I was diagnosed with a lifelong potentially-fatal illness (wrongly as it turned out) I was told that I “wouldn’t need to worry about the rashes or staying out of daylight” as “someone like you isn’t exactly a sun worshipping body flaunter”. This was from someone who had known me 30 minutes. She later told me not to worry about cosmetic procedures later on in treatment as “there wasn’t enough cosmetic surgery in the world”.
I am absolutely horrified on your behalf.
I actually have to wear my glasses on a slant in order to use my bifocals. Which makes me look odd, but quite frankly makes my eyes hurt less so I’ve come not to care.
And that last person? That last person should NEVER be allowed to work with patients again. It is completely unacceptable to me to tell your patient “there wasn’t enough cosmetic surgery in the world” – that is some bullshit right there.
ICreepingr been pretty, although I hit “all right” on a good day. As a kid with amblyopia, I got taunted by other kids all the time because my one really thick glasses lens made the eye behind it look huge.
These days I am excused from the beauty standard as a visible cripple creeping up on 40, and I experience it as a relief.
Er, that should be “I have never been”. Swype sometimes doesn’t play nice with comment forms.
Have you read Alice Walker’s essay on her eye? http://enloehs.wcpss.net/resources/kingsberry/propaganda.pdf
I’d like to see both of your essays published together in an anthology.
Also, did you see the Dove ad featuring a woman who is blind? She appears conventional, though.
I’ve had people look surprised when they find out my husband is married to me. But it’s worse when they think we’re not married and my kids couldn’t be mine and that I must be some other relative–an aunt maybe.
I couldn’t sit in a wheelchair at first. I couldn’t see myself as a wheelchair user rather than a scooter user, though it’s what I needed. I don’t know why, except that it was about self-image in some way, that I was disabled but not *that* disabled yet. I don’t *think* it was prejudice, but rather slowly coming to terms with it. I wanted to see myself as someone who could still walk a lot.
I had never read that essay before. I wish I had sooner, I identify with it so much. Thank you for that, it’s a real gift. (Also, that is one hell of a compliment that you’d like to see them published together.)
I did NOT see that ad, though now I need to hunt it down.
This is obviously something for another post (though I did something similar a while back) – a classmate assumed that I could not have children – nor could I be a good mother, based upon the fact that I was blind in one eye. It was one of the most horrifying moments of both my academic career, and my personal experience with disability.
I think our personal images mean a lot when we have disabilities. I had to fight to see myself as anything but scary. I should do a longer post about my journey to seeing myself as beautiful. I’d be interested in reading about your experience coming to terms with your chair, because I can see it as being similar, but different to my experience with my cane.
You’re welcome–I’m glad I mentioned the article.
Here’s the Dove ad and a piece on it by the great s.e. smith.
I wrote about coming to terms with my chair at the beginning of my blog in 2008, but I’d like to revisit it and add to it through the perspective of 5 years.
Please consider guestposting. 🙂 I’m always up for crossposting to your site if that’s something you would be up for.
Thanks–will do! I am just recently getting back to blogging and have some writing commitments over the next few weeks, but I’d like to give this topic some time when I get a chance.
I’m in a very strange situation right now of having been extremely ill ( I also have multiple disabilities) for over a year. I lost more than half my body weight. Granted I was morbidly obese going into it or I would be dead now. Even now when they are on the verge of putting me in hospital because I am still losing and I fell on my head a few times, and now matter how often I tell people to stop saying it they tell me how terrific I look. I took rather drastic measures to stop that in the short term and shaved me head. (That will shut the bulk of them up for awhile) When I was very fat I still felt “pretty” not that pretty matters but I was perfectly fine with the person I was and since my obesity was mostly about my metabolism and my mobility issues there was no point in not having a healthy outlook. So now when my life has been endangered by rapid weight loss (not because I wanted to) now I look great? My mother died of cancer two months ago. She weighed what she had as a child and was still dieting. Twisted notions of beauty and the value of it need to just end.
Such a great post! As if we needed more proof of your badassery.
Your mention of contacts makes me think of a game I play with my preschool students sometimes. They’ll go, “Take off your glasses!” and I’ll do it, just for a second. And when they see my face sans glasses, the face that most people in my life have told me looks better than my glasses-clad face, my three-year-old students howl with laughter. They say, “You look like someone else!” Just more proof that standards of beauty are learned.
A few years ago, I had an accident that left me with a damaged knee and eventually muscle atrophy. I had to re-learn how to walk, I had to wear a very large black with metal rods knee brace. I walked with crutches for longer than I wanted to…at the time I was also running a burlesque show. I remember one night after a very successful show where I was feeling good about myself as I was finally down to just one crutch and singing my heart out…I was chatting with an audience member, we had regulars who would wish us well, tell us they enjoyed the show and at the time give me good wishes on my physio and healing.
This audience member, while I’m sure had good intentions told me “I can’t wait for your knee to be better” At which I’m thinking “Me neither!” but before I could respond he told me “It’ll be nice to see your leg without the knee brace, much more attractive on a burlesque performer”. I’ll be honest, my heart sank. I grabbed my crutch and stormed off back stage as fast as I could and for the rest of the evening, hiked my damn skirt up to show off the brace.
I work with special needs kids now, and honestly, their personalities make them some of the most beautiful humans I’ve ever met.
I think it’s sad, how society *still* places emphasis on outward looks (and I’m not saying I don’t like getting dolled up and such, but I’d like people to know me for me) over inner beauty.
I’m working on a post about what I experience as a blind burlesque performer… It gets, uh… let’s just say there are times I’ve wanted to 86 an audience member for being an asshole before.
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