We live in visually hegemonic times. Everything about who we are and what we do is poured into an image. A look or a lifestyle is constructed and given a distinct yet recognizable aesthetic language and practice all its own. Gender ideals are heavily produced and circulated through visual imagery. Even though such images pull meaning from a variety of popular (forward thinking?) discourses, gender in the old fashioned sense persists: women are generally constructed as bodies and men constructed as minds, and so the story goes. The presence of women in mainstream visual culture as bodies to be scrutinized and desired has been disproportionate to men, but this is changing. By far the most visible account of masculinity is unemotional, self-determined, willfully independent and, above all, performance-driven. Sound familiar? In theory, the visual realm is a space where identity is more easily contestable and the either/or ties that bind categories of identification are rendered diminishable. Images allow us to challenge and re-imagine the universal logic associated with mainstream norms and beliefs in ways that pure text cannot. At the same time, they make it possible to disseminate this logic in a given form more widely. Mainstream media and culture do tend to favor a very limited view of many things, especially gender. And we, as an audience, tend to be easily persuaded by what we see, especially when it’s all around us. I’m not letting the cat out of the bag here, I realize, but what if visual culture is breathing new life into the age-old exemplars of masculinity?
I refer to John M. Hull’s memoir Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, where he states that seeing and being seen is to know; to exist, and to not have this ability is to effectively be invisible. Visual communication has the power to regulate abstract but dominant ideas by turning them into personal and accessible forms that invite our gaze and seduce our desires. It also, I would argue, affords sight a dimension of privilege that necessarily foregrounds and excludes that which it is not. It’s been suggested that this cultural tide change belies questioning how people with visual disabilities perform and embody identity (a missed opportunity as far as I’m concerned). One rather crude argument is that blind and visually impaired persons’ in-exposure to images means an inability to grasp the messages encoded within them or it means an indifference to image itself and thus detachment from its social and cultural significance (Kleege, 2005). This just isn’t true and we have some research (mainly of women) to confirm it.
The following scholars (Bullington and Karlsson, 1997; Kaplan-Myrth, 2000; Zitzelsberger, 2005; Ashikali and Dittmar, 2010; Hammer, 2013; and Fannon, 2014) have studied the relationship between gender, media culture, blindness and body-image. What the studies show is that women with visual disabilities have similar experiences to sighted women (for more details see studies) and different experiences that correlate directly to a conflict between visual impairment and visual culture. In sum, their identity as women is mediated by having a disability that’s more perceptible to them and those around them given the cultural emphasis on physical appearance and the social value ascribed to sight. Two particular factors stand out: being seen by others and not being able to visually reciprocate and knowing the social importance of appearance and not being able to visually assess personal appearance, particularly in relation to other women’s. Both of these factors arose as regular sources of personal and social concern in that they challenged self-confidence and competence and intensified feelings of objectification and powerlessness. This brings me to my interview with Will Reilly*, the young man I wrote about last month. If you recall, this blog is the second in a two-parter based on that interview. Although our conversation was more about the conflict between masculinity and disability than about the conflict between visual impairment and visual culture he made some points that coincide with the data just discussed.
When asked about being seen and not seeing:
‘Body language and facial expressions go missed and this is problematic as a single man. If I go out, I can’t read a female’s body language in order to approach her and as a man I’m expected to do that’.
When asked about knowing the importance of appearance and not knowing his own appearance:
‘Knowing how important appearance is in our culture and not knowing how I look does bother me. It’s embarrassing to wear something out of place. This is a problem because there are higher expectations on men [to look good]. I used to care a lot more about my appearance before I lost my sight. Then for a long time [after losing my sight] I stopped caring all together. I would wear stuff to blend in instead of wear things that could get me scrutinized or laughed at. This partly had to do with the fact that I had no idea how fashion was changing. Now I have no sense of personal style, unlike when I was young. I’m trying to figure it [personal style] out because while I want to blend in I also like getting compliments’.
There’s an undeniable symbiosis between image and text that begets the connection between everyday language and practice. Sight is a fundamental bridging element in this process. As Rod Michalko suggests, seeing is a project that’s accomplished in action and interaction and visual assessment is it’s patent product. The personal accounts of blind and visually impaired men, by and large, have not yet been formally documented (another missed opportunity). But the existing research of women, cited above, more than confirms the potential for new and timely social insight by way of a fresh triple-perspective, one that comes from gender, disability and specific form of disability.
Ashikali, M. and Dittmar, H. (2010) Body Image and Restrained Eating in Blind and Sighted Women: A Preliminary Study, in: Body Image, Vol. 7, pp. 172-175
Bullington, J. and Karlsson G. (1997) Body Experiences of Persons who are Congenitally Blind: A Phenomenological-Psychological Study, in: Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Vol. 91, pp. 151-162
Fannon, T. (2014) Out of Sight, Still in Mind: visually impaired women’s embodied accounts of ideal femininity, forthcoming
Hammer, G. (2012) Blind Women’s Appearance Management: Negotiating Normalcy between Discipline and Pleasure, in: Gender and Society, No. 26, pp. 406–432
Kaplan-Myrth, N. (2000) Alice Without a Looking Glass: Blind People and Body Image, in: Anthropology & Medicine, Vol. 7 (3) pp. 277-299
Zitzelsberger, H. (2005) (In)visibility: accounts of embodiment of women with physical disabilities and differences, In: Disability & Society No. 20, pp. 389–403.